The spirits of Christmas present
When people talk about getting into the Christmas spirit, I take them literally. Well, not that literally. I don’t run myself a bath of armagnac or potdistilled Bathtub gin (this brand does actually exist, wondrously) but I do think about the sort of merry Christmas that is involved when you open a bottle of spirits, or give one as a present.
Thanks to growth in popularity of craft distillation over the past 10 years, buying and drinking spirits is more exciting than it ever has been. As well as an ever-increasing range from the bigger producers there are new, small-production spirits such as the milk-based Black Cow, which is made by a dairy farmer who uses whey to make cheese and the curds to make vodka, popping up all over the place. And more new gins than even I, a confirmed gin addict, can keep up with.
There’s the blush of Pinkster gin which is made using raspberries; The Lakes gin, distilled in Cumbria using locally foraged botanicals such as bilberry, hawthorn, meadowsweet and heather; Pickering’s Gin, made on the site of a former animal hospital in Edinburgh and based on an original Bombay recipe – and that’s just for starters.
Online is a good place to look for spirits. I highly recommend the Master of Malt website (masterof malt.com) and not just for whisky. Majestic is also a happy hunting ground. Buyer Chris Hardy was recently let loose on the spirits section and he’s bought all sorts, from a Texan vodka to a rum from the Philippines to a Californian gin made with Douglas fir (the smell of pine is quite close to that of juniper) and bay to glorious calvados. Over at Fortnum & Mason, über-buyer Tim French has also expanded the spirits section, moving it into a whole new area of the store to give it more space.
If you’re looking to get into the spirit this Christmas, here’s a handful of recommendations.
Sacred Christmas Pudding Gin
(40%, £33.85, sacredspiritscompany.com) This is a gin made from Christmas pudding. Yes, you read that correctly. Suet, currants, raisins and almonds are cooked up into puddings, and allowed to steep in gin which is then redistilled to make this wonderful, spicy spirit.
Sacred is a microdistillery in Highgate, north London, with a justifiably good reputation for excellence but I think they’ve surpassed even themselves with this unusual idea.
Limited edition, so snap one up. Either buy one for the gin fiend in your life, or do as Sacred suggests and serve instead of Christmas pud as a shot, icy cold from the freezer. Good plan.
finest* Sloe Gin
(29%, Tesco, £15) It might be sold under the own-label of a retail giant but this is a very classy sloe gin that tastes as good as it looks. Love that there are a few whole sloes in the bottle too. Shake with ice, lemon juice and egg white to make sloe gin sours.
Tito’s Texan Vodka
(40%, Majestic, £28) The story behind this one is as good as the vodka. It’s made in Austin, Texas, in the state’s first legal distillery, by a bloke whose real name is Tito Beveridge. Tito is a trained geologist who ended up working in the mortgage industry and was only making vodka on the side until he realised he’d become known as “the vodka guy” so should maybe think about doing that full-time instead. Made from corn in a pot still.
Yamazaki Single Malt 12 years old
(43%, £52.95, The Whisky Exchange) Yamazaki is the Japanese whisky producer that made headlines earlier last month when its sherry cask version was named best whisky in the world in Jim Murray’s World Whisky Bible 2015.
The company makes a very good drink, though if you’re a Scotch connoisseur you may find tasting it a strange, “is it or isn’t it?” experience.
As a result of that, all the Yamazaki whiskies are suddenly rather tricky to get hold of, but this very good one was still in stock at the Whisky Exchange at the time of writing. A clever present.
Read all about it
Distilled by Joel Harrison & Neil Ridley (Octopus, rrp £14.99; available from Telegraph Books at £13.49 + £1.95 p&p – call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk) Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley are admirably clued-up guides to the spirit world but they wear their knowledge lightly.
Distilled is itself a distillation. It offers insights, opinions and information, snappy profiles of producers the authors think it’s worth hearing about, and properly thoughtful, very clearly angsted-over lists of “10 to try” for key spirits that make you want to start sipping right now. As an appetiser, the vodka list includes spirits from Sweden, Poland, England and California, and can you guess which Islay whisky made it on to the whisky list?
Contemporary and beautifully produced. Reading it feels like sitting in a bar with a good drink and picking the brains of a mate you trust.
Be still my foolish heart: Sacred’s Ian Hart gets busy with the liquid nitrogen in Highgate