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Dark spirits for Christmas

Embrace your dark side with rich and warming whisky, rum, tequila, Cognac or Armagnac – perfect for winter sipping.

Spare a thought for Santa this Christmas Eve. As if it wasn’t tough enough flying around the world from rooftop to rooftop delivering about a zillion presents, what does he find at the bottom of the average chimney? A carrot for Rudolph, a solitary mince pie and a small glass of dubious Sherry. Terrific.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little imagination, it’s not too hard to put a smile on the poor old chap’s face. Over the past few years, he’s found an array of warming spirits waiting for him in our family fireplace, from Taiwanese single malt to vintage Armagnac, from an English take on Irish pot still whiskey to añejo tequila.

Not that you have to go crazy. The traditional options of whisky or Cognac may be predictable, but today’s creations are arguably better – and certainly more diverse – than ever before. The new wave of craft-oriented distillers is introducing exciting new flavours and textures, in turn prompting established producers to up their game.

Funky, fun & fulfilling

Christmas – winter in general – is a time for rich, decadent spirits. Served at the end of a long walk in the cold, Sherry cask-finished whiskies and XO Cognacs are the liquid equivalent of a warm and welcoming hug, lowering the blood pressure and soothing taut muscles.

Whisky from where, though? There’s a whole world out there now vying with Scotch, from exciting new American whiskeys (single malts and ryes, as well as bourbons and Jack Daniel’s) through the ever more varied Irish scene to newer whisky origins: Taiwan, the Nordic nations, Australia, even England…

If your idea of adventure in Cognac is swapping Hennessy for Martell, take time to discover some of the fabulous family houses that provide real character and terrific value for money. Or explore incredibly diverse Armagnac, which ranges from funky single-distilled versions from the Baco grape to double-distilled examples that can give Cognac a run in the refinement stakes.

Meanwhile, if you don’t take aged rum or tequila seriously as spirits to sip and savour, you should. You might associate robust Jamaican pot still or pungent rhums agricoles with palm-fringed Caribbean beaches, but these rich, hedonistic flavours are perfect for frozen nights by the fireside (especially if you’re trying to cut back on your heating bills).

There are so many options – and the good news is that your festive generosity will pay off in more ways than one. Father Christmas gets a decent drink for once, while you and yours get to enjoy the rest of the bottle: win-win. The only question is just how adventurous do you want to be…?

Whisky for Christmas

Aberfeldy 15 Year Old Napa Valley Red Wine Cask Single Malt, Scotland 
Aberfeldy’s creamy, honeyed character is given an edge of rich, ripe red fruits – wild strawberry, candied cherry – from time spent in red wine barriques sourced from the Napa Valley. Cinnamon and nutmeg add a festive note of Christmas spice. Alcohol 43%

Kavalan Triple Sherry Cask Single Malt, Taiwan
Maturing in Sherry casks is a precarious business: go too far and the result can be a blowsy mess. From Taiwan’s superb Kavalan, this combination of oloroso, PX and Moscatel piles layers of dried fruit and dark chocolate on top of the distillery’s gorgeous tropical character. Decadent. Alc 40%

Mossburn Signature Casks, Island Blended Malt, Scotland
There’s something wonderfully wintry about the savoury smoke of a peated whisky, and this blended malt – a mix of island distilleries chosen for their phenolic characters – really delivers. It’s aged in custom-made casks built to the distillery’s precise specifications, or ‘cask bill’, adding extra elements of spice and char to some satisfyingly raw smoke. Alc 46%

Redbreast Lustau Edition, Ireland
Long a favourite among distillers of all nationalities, Redbreast is now enjoying a full-blown renaissance as the Irish pot still style wins over fans around the world. This dials up the Sherry cask influence, adding new depths of figgy, marzipan-accented flavour to Redbreast’s signature spiced richness. Alc 46%

Talisker 11 Year Old, Special Release 2022, Scotland 
A highlight of this year’s Diageo Special Releases line-up, this is a classically built Talisker that teases out all of the Isle of Skye distillery’s hallmarks: bonfire smoke subsiding into coal tar, black pepper and, on the finish, fiery Jalapeño chilli. It’s cask strength, so keep water to hand – but add sparingly. Alc 55.1%

WhistlePig PiggyBack 6 Year Old Rye, USA
A masterpiece created by the late Dave Pickerell, and with some precision: bottled at exactly 96.56 proof and carrying robust rye spice alongside citrus fruit and
cinnamon. Sip or mix – this is a go-to for festive Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, but also a delight on its own. Alc 48.28%

Rum & Tequila for Christmas

Don Papa 7 Year Old, Philippines 
Made using sugar cane from the island of Negros – aka Sugarlandia – this is a smooth, straightforward introduction to aged rum. It’s sweet and rounded, with decent fruit and a big dollop of vanilla. Mix it up with ginger beer and lime juice for a lighter take on the classic Dark ’n’ Stormy. Alcohol 40%

Eminente Reserva 7 Year Old, Cuba 
Cuban rums have a wonderfully clean, precise style married with excellent complexity. Keep coming back to this and you’ll find a lovely red fruit character alongside darker notes of tobacco leaf and coffee roaster. A great all-rounder that’s as happy sipped neat as in a punchy Rum Old Fashioned. Alc 41.3%

G4 Añejo, Mexico
Añejo tequila can be all about the cask, or the liquid. Very much in the latter camp, this example from the Camarena family is a model of restraint, with herb-accented lime and orange peel and a creamy texture. The agave pepper really kicks in on the palate, and the cask is a mere accompaniment to the main act. Alc 40%

Gran Patrón Piedra Extra Añejo, Mexico
An extra añejo aged for more than three years in French and American oak, the premium packaging – and the price – place this tequila firmly in the luxury bracket. Luckily, the liquid lives up to that billing, with richly peppered agave holding its own against spicy, mushroom-accented oak. Alc 40%

La Hechicera Serie Experimental No2 Banana-Infused Rum, Colombia 
It sounds… well, bananas: infuse aged Colombian rum with sun-dried banana – and yet this is a total delight. It works mainly because the banana element isn’t too OTT – instead, there’s lots of spice, smoke and caramel alongside the yellow stuff. Perfect for twisted cocktails. Alc 41%

Santa Teresa 1796 Solera Rum, Venezuela
An utterly reliable rum with a wonderfully smooth, rounded style, this goes down so easily that its complexity could pass you by. Vanilla fudge, demerara sugar, then a gorgeous honeyed dimension on the palate. The finish – edged with white pepper and baking spices – lingers long. Alc 40%

Cognac & Armagnac for Christmas

Château Montifaud L50 Héritage Louis Vallet, Petite Champagne, Cognac
Family-owned for six generations, Montifaud is a great advocate for Petite Champagne Cognacs – never more so than here, with a blend of eaux-de-vie distilled between the 1930s and the 1980s, and restrained oak. Precise, elegant and seamless, with notes of orange marmalade, butterscotch and a prickle of menthol. Alcohol 40%

Darroze Les Grands Assemblages 20 Year Old, Armagnac
From one of the masters of the craft, this Bas Armagnac blend is at a sweet spot of maturity, the rougher edges of youth tamed by the cask. Apple compote with raisins and prunes, then a whole spice rack of aromas from clove to ginger, subsiding into dark chocolate. Complex and robust, but still elegant. Alc 43%

Delamain Pale & Dry XO, Cognac 
Given a reboot to mark its centenary in 2020, this remains one of the great XO blends, thanks to an expressive, supple character that oozes Grande Champagne region character: heady scents of jasmine and honeysuckle, ripe, zesty fruit and warming vanilla. Beautiful on its own, but also the perfect base for a refreshing Sidecar. Alc 42%

Frapin 1270, Cognac
Frapin is famed for its range of XO Cognacs from the Fontpinot estate, but this bottling is the perfect introduction to the house: rounded and supple from ageing in a humid cellar, balancing Grande Champagne floral notes with light honey and vanilla. Mix with tonic or ginger ale for a palate-cleansing aperitif. Alc 40%

Maxime Trijol Extra Grande Champagne, Cognac
Family-run for more than 150 years, Maxime Trijol has a consistently excellent range of Cognacs sourced from its own vineyards. This is one of the great Grande Champagne expressions, from lifted scents of violet through bright fruit to ginger, chocolate and that savoury umami note known as rancio. Glorious. Alc 40%

Rémy Martin Tercet, Cognac 
A fresh addition to the Rémy range, designated Fine Champagne (a mix of eaux-de-vie from Grande and Petite Champagne) and celebrating the contributions of wine-grower, distiller and blender. Cellarmaster Baptiste Loiseau magnifies the fruit – citrus, dark cherry – and a thread of acidity brings structure. A great all-rounder. Alc 42%

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