Wine columnist Clare Morris has over 10 years’ experience in the drinks industry consulting with, hotels, restaurants, pubs and bars across the UK. She is currently studying for a Diploma at the WSET London Wine and Spirit School.
It’s that time of year again when we’re all desperately racking our brains as to what to buy our loved ones. Hopefully the Christmas gift guide in flavour this month will help you out if you’ve drawn a blank. However, for a different approach, why not try some premium spirits or Champagne as a gift? Working in the trade I’m a bit biased on this score, but it’s always a winner for me! Here’s some suggestions for a range of different products, with some stockists for you to try a sample for yourself first, just as research of course…
I’ll start with one of my favourite Champagnes – Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve. If you love the strong biscuity flavour of vintage Champagnes, this is the nonvintage for you. Aged for four years to get its rich flavour, it’s not surprising it’s won ‘wine of the year’ in two awards already this year. You can buy a bottle as a gift from Waitrose at £32, or if you fancy sampling yourself first head to Hermanos in Clifton, Bristol, where it’s a very reasonable £45. You may find me in there working my way through their stocks!
Moving up the price ladder a notch, here’s one of the most elite Champagnes on the market – the Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque. With its beautiful Art Nouveau anemone bottle designed by Emile Galle, it’s also one of the most iconic. Waitrose helps us out again as a stockist, with a gift pack priced at £90. It just doesn’t seem fair to give away a Champagne this good without knowing what it tastes like yourself, so you can indulge yourself at Lainston House Hotel, a gorgeous 17th-century country house in Winchester. Maybe one to combine with one of their fantastic Christmas break packages?
Fabulous as Champagne is, in the colder months I’m equally drawn to my spirits cupboard where there are some wonderful winter warmers lurking. A bottle of spirits – particularly at the more premium end – makes a gift with real ‘wow’ factor – so good perhaps, that you might be rewarded with a little sample yourself. Martell XO is one of the best Cognacs around – fact. XO stands for Extra Old, if you were wondering, aged for a minimum of six years but usually over 20. Gingerbread, dried fruits and orange marmalade flavours – perfect for Christmas time, with a stunning arched bottle to match. You can find at www.thedrinkshop.com for £110, or, if that’s a little steep, the Cordon Bleu at £81 on www.thewhiskyexchange.com. Pricey, but you certainly get what you pay for. I highly recommend a couple of glasses at Pennyhill Park Hotel and Spa in Surrey before you take the plunge on the bottle.
It wouldn’t do to have a Christmas list without a bottle of whiskey nestling in there, and a pretty special one at that. The Balvenie Single Barrel, aged 15 years, is a wonderfully complex aged malt. I love the tasting note on its website which I think does it perfect justice ‘a honeyed maltiness with vanilla, oak and delicate spice’. As a single barrel product (literally, drawn from one barrel – not blended with another) there will be slight variations from batch to batch. An excuse, in my opinion, for further research to learn to spot the difference. Our friends www.thewhiskyexchange.com can help us out here at £48, or you can put your tastebuds to the test at the secluded Berwick Lodge Hotel, nestled away just a couple of minutes from the M4 and M5 near Bristol. It has its own helipad in case you want to arrive in style…
Here’s another single barrel (bourbon) whiskey although a total taste contrast to the Balvenie – this time for all the Jack Daniel’s lovers out there. There are certainly plenty of them! At Jack Daniel’s the smoothest and most intensely-flavoured barrels are set aside to mature further, with extra flavours of toasted oak, caramel and vanilla. Again, each bottle and each barrel are unique, carrying the rick number, barrel number and bottling date – this uniqueness in itself making a great gift. Available at selected Sainsbury’s (and online) for £37, or savour a glass at Smokin’ Aces cocktail bar and whiskey lounge in Bournemouth. I’m a big fan of the quote on their website: ‘there is no solace for the soul, no tonic for the body, like old bourbon whiskey.’ I couldn’t agree more.
And, one final product for those of you who are not so fond of dark spirits, or maybe something extra for those of you who are – Grey Goose vodka. With a fivestep distillation process and the prestigious title of ‘the world’s best tasting vodka’, it’s worth a try to see if you agree. After all those heavy, winter digestifs, give your tastebuds a refreshing alternative and mix yourself a festive cocktail. Grey Goose adds an extra touch of finesse as your base spirit, and I think you’ll be surprised how easily even the least bartenderlike amongst you can pull off a sleek, professional looking (yes, and tasting!) cocktail. You’ll find Grey Goose at Waitrose for £33, or I can highly recommend sampling at Buddha Lounge in Southampton, looking out on the roof terrace.
Here’s a winterflavoured cocktail suggestion to get you started:
The flaming black stud
50ml Grey Goose vodka
25ml blackberry purée
10ml Grand Marnier
10ml lemon juice
1 barspoon balsamic gomme (half gomme, half aged balsamic)
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain.
Garnish with a flamed orange peel and a single blackberry.