This list comes backed by the pros. I asked for advice from five experts in the world of drinks and drinking: Talia Baiocchi, Joshua M. Bernstein, Martin Cate, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, and Ann Tuennerman. Baiocchi is the editor-in-chief of the online magazine Punch and the author, with Leslie Pariseau, of the cocktail book Spritz; Bernstein is a beer and spirits writer, and the author most recently of the book Complete IPA; Cate is the owner of San Francisco’s renowned tiki bar, Smuggler’s Cove, and the author of a book by the same name; Morgenthaler is a cocktail writer, author of The Bar Book, and bar manager at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon; Tuennerman is the founder of Tales of the Cocktail, a world-renowned series of cocktail festivals. (Tunnerman stepped down from an active role at Tales of the Cocktail in 2017.) Everything here is something one (or more) of them recommended, and sure to please even the most discerning of drinkers.
Old Raj Gin
Though whiskey and wine are often the go-to gift bottles, Talia Baiocchi thinks gin is a great liquor to give, too, because “you can use it without a lot of effort, and you’re not assuming people have a home bar.” All gin needs to become a cocktail is a splash of tonic, or maybe to be stirred with ice and a little dry vermouth.
Give a bottle of Old Raj Dry Gin, and that simple cocktail will automatically feel luxurious. Old Raj hails from Scotland, and it gets its pale, golden color from a dose of saffron. Gently balanced with other traditional gin botanicals like juniper and coriander, the saffron comes through best when the gin is served with little or no embellishment, but it always makes the gin feel like something special. And for around $50, it’s on the high end of gins, but it’s relatively affordable as far as gift liquors go.
Charbay R5 Whiskey
For the whiskey lover who also happens to be a beer geek (or vice versa), Charbay R5 makes an ideal gift. Charbay, a family-run winery and distillery, uses beer from its Napa Valley neighbor Bear Republic Brewing Company to make several different whiskeys. Joshua Bernstein recommends any of them, but the R5, made from Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA, is the most readily available and comparatively affordable (though not cheap at around $80).
The R5 is “everything you love about an IPA—fragrant, flavorful,” said Bernstein, “distilled down to whiskey form. It makes a killer one-two pairing with your favorite aromatic IPA.” For aficionados of either beverage, it should be a totally surprising yet guaranteed appealing gift.
A Proper Drink by Robert Simonson and Regarding Cocktails by Sasha Petraske
For the serious cocktail nerd, consider pairing two new books: A Proper Drink, by New York Times writer Robert Simonson, and Regarding Cocktails, by Sasha Petraske. The former, recommended by both Talia Baiocchi and Martin Cate, is more nonfiction than recipe book, a history of the craft cocktail revival of the past 20 years. The book starts in the Rainbow Room in New York City and moves on to San Francisco, then London, then to Eastern Europe. Through profiles of bartenders and bars, it covers the birth of the Cosmopolitan, molecular mixology, and the tiki revival, scattering recipes for both classic and “new classic” cocktails throughout. “Even if you’re not into drinks,” Baiocchi said, “it’s a really good story.”
A Proper Drink is also a great jumping off point to dive into what Baiocchi calls an “essential book of recipes”: Regarding Cocktails by Sasha Petraske. Petraske was the bartender best known for the NYC cocktail destination Milk & Honey (now closed), and features heavily in Simonson’s book. He died suddenly in 2015, and so the book, finished posthumously by his widow, Georgette Moser-Petraske, is partly what he intended. It’s a meticulous guide to making cocktails at home, and partly a memorial to the man himself. The recipes, illustrated with beautiful minimalist graphics, are his, but the introductions to each come from other bartenders and friends. The recipes—which are “awesome but really easy,” according to Baiocchi—are reason enough to get the book. Petraske believed that every cocktail is a variation of one of five classics: the Old Fashioned, the highball, the sour, the Martini or Manhattan, or the fix. The book devotes a chapter to each, offering recipes that perfect or play upon these basics in refined, uncomplicated ways. But it also includes some great reading material, from a super serious and detailed discussion of how to throw a cocktail party, to an unfinished essay on “Cocktails for Your Cat”—the clearest example of the absurd wit that often shines through Petraske’s exacting approach.
Amaro by Brad Thomas Parsons and a bottle of Amaro Lucano
Amaro, a bittersweet, herbal Italian digestif, has come into favor recently among bartenders and sommeliers. The name encompasses a vast array of liqueurs, from more familiar ones like Fernet, to sweet, citrus-y varieties and bracingly bitter alpine formulations. And now, to explore all of it, there’s Amaro, a book by James Beard Award-winning writer Brad Thomas Parsons. It comes recommended by both Talia Baiocchi and Martin Cate, who describes it as “a deep and well-written work on the history and culture of amari.”
Amaro includes a discussion of the many different types and styles of amari, not just Italian but also from elsewhere in Europe and from new American producers. It also includes more than 100 recipes, for everything from new and classic cocktails to amaro-laced desserts. There are even recipes for how to make your own amaro.
Pair this book with a bottle of Amaro Lucano, a complex amaro with notes of cinnamon and licorice that Baiocchi calls one of her “go-tos,” and you’ve got a great gift for the budding amaro enthusiast or for that one friend who always orders negronis (Campari, as Parsons explains, falls under the broadest definition of an amaro, hitting all the same bittersweet notes).
Suntory Hibiki Japanese Harmony Whisky
For fans of darker spirits, one of Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s go-to gifts is Japanese whisky. In particular he likes Hibiki Japanese Harmony, a blended whisky from Suntory, one of the largest and best-known names in Japanese whisky. Because this particular blend is made with at least 10 different whiskies from three different Suntory distilleries, it’s reasonably priced as far as Japanese whiskies go (usually around $70 for a bottle) and also a good introduction to the genre.
Japanese whisky has been pushing its way more and more into the liquor limelight in recent years—most sensationally last year, when the 2015 Whisky Bible named a Japanese single malt the best whisky in the world for the first time in its 12 years of publication. So if the Scotch lover in your life hasn’t yet dived into this branch of the spirits world, they should. And the beautiful, faceted bottle of Hibiki Japanese Harmony is a good place to start.
The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Swissmar Cocktail Spoon
For anyone who likes to make cocktails, The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler, the cocktail writer and bar manager behind Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon, is a great foundational text, recommended by Martin Cate who calls it “an excellent book for technique.” Morgenthaler breaks the book down by the elements of a cocktail: There are chapters on citrus juices, simple syrups, ice, and mixing methods, among other things. Recipes are included, but this is more about getting down the skills and the knowledge base to make great cocktails on your own.
If you really want to seem in-the-know, give this book with a Swissmar Cocktail Spoon. Morgenthaler told me that this is his out-and-out favorite spoon, and something that he often likes to give to other people. “I use it at all my bars, everyone uses it,” he says, so giving it as a gift is “kind of like a wink and a handshake. This is the spoon that the pros use.” That being said, it’s nothing fancy, just highly functional. It has a nice heavy muddler on the end, Morgenthaler said, and “the coil on the spoon is just the right size”: not too tight and slippery, nor too wide and clunky.
Smuggler’s Cove by Martin Cate and Rebecca Cate and a bottle of The Real McCoy 12 Year Aged Rum
While tiki drinks may not be an everyday beverage for most people, Jeffrey Morgenthaler said Martin and Rebecca Cate’s Smuggler’s Cove, titled after their San Francisco bar of the same name, “is the best book to come out in a while.” The book is more than just recipes for novelty cocktails, it covers everything from the history of tiki to the story of rum to how to throw a tiki party. The recipes themselves (more than 100 of them) are also polished and refined—serious rum drinks, not sugary concoctions. “With this book, you can make drinks as good as the pros,” Morgenthaler said.
Jumpstart tiki practice with a bottle of The Real McCoy 12 Year Aged Rum. Martin Cate himself recommends it: “It’s a really well-made, balanced rum that has plenty of body and a nice level of oak,” he said. “There are no additives or sugar added post-distillation, and the age statement is a minimum, not an average.” At a reasonable price, this is one of those rums that’s great for cocktails, said Cate, but still “interesting enough to enjoy on its own.”
Pierre Ferrand Pineau des Charentes
Give the gift of a beverage your loved one has probably never heard of: Pineau des Charentes. Ann Tuennerman said she first tasted this little-known French aperitif—“and loved it”—when she visited the House of Ferrand distillery in Cognac. Pineau des Charentes is in fact made with Cognac, in a way similar to how you’d make a fortified wine like port. In this case, as Tuennerman explained, the Cognac is added not to wine but to “either fresh, unfermented grape juice or a blend of lightly fermented grape must.” The mixture is then aged in oak casks for a year, giving it a round, mellow flavor.
The result is a sweet, nutty, golden beverage, traditionally served ice cold. It goes quite well with cheese, and should please anyone who likes good fortified wine. Priced at just around $30, it’s an affordably elegant bottle to give an adventurous drinker or as a unique host gift.
Brooklyn Brew Shop Beer Making Kit
A beer-making kit is the adult version of the arts and crafts kit. It’s a good project to dive into on a rainy afternoon, and with patience, it will probably produce better (or at least more polished) results than you could pull together on your own. Joshua Bernstein likes the kits from Brooklyn Brew Shop as a gift set because their gallon size allows you to “test the waters” without too much commitment. “They also have a bunch of kits built around your favorite craft beers,” he said, from basics like an oatmeal stout or an “everyday IPA,” to kits re-creating beers from breweries like Evil Twin.
Besides a set of bottles and a really big pot, just about everything you need to make beer is in the box: the gallon jug, hops, yeast, malted barley, a thermometer, even bottle sanitizer. All but the ingredients can be reused, and Brooklyn Brew Shop also sells kits of just ingredients, so this could easily kick-start a regular brewing habit. If that happens, we have recommendations for more complete one-gallon and five-gallon setups to pass along to your budding brewmaster. If you’re lucky, you might even find your gift reciprocated in bottles of homebrew.
Rastal Teku Beer Glass
A good beer is like a good wine: You’ll get more out of it if you drink it from the right glass. The problem, of course, is that “the right glass” doesn’t just mean a pint glass. Different beer styles traditionally call for different shapes of glassware, with so much variation that it’s impractical to try to stock a home kitchen with all of them.
Save your beer connoisseur friend the clutter and gift him or her a set of Rastal’s Teku glasses (also available as a set of six). This German-made glass is “one size fits all for a variety of styles,” said Joshua Bernstein. “It’s really elegant, and it’s nice not to have to clog your cabinets with a bunch of different glasses.” It also comes with impressive credentials: It was designed by Teo Musso, the founder of Italy’s Baladin brewery (one of the first in the country’s new wave of craft breweries), along with Lorenzo Dabove, a beer writer and sensory analyst. The tulip-shaped glass they came up with has a lot of fans in the craft beer world, and it would make a thoughtful gift (maybe with a mixed case?) for the beer obsessed.
Savart L’Accomplie Champagne
When you want to give someone a nice bottle of something but aren’t sure of their tastes—red or white, whiskey or gin—there’s one obvious choice: Champagne. “Nobody is going to dislike getting Champagne as a gift,” said Talia Baiocchi. It’s a fun gift and great for celebrations, and a good one doesn’t have to break the bank. “Now with the explosion of grower movement,” said Baiocchi, “a lot of great Champagnes fall in the $50 to $80 range.” What she means is that grower Champagnes—made by smaller producers who grow their own grapes, rather than by the big-name, big-budget brands that buy theirs from all over—have become increasingly popular and available stateside. They have more terroir and more personality, and are often a fraction of the price.
Out of her favorite grower Champagnes, Baiocchi recommends Savart L’Accomplie. Savart wines “are concentrated while still being super elegant,” she said. [They are] “just easy to love, excellent traditionally made grower Champagnes that are exceptional values and still under the radar.”
Gabriel-Glas StandArt wine glasses
With its elegant shape and excellent performance, the Gabriel-Glas StandArt is a smart investment for people who regularly spend more than $20 on a bottle and are interested in appreciating the finer details of wine. It performed well with all the wines we tasted, including the aged red, which other glasses struggled with. It’s also a beautiful object with a unique silhouette that stands out without being ostentatious. It performed just as well as competitors twice the price and doesn’t feel so delicate that you’ll only opt to use it from time to time.
It’s made of molded rather than blown non-leaded crystal (though Gabriel-Glas also produces a mouth-blown Gold edition of the glass that we did not test), so it’s visibly thicker than a mouth-blown Zalto glass and about 1.5 times as heavy at around 5.3 ounces. Mary Taylor, one of our experts, noted that among the glasses she tried, the StandArt “does the best job for the nose” and that “it shows fruit and hides flaws.” These glasses are also our upgrade pick in our guide to wine glasses.
W&P Design Pineapple Tumbler
W&P Design’s Pineapple Tumbler is enormously popular. “People go nuts for those,” said Talia Baiocchi, and rightfully so. The metal tumbler, which comes in brass, silver, or copper, is both fun and striking, and certainly more stylish than any tiki mug out there. Plus, unlike any real pineapple, the leafy lid flips over to double as a stand for the base.
Depending on your budget (and the recipient’s drinking habits), opt for the standard 12-ounce tumbler (around $25), the generous 16-ounce tumbler ($99), or a pair of shot glasses ($35). Note that the large comes with a matching metal straw, but the standard does not—though you can buy one separately. No matter the size, this is glassware that will make just about anyone smile, and since the pineapple is a symbol of hospitality, it’s a great way to say, “You’re the life of the party.”
Cocktail Kingdom Reserve Yarai Sen Mixing Glass and Julep Strainer
When asking for good cocktail gear recommendations from the experts, I heard the same thing again and again: anything from Cocktail Kingdom. This online retailer sells all manner of great quality tools and glassware for mixing, shaking, and drinking. You’ll find plenty of essential, no-frills gear, but if you want to treat a budding mixologist to a really nice piece of barware, turn to the Reserve collection.
Along with items like an opulent, black diamond-studded $2,750 bar spoon (currently out of stock), the Reserve collection offers two very nice and much more reasonably priced crystal Yarai Sen mixing glasses. Yarai is not a brand but a style of mixing glass (used for all manner of stirred cocktails), distinguished by the diamond pattern around the outside. It’s a classic design, favored by many bartenders, and the etched crystal version makes for a classy step up from standard glass versions. Pair it with one of Cocktail Kingdom’s julep strainers, a vintage design that comes in luxury finishes like gold, silver, or copper, for a very stylish means to a Manhattan.