If you think Pop appreciated the paperweight you got him for Father's Day last year, just wait till his eyes light up when you set a bottle of primo hooch and a chunky pair of tumblers on the table and wordlessly pour out two fingers. Nearly every dad who drinks would prefer a tasty dram to a new necktie on the third Sunday of June, making it one of the easiest holidays of the year to shop for.
Yet no two fathers are the same when it comes to spirit preferences. Your elbow-patched patriarch may be happiest with a sophisticated Scotch he can show off to his golf buddies. Adventure-seeking fathers straight from their latest 5K might dig some innovative rum from a small-batch startup, complete with an unusual back story. And DIY dads who dream of building man caves and grilling the perfect T-bone might enjoy mixing it up with a versatile gin (and a book of classic cocktail recipes to try out).
The point is, Father's Day is all about making your dad feel special, so we've tasted our way through a sea of new and noteworthy spirits in a variety of categories and distilled them into a manageable collection of delicious bottles that won't be too hard to track down. One of them is bound to be right for your old man. If you're lucky, you'll be able deliver it yourself so you can enjoy a drink together, just you and your dad and nothing but a bottle between you.
We might think of whiskey as a liquor steeped in history, but this corner of the booze world has plenty of new ideas to offer when it comes to giftworthy bottles.
If you have deep pockets, you may want to explore the best of Islay, but if Dad finds those peaty, smoky single malts a little too too for his taste, consider Haig Club ($50), an easy-to-embrace single grain whiskey made at Cameronbridge distillery in Fife using a mash bill of 90% wheat and 10% barley. It's a lighter spirit, each sip a playful mix of apples, pears, and tropical fruit, with a dusting of cinnamon and white pepper flavors, and a kiss of caramel. A celebrity endorsement by David Beckham makes no difference to Dad, of course, but the handsome, blue glass bottle might remind him of the Aqua Velva you didn't give him this year, and that's a good thing.
Sticking to the British Isles, our next suggestion is Teeling Irish Whiskey ($40), a delicious blend from Dublin's first new distillery in more than 125 years. Its 46% alcohol content grabs your attention with a spicy aroma that quickly gives way to rich vanilla notes, a fitting introduction to this whiskey's deep, oaky flavors (think root beer, caramel, toast, and tropical fruit.) That fruit comes from the spirit's time spent napping in casks that were once used to age rum, a tasty trick that's used round out the flavors in Scotches such as The Balvenie's popular Caribbean Cask 14 Year Old whisky. (The Teeling's a bit more dry, slightly more kicky, but just as nuanced as The Balvenie, and $30 cheaper.) Compare Teeling to Irish stalwarts such as Jameson and you'll find it maltier and less grassy; a worthy addition to Dad's bar.
But you don't have to look abroad at all: America's clearly no slouch when it comes to brown spirits. Our final whiskey recommendation comes from Colorado, and it's the most upscale of the bunch. At $70 a bottle, Stranahan's Diamond Peak Colorado Whiskey punches above its weight against other whiskeys at that price point, which mostly means Scotches in the 12-14 year range. You won't find any kings or castles in its past, just a couple of dudes obsessed with making unpeated single malt whiskey high in the Rockies using locally-grown barley. Diamond Peak is essentially Stranahan's version of Black Label: an extra-mellow blend of four-year-old whiskeys that's oaky, smooth, and rich tasting. I love its fruity scent and cinnamon, toffee, and banana flavors. Even at 94 proof, there's almost no heat, so it's all too easy to sip neat. Want to make it last? Add a few drops of water or an ice cube and let the whiskey's subtle honeyed side stretch out. It'd be a waste of good whiskey, of course, but if you accidentally mix it with cola, it's amazing.
If your father grew up in a time when a martini meant gin by default, he probably has an affinity for it that many younger folks schooled in vodka are only developing now. All the better then to surprise him with a tasty bottle to mix a right proper martini, gin and tonic, or some other gin-based cocktail.
Unlike the classic London dry he's been drinking forever, Nolet's Gin ($50) offers a different balance of flavors, with juniper taking a less prominent place amid botanicals that include Turkish rose, fresh peaches, and raspberries. It's worth sipping neat at room temperature at least once—yes, you can do that with Nolet's—just to contemplate its creamy texture, subtle mingling of fruit and herbs, and gentle peppery finish. Then mix a very cold martini with it, or let Dad have the Last Word for once.
Caorunn Gin ($40) is from Scotland, and its provenance is relevant only because of its blend of traditional gin flavorings and 'Celtic botanicals.' The former includes juniper, coriander, and cassia bark (a type of cinnamon), while the latter features dandelion, rowan berry, heather, and something called bog myrtle, a bitter herb that was used to flavor beer before hops came along. Yet Caorunn is far from bitter. It's crisp, clean, and a little bit sweet, with a silky texture and a lively mix of flavors that leave you with a lingering minty finish. Caorunn is best in a tall, icy G&T with a squirt of lime. Mix one for Dad outdoors somewhere if you can.
Smooth Ambler Greenbrier Gin ($34) drinks like a sipper and is priced like a mixer. Made with a whiskey-like mashbill of corn, wheat, and barley and infused with coriander, cardamom, angelica root, orange peel, lemon peel, and black pepper, it has a lot going on to please gin-lovers and gin-skeptics alike. The juniper's present enough to make its identity unmistakable, yet fades beautifully into the background when used in place of Old Tom gin in a cocktail like the Martinez, yielding a slightly drier yet still satisfying drink.
Dad may have an edge on you in gin experience, but you just might be the one to enlighten him on the wonders of today's best rums, many of which simply weren't around during his salad days.
If he's a traditionalist with a bit of a sweet tooth, Zaya Rum ($35) from Trinidad is perfect. Zaya's made with blackstrap molasses and aged for 12 years in former bourbon casks. And while a 12-year-old Scotch is considered middle aged at best, the heat of the southern Caribbean accelerates the aging process, resulting in a mature and very mellow rum after just a dozen years. You'll find a lovely darkness in Zaya's aroma, color, and flavor, with swirls of dark chocolate, dark fruit, toffee, and vanilla. Sip it from a snifter after dinner in place of dessert, or add a few rocks and enjoy it anytime. It's not the only sweet old rum in town—Zacapa makes a couple impressive bottlings—but it's the most affordable and darn delicious.
On the other end of the style spectrum is the equally delicious Due North Rum ($32), which is made in Brooklyn at Van Brunt Stillhouse. Yankee rum? It wouldn't be the first time. Back in the 18th Century, northern colonists distilled rum from waste molasses imported from the Caribbean. But instead of molasses from Jamaica, Due North is made with sugarcane juice, rhum agricole-style, from organic sugar harvested in the Himalayan foothills. It all sounds a bit twee, but the result is a crisp, somewhat grassy distillate—sugarcane's a grass, after all—that's flavorful and smooth thanks to a few months spent resting in new oak casks. As much as I love the concept of terroir, I could not taste the Himalayas. I could, however, taste a wave of vanilla and spice with notes of citrus, pear, and grain of sea salt. Sip it with a splash of water, toss it back as a chilled shot, or mix it with lime juice and sugar or simple syrup for a dynamite Daiquiri. This is a happy rum.
With upscale offerings far too tasty to spoil with the old lick-slam-suck routine, today's best tequilas offer a more refined experience than the sharp, astringent offerings guzzled by generations of spring breakers. It's easy to fall down a rabbit hole of excellent small batch tequilas—you'll find a different selection depending on where you are—but these two bottles are both delicious and likely to be available wherever you're last-minute shopping.
Casa Noble Crystal Tequila ($40) captures the savory, herbal complexity of the agave plant without a hint of bitterness. Sipped neat, this unaged tequila offers a beautifully buttery mix of honey and vanilla flavors with hints of spice and a long, luscious finish. Yet it comes alive in a properly made Margarita, adding a pleasant vegetal character that balances out the sweetness of the drink. It's a cocktail best enjoyed on the patio of a Mexican hacienda, though Dad's living room will do.
Tequila benefits from aging just like whiskey and rum, and Herradura Añejo ($50) emerges from its two years in oak with an impressive richness and depth. Each sip begins with a tangy note of honey and melts into a mix of toffee and clementine, ending with vanilla and spice flavors that last until your next sip. It's up to you if you want to mix a $50 tequila into a cocktail—but I recommend treating it just like you would a rare single malt.
How can one vodka be differentiated from another? By texture, that's how. St. George All Purpose Vodka ($29), from Alameda, California, is made from Bartlett pears and non-GMO American corn, giving it a particularly silky, rich texture when compared with the crispness of 100% grain vodkas that make your mouth tingle like you just flossed. St. George is a well-balanced vodka that you want to roll around in your mouth a few times before swallowing, which becomes the whole point of the stuff when you're sipping a Kangaroo (a.k.a. vodka martini). You may think of vodka as being flavorless, but there is some flavor to this one, particularly in that blissful moment when you exhale after taking a sip: a bit of lemon, sugar, and mint. As they remind you with the 'All Purpose' in the name, this vodka can be mixed in anything dad likes, and at around $30 a bottle, you'll feel fine doing it.
Even if Dad already has a liquor cabinet flush with spirits, a bottle of Carpano Antica Formula ($29) makes a classy gift he can put to good use. It's an ideal mixer for zillions of cocktails—the Negroni, the Manhattan, the Vieux Carré, the Derby, and the Ampersand, to name a few—adding rich body and intriguing bittersweet flavor to whatever it touches. But we urge you to serve it solo, too, on the rocks (with a splash of seltzer and a slice of orange if you wish). With a heady base packed with dark fruit—it's a fortified wine—and vanilla-laced flavors of star anise and almond, it's complex and delicious enough to earn a place alongside pastis as Dad's go-to aperitif.
Is your father a little adventurous and already on the vermouth train? Consider introducing him to one of these new-school American vermouths.
A Must-Read Book
Really want to hit it out of the park? Accompany the bottle of your choice with a copy of the newly-updated 2015 edition of David Wondrich's Imbibe! From the Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to "Professor" Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar. This comprehensive history of American cocktailing from Esquire's longtime drinks columnist is deeply researched, spectacularly detailed, well-paced, and so much fun that you'll want to read it yourself before gift-wrapping it. That won't take long, since you'll race through anecdotes about the early 19th century celebrity bartenders who predated Thomas, illustrated descriptions of the original tools of the trade, and, of course, dozens of classic drink recipes.
The original, James Beard Award-winning 2007 version became something of a textbook for the classic cocktail revival movement. Feeling a sense of fatherly responsibility, Wondrich decided an update was in order to reflect all the once-lost spirits that have been since been resurrected, add a host of newly-discovered details on Thomas, and share the real origin of the word cocktail (it involves sticking a clove of ginger up an old horse's ass). Some books motivate their readers to get up and build empires. This one motivates you to get up and mix drinks. It's nice to have attainable goals.
Note: Tasting samples of all spirits except St. George vodka, Smooth Ambler Greenbrier Gin, and Due North rum provided for review consideration.