Now that the calendar has turned to December, it’s officially time to consider how best to keep yourself warm over the next four months. One excellent and time-tested method of guarding against the cold and damp is to stock up on top-quality spirits. Few things are as welcome as a glass of topaz-colored whiskey or aromatic Cognac when we come in from ice skating, cross-country skiing or a long walk in the snow. Distilled spirits were first conceived, in fact, as restoratives against the often harsh elements of European winters in the Dark and early Middle Ages.

The old joke about drinking whiskey or brandy for medicinal purposes isn’t too far from the truth. Christian monks, who were adept in the arts and skills of fermenting and distilling, were the first continual producers of spirits made from fruit, herbs, leaves, plants and other natural resources. The cellars of monasteries frequently housed the laboratories of the earliest distillers. Their clear brandies were created to soothe digestion or help in easing gout or making wounds antiseptic. Spirits were likewise employed as a substitute for putrid drinking water, a rampant problem of the era. Spirits were referred to by the monks of medieval times as aqua vitae, Latin for "water of life." By this moniker, they described what they believed to be the nature of distilled spirits as respected elixirs with life-giving or healing properties. The concept of spirits as recreational libations didn’t develop until the end of the Middle Ages.

With those thoughts in mind, let’s raise a glass of any spirit to the memory of the monks who perpetuated the making of the spirits that still warm us when the skies grow dark by late afternoon, and the wind howls from the north. Cheers.

—F. Paul Pacult


Superb (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Agavero Tequila Liqueur (Mexico; Crillon Importers, Ltd., Paramus, NJ); 32% abv, $29. Originally around in the mid-1990s, this liqueur was recently reintroduced. Amontillado Sherry-like harvest-gold hue. Surface aromas ring with agave herbal-vegetal perfume while base scents feature wood resin, carnations, key lime and asparagus. Polite, moderately sweet at palate entry, then the taste turns keenly herbaceous at midpalate. Finishes sweet.

SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Absolut Citron Vodka (Sweden; Future Brands, LLC, Deerfield, IL); 40% abv, $18. Pristine appearance. Lovely, clean and intense aroma of tangerine is full and squeaky tart in the first whiffs; aeration serves to bring out zesty, spot-on scents of lemon juice and lemon peel. In the mouth, the crisp, razor-edged lemon taste dominates from entry into midpalate. Finishes tangy, pleasantly tart and irresistibly fresh. A superb, prototypical flavored vodka. Best Buy.

Grey Goose Vodka (France; Sidney Frank Importing Co., New Rochelle, NY); 40% abv, $30. Crystal-clear and pure. Nose is unabashedly smoky in the first nosings; aeration smoothes it out as fetching aromas of mint, harvested grain and grain husk assert themselves. On palate, the entry is intensely grainy, silky and off-dry; the midpalate offers moderate bite plus chewy tastes of cracked wheat and cocoa bean. Aftertaste is dry, cleansing and medium-long.

Ketel One Vodka (Holland; Nolet Spirits USA, Reno, NV); 40% abv, $20. Clear as rainwater. The bouquet doesn’t reach up and grab you as much as it seduces you with gentle waves of mild spirit and grainy richness. The palate entry offers mild spiciness and cereal sweetness. Finishes marvelously long, doughy, round, subtly citrusy and moderately sweet. Classy, complex and multilayered.

Romance Vodka (Mexico; Milagro Imports, Inc., Alpharetta, GA); 40% abv, $20. Silvery and clear. Dry, delicate and mildly creamy in the initial sniffings; time in the glass allows other scents to emerge, especially wet grass, new leather and a fresh-off-the-still flowery perfume. Palate entry is stone-dry and minerally; at midpalate the flavor turns grainy sweet and a touch smoky. Aftertaste shows a bit of charcoal smokiness. So savory, maybe other Mexican distillers should begin thinking "vodka."

VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Absolut Peppar Vodka (Sweden; Future Brands, LLC, Deerfield, IL); 40% abv, $18. Clear as spring water. The saucy, piquant bouquet reminiscent of jalapeño peppers and Tabasco sauce; later sniffings pick up an almost Tequila-like herbaceousness. Sassy, mildly prickly and intensely peppery on the tongue. Aftertaste is notable for its sudden burst of spicy heat that then warmly fades in the throat. Bloody Mary, anyone?

SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Delamain Pale & Dry Grande Champagne Cognac (France; Kobrand Corporation, New York, NY); 40% abv, $77. Visually appealing pale flax color. Bouquet offers seductive aromas of almonds, crushed violets, truffles and dark caramel at all nosing stages. Palate entry taste is focused on the fruit, which is more tropical (pineapple) than grape-like; midpalate experience is extraordinarily complex as flavors of black pepper, old oak, spirit, lead pencil and red fruit disarm the taste buds. Finishes dense, multilayered and medium-long. A textbook Cognac. Best Buy.

Hennessy Paradis Cognac (France; Schieffelin & Somerset, New York, NY); 40% abv, $300. A sublime marriage of over 100 eaux-de-vie, some more than a century old. Amber/gold appearance. Textbook tête de cuvée Cognac bouquet of pine needles, clover honey, rancio, sweet oak and spiced apple. Offers elegant flavors of fatty rancio, soft cheese, wood smoke and bacon fat from entry through midpalate. Finishes more woody and resiny than fruity-ripe. Still a favorite after all these years. Gorgeous.

Remy Martin Louis XIII Grande Champagne Cognac (France; Remy Amerique, New York, NY); 40% abv, $1,300. The youngest eau-de-vie in this legendary blend is 50 years old. 100% Grande Champagne. Amber color. Harmonious, hallmark bouquet of blue cheese-like rancio, truffles, roasted chestnuts and prunes; the aroma stays firm and concentrated through 10 minutes of nosing. Accessible, satiny smooth at palate entry, then at midpalate the flavor profile turns semisweet, profound and pruny. Finishes gracefully, almost like a ghost on the tongue. Lovely.

VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Hennessy XO Cognac (France; Schieffelin & Somerset, New York, NY); 40% abv, $150. The eaux-de-vie range in age from 10 to 70 years. Deep amber/chestnut brown hue. Nose is opulent, elegant and emits mature aromas of cheese-like rancio, black tea leaves, raisins and oak. In the mouth, this XO displays melded tastes of astringent oaky tannins, ripe grapes and toffee. Aftertaste offers parting sweet tastes of dark caramel and honey.

American Brandy
SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Charbay Grappa di Marko Merlot (Domaine Charbay, Napa, CA); 45% abv, $75/375 ml. Crystal-clear appearance. Full-throttle, aldehydic nose of grape must, freshly mown hay and cut flowers provides a rollicking, all-you-can-smell banquet of intense, fresh spring-garden fragrances. In the mouth, the highly concentrated, raisiny flavor is sweet right from the pour through the entire midpalate. Aftertaste is fruity and long. One of America’s premier grappas.

Jepson Signature Reserve Mendocino Alambic Brandy (Jepson Vineyards, Ukiah, CA); 40% abv, $100. Extremely bright amber color. Scents of baked pears and oak; aeration releases additional aromas of vanilla and cinnamon; it’s a sophisticated bouquet. Palate entry is slightly sweet; midpalate features oaky vanilla, ripe grapes and tropical fruit. Aftertaste is clean, lean, even austere.

VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Jepson Rare Mendocino Alambic Brandy (Jepson Vineyards, Ukiah, CA); 40% abv, $33. Double distilled. 100% French Colombard grapes. Gold flax color. Bouquet is noticeably spirity in the first nosings; exposure to air allows deeper scents, especially ripe grapes, gum and wood resin, to emerge. In the mouth, this brandy is agile, dry and fruity at entry, then it turns off-dry at midpalate, showing ripe flavors of white raisins and yellow plums. Finishes off-dry, long and spicy.

CLASSIC (96-100)/Highest Recommendation

Coeur de Lion Hors d’Age Pays d’Auge Calvados (France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 42% abv, $95. Luminous orange-amber color. Memorable opening scents of bacon fat, oak and baked apples; aeration unleashes scents of tobacco smoke, tea leaf and almond butter, making for a fabulously complex, concentrated bouquet. At palate entry, silky smooth tastes of bacon, oak and apple greet the taste buds; the midpalate develops notes of old oak, rancio and spice. Aftertaste is toasty, smoky, resiny and fat.

SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Coeur de Lion 1977 Pays d’Auge Calvados (France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 42% abv, $148. Medium-amber hue. Nose begins zesty and piquant, with defined aromas of paraffin, green apple and vanilla bean; bouquet expands in the glass to include notes of oloroso Sherry, baked pear and quince. Entry taste is very tart; at midpalate the flavor profile includes holiday spices, apple pastry, faint Sherry and rich oak. Finishes fiery, but elegant.

VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Coeur de Lion VSOP Pays d’Auge Calvados (France; Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 42% abv, $65. Harvest wheat color. Opening apple and pear scents are distant; eight more minutes of aeration unleash ripe fragrances of apple fritter, spice and light wood. Palate entry is lean and a shade sweet; at the midpalate, multiple flavors unfold, including intense apple, wood resin and sap. Aftertaste gets a tad hot and unruly.

Single Malt Scotch
CLASSIC (96-100)/Highest Recommendation
Balvenie 25 Year Old Single Barrel Speyside Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; William Grant & Sons, Edison, NJ); 46.9% abv, $250. New copper-penny color. Aromas are laced with sweet fragrances of paraffin, rose petals and honey; time in the glass adds dried yellow fruit, marzipan and oak. Flavor begins tightly-wound at entry, then explode at midpalate in blankets of oak, honey and ripe yellow fruit. Finishes toasty and concentrated. An authentic classic and the best Balvenie presently available.

Bowmore Darkest Sherry Casked Islay Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; White Rock Distilleries, Lewiston, ME); 43% abv, $50. Aged in Bourbon casks for 12 years, then finished in oloroso Sherry butts for 3 more years. Old copper-penny color. Bouquet screams "oloroso" right from the first whiff; aroma deepens with aeration, becoming like a nutty palo cortado Sherry. In the mouth, it’s chewy, supple and rich, emitting a fine balance of Islay saltiness/smokiness with a wine-like opulence. Fantastically satisfying and a first-rank Islay. Best Buy.

SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended
Balvenie 12 Year Old Doublewood Speyside Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; William Grant & Sons, Edison, NJ); 43% abv, $38. Dark amber hue. The opening aroma is pronounced, sassy, peppery and peaty; aeration stimulates added scents of Sherry, smoke, tobacco leaf and sweet malt. On the palate, a sweet, oaky richness is evident immediately; by midpalate, well-endowed flavors of vanilla cream, caramel and Sherry overwhelm the taste buds. The endless aftertaste is round, smoky and toffee-like. A Balvenie benchmark. Best Buy.

Glenlivet 18 Year Old Speyside Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; Pernod Ricard USA, White Plains, NY); 43% abv, $64. The cake batter, cinnamon-spice opening aroma is a joy; air contact helps define three distinct aroma levels: The foundation is mature, zesty malted barley, and the surface aroma is estery, kind of like dried rose petals. Palate entry offers succulent tastes of oloroso Sherry and vanilla; at midpalate, dried apricot and candied almonds abound. Finishes full, extended, nutty and toffee-like. Worth the price just for the rewarding aftertaste.

Glenmorangie 12 Year Old Sherry Wood Finish Northern Highlands Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; Brown-Forman Beverages Worldwide, Louisville, KY); 43% abv, $45. Amber hue. Nose offers a dry, saddle leather-like opening aroma; aeration stimulates deeper, more fully developed scents of ripe yellow fruits (banana, melon), honey, vanilla and Sherry. Palate entry shows succulent, assertive tastes of caramel, vanilla cake frosting and astringent oakiness while the midpalate turns delectably malty and sweet. Finishes Sherried and honeyed. Best Buy.

VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
Glenmorangie 12 Year Old Madeira Wood Finish Northern Highlands Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; Brown-Forman Beverages Worldwide, Louisville, KY); 43% abv, $45. Light amber color. Initial bouquet is notably apple-like; later whiffs pick up a zesty spiciness that’s underpinned by an acidic, almost cotton fabric-like aroma. Gently malty and crisp at palate entry; midpalate is beautifully structured and direct, displaying subtle tastes of raisins and orange peel. Aftertaste is cereally and slightly vegetal yet seductive.

Glenmorangie 12 Year Old Port Wood Finish Northern Highlands Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; Brown-Forman Beverages Worldwide, Louisville, KY); 43% abv, $45. Smells of soft cheese, apples and spice in the first nosings; with aeration, the aroma builds into a semisweet, almost raisiny perfume. Firm flavors of sweet malt, cocoa, oak resin and Bourbon crescendo at midpalate, then gradually fade into a mellow, winy, malty, vanilla finish that’s medium-long and totally delightful.

Old Pulteney 12 Northern Highlands Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; Barton Imports, Chicago, IL); 43% abv, $45. Pale honey hue. Olfactory sense is greeted by a polite maltiness that’s more dry than sweet. Starts out prickly at palate entry, then turns concentrated, malty and moderately smoky. Finishes in a warming, zesty flurry that displays maritime nuances of brine.

Published on August 29, 2005