I love the cold.
Well, ok, let me rephrase that: I can tolerate the cold with unusual gusto. My secret weapon? Mostly, it's that I relish the things that come with cold temperatures: piping hot beverages in ceramic mugs when my hands are cold, finding warmth under a deep layer of blankets, and the calm that comes with a nice glass of liquor by the fireplace on chilly nights.
This year, three local distilleries are offering some great choices for those fireside times. If you're new to this, just remember the point is to go as slow as is comfortable, and doing nothing is the key to doing this activity well. Summer is a demanding, active friend, but all winter wants to do is rest.
Here are three to keep close at hand this season:
Anchor Distilling White Christmas
45% abv; $49/750ml
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, but should it ever give you more beer than you know what to do with (yeah, I know, it sounds impossible, but it did happen), then make whiskey.
When Anchor Brewing found themselves with an excess of 2012 Christmas Ale, they decided to send the beer downstairs to the distillery to create what they humorously describe as the "Spirit of Christmas Past." The whiskey is unaged and bottled at a nice high proof of 90, making it suitable for slow sipping with a large ice cube.
The spirit is fascinating, super-malty in that way that reminds me of what the brewery smells like when making beer, but with the added bonus of dried orange peel essence. Tasting it neat, the whiskey is as malty as it smells, but accented with sweet citrus, pine resin hoppiness, and clove spice that leave nothing but a pleasing clean crispness.
Charbay Nostalgie Black Walnut Liqueur
30% abv; $75/375ml
First, wipe that image that walnut liqueur will be similar in taste or process to other nut spirits like amaretto (almonds) or Frangelico (hazelnuts), where the toasted nut flavors are the focus.
Like with traditional walnut liqueurs, Charbay starts with green English and Carpathian walnuts gathered from Napa Valley trees by distiller Marko Karakasevic. Blended with pot-distilled pinot noir brandy made in their St. Helena facility, the walnuts sit and macerate for two years. Once the extraction process is complete, they add a mix of herbs and spices to round out the whole.
It's as dark as a winter night in the glass, with a nutty aroma that is almost sherry-like, and a dark sweetness that hints at molasses. The taste is lovely: simultaneously sweet and savory, with an earthiness that reminded me of candy cap mushrooms and celery, yet still nutty and nicely sweetened. Perhaps I was simply being influenced by the color, but there was a roast coffee effect in there that feels like a nightcap in the making.
St. George Spiced Pear Liqueur
20% abv; $35/750ml or $15/200ml
The Spiced Pear Liqueur from the gang over at St. George Spirits is a concentrated pear in a bottle. Distillers Lance Winters and Dave Smith start off by fermenting then distilling fresh pears, distilling the resulting mass into a pear eau de vie, then adding back fresh pear juice back in. Seasoned with spices, sweetened with cane sugar, and then bottled, it's like adult mulled cider in a bottle.
The light pale straw color of the liqueur is perfumed with cinnamon, vanilla, and orange peel. The taste is slightly tart, with lots of cinnamon and clove spice, lightly sweet, and a rich and buttery texture. A generous dash in a dry sparkling wine would make a great alternative to kir royale.
Note: Small samples were provided for this tasting by the producers, but in no way affected the recommendations