For gift giving, Joy Kempf recommends pairing a bottle of spirits with artisanal bitters in a decorative basket. PHOTO BY STEPHEN RAPPAPORT

Bartenders share favorite spirits to gift

The holidays are almost here and, when it’s time to spread some holiday cheer to family and friends, there’s often nothing more appreciated than a gift of spirits.

Happily, the variety of spirits available for gifting is enormous, limited only by imagination, taste and, in truth, pocketbook.

While some bottles of wine sell for hundred or even thousands of dollars, and the price of some aged whiskeys and brandies can be sky high, it won’t require a mortgage loan to buy an appropriate liquid gift. And there is an excellent chance that the chosen liquor, beer or even wine might well be “home brewed” in Maine.

“There’s so much good stuff to choose from,” Joy Kempf, who owns Provender in Ellsworth with her husband, chef Daron Goldstein, says, speaking about the wide variety of Maine and New England-brewed craft beers available. But the same can be said for spirits of all kinds.

At Provender in Ellsworth, co-owner Joy Kempf mixes up a festive seasonal cocktail. Her personal favorite is “a good gimlet,” made with fresh lime juice, simple syrup and Tanqueray Rangpur gin distilled in Scotland.

“It depends on the person” for whom the gift is intended, she said.

Kempf particularly recommends two distilled “brown” liquors: Whistle Pig rye and Monkey Shoulder scotch.

Whistle Pig is a 100 percent straight rye whiskey distilled in Canada and bottled at Whiskeypig Farm in Shoreham, Vt. The bottles are elegant and, depending on how long the whiskey has been aged, can cost $70 a bottle or more.

Monkey Shoulder is a highly rated scotch whiskey that the giant William Grant & Sons Distillers blends from 100 percent malt whiskies produced by three Speyside distilleries located in northern Scotland. The 80-proof scotch is smooth and flavorful and comes in a handsome bottle priced around $30.

If just a bottle or rye, even an expensive bottle, seems a little stark, Kempf recommends delivering it in a basket together with a small bottle of simple syrup, “homemade, if possible,” and some artisanal bitters, perhaps homemade as well.

“It’s an Old Fashioned kit,” she said — perfect for making the eponymous drink to sip before the fire.

Cocktails can be a part of any holiday celebration and Kempf’s is “a good gimlet,” made with fresh lime juice, simple syrup and Tanqueray Rangpur gin distilled in Scotland.

If wine seems the more attractive choice, Kempf recommends “a good Pinot Noir” from California, Oregon’s Willamette Valley or the Burgundy region of France. An excellent domestic Pinot can be bought for as little as $20 or so, but for premium Oregon vintages or Burgundies, the sky’s the limit.

Virginia Fernandes, from Marseilles by way of Montreal, tends the cozy, well-stocked bar at The Thurston Co. restaurant in Blue Hill.

Her initial recommendation for a spirit gift went in an entirely direction than her colleague’s — to Mexico.

“I’d give a good bottle of mezcal,” like tequila distilled from the agave plant but often viewed as an earthier drink. With the mezcal, Fernandes would give some “worm salt,” or sal de gusano, a traditional Mexican condiment for agave-based liquors, cocktails and salsas.

Just as its name suggests, the condiment is made from a moth larva fattened on sweet agave nectar, then toasted and ground up with rock salt and dried chili peppers.

Virginia Fernandes, who tends the cozy, well-stocked bar at The Thurston Co. restaurant in Blue Hill, squeezes limes in preparation for making a “Gin Basil Smash with Cold River Gin. She recommends the Freeport distiller’s spirits made from Maine potatoes.

If that all sounds too off-putting, Fernandes has some recommendations for spirits distilled closer to home.

Cold River Blueberry Vodka, distilled and bottled in Maine from potatoes grown near Fryeburg, is a favorite as is another of the Maine company’s products.

“I really like Cold River gin” she said, while mixing a “Gin Basil Smash — gin, simple syrup, lime juice all muddled with plenty of fresh basil. Her father introduced her to the drink, she said, at a “gentlemen’s club” in Hamburg, Germany.

Another Maine gin she recommends is Hardshore, distilled on the flanks of Munjoy Hill in Portland.

Fernandes also suggested three rums, one from far away, two from nearby, as gifts “for a father or a grandpa.”

Number One on her rum hit parade was Diplomatico, distilled in Venezuela for nearly 60 years. The rum is offered in three different ranges that vary in price and style, much like the whiskies of Scotland.

Among the offerings are the crystal clear “Planas,” perfect for a daiquiri, and two rare single-batch rums meant for sipping “neat.”

Two other suggested rums for gift-giving come from much closer to home.

The Sebago Lake Distillery in Gardiner specializes in small-batch craft rums and Fernandes recommends its Spider Island Rum that the company describes as “molasses forward.”

Even closer than Gardiner is Gouldsboro’s Bartlett Maine Estate Winery.

Famous for its fruit-based wines and prize-winning pear eau de vie — all good drinking and excellent gifts — the winery also produces Rusticator Rum, distilled using organic molasses and aged in oak.

“It’s a good gift,” Fernandes said.

Neither Kempf nor Fernandes focused on the many craft beers brewed in Maine — there are at least four breweries in Hancock County alone — or hard cider, an increasingly popular drink pressed at a dozen or more Maine cider producers, often located on the farm where the apples are grown.

On its website, the Sow’s Ear Winery in Brooksville lists sparkling cider among its many liquid offerings and the website names more than a dozen Maine cider makers including the Maine Mead Works in Portland, producer of more than a dozen fermented honey-based meads.

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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