When I was a kid, part of the fun of Thanksgiving was drinking Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider out of a champagne flute and pretending to be a fancy grownup. Now that I’ve achieved grownup-hood (the jury is still out on the fancy part), I still enjoy the occasional glass of Martinelli’s. But I’ve changed. And so has Thanksgiving. Back in my innocent youth, the holiday wasn’t the minefield of political and cultural issues it’s since become. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. But tribalism nowadays refers to more than the Wampanoag who broke bread with the pilgrims. When you’ve got your #MAGA cap-wearing uncle and your cousin with a homemade “Warren In 2020” t-shirt on either side of you, fizzy apple juice ain’t gonna cut it. You need booze, and lots of it.
With that in mind, here’s a handy, Thanksgiving-themed compendium of spirits to help you and your loved ones survive the day. They’re all American, with a focus on New England. Many of them are made in an old-school, analog fashion that recalls, at least in theory if not in practice, the days of our hardy colonial forefathers. You’ll also notice several rums here, since pre-independence America produced — and consumed — a lot more rum than whiskey. Historical accuracy is not promised or implied in any way; I don’t think there were any distilled spirits at the first Thanksgiving. But these selections will all get you as pickled as you need to be. And they go great with a Thanksgiving dinner, be it a Butterball or a Tofurky.
LAIRD’S STRAIGHT APPLEJACK 86 (43% ABV, $25). If you’re seeking the spirit of Thanksgiving in a bottle, you’ve found it. Distilling booze from apples goes back to colonial times, and Laird’s, which makes the best-known apple brandy and applejack in the country, goes back almost as far, to 1780. “Applejack,” in case you’re wondering, means apple brandy that has been “jacked,” or had alcohol added after distillation. Applejack 86 stands for 86 proof, which was apparently the strength of the stuff pre-Prohibition. Today, it sits in between standard Laird’s at 80 proof and their 100-proof apple brandy. Anyway, none of the details matter when you take a sip. Sweet, tart, with lots of cinnamon and oaky spice as it glides throatward, it’s a beautiful evocation of fall. And it tastes pretty swell the rest of the year, too. You can have it on the rocks or substitute it for whiskey in various cocktails, but I prefer it neat, as a pre-dinner drink or a post-meal digestif.
THOMAS TEW SINGLE BARREL RUM (42% ABV, $40). Before America was the land of the free and the home of the whiskey distillers, it was known for its rum. And the center of the action during colonial days was Rhode Island. The whole independence thing (the British controlled many of the sugarcane-growing Caribbean islands) put the kibosh on the American rum movement, but now it’s coming back with a vengeance. Thomas Tew is the first made-in-Rhode-Island rum in more than a century, and it can hold its own with the best stuff coming from the Caribbean. Distilled from blackstrap molasses in an old-school pot still one barrel at a time, it’s a beautiful flavor combo — lighter vanilla and toffee notes; rich, dark molasses; and a dry earthiness that will surprise rummies who only know the sweeter, sugar-added stuff from Trinidad or South America. It makes a fantastic rum Old Fashioned — the perfect way to take the edge off before sitting down to dinner with relatives whose political views are diametrically opposed to yours.
VIRGINIA DISTILLERY CO. CIDER CASK FINISHED VIRGINIA-HIGHLAND WHISKY (46% ABV, $65). Virginia! Cider! Whiskey! Makes you want to put on a tricorner hat and toast the King, doesn’t it? The Virginia Distillery Company has done some interesting things with whisky sourced from Scotland, and they’re also distilling their own malts. Batch #1 of this whiskey was entirely Scotch, but this year it’s blended with their homegrown hooch, which is aged for a single year (very 18th century of them!). The blend is then finished in ex-cider barrels from a local cider producer for ten months. The result is top notes that are sweet, tart, and a little acidic, just like a crisp fall apple, underpinned by the dry maltiness of the whiskey. It’s surprisingly smooth given its tender age — I’m looking forward to trying this once it’s had a few more years in the barrel, but it’s already a great addition to the Thanksgiving table this year.
MAD RIVER MAPLE CASK RUM (46% ABV, $43). This Vermont-based distillery has been producing some mighty fine whiskey and rum for more than 1/20th of a century (since 2011, in other words), which actually makes them among the older craft distilleries in the U.S. I’m a fan of their standard First Run Rum as well as their sherry cask-finished PX Rum, but for this particular autumnal holiday, my tipple of choice is their Maple Cask. It’s First Run Rum, distilled from Demerara sugar, and finished in their own used oak barrels. The catch is that the barrels have been borrowed by a local maple syrup producer, who borrows them to age his syrup and then returns them coated with maple goodness. The rum absorbs some of that maple during the finishing process, and the results are delicious. It’s drier and less cloying than you might expect, with oak and a hint of smoke amongst the vanilla and butterscotch notes. Perfect for sipping neat or with an ice cube while arguing politics with various family members at the dining table. (If you’re looking for more maple action, pick up a bottle of Hudson Maple Cask Rye whiskey made by Tuthilltown Distillers in upstate New York.)
RICHLAND SINGLE ESTATE OLD GEORGIA RUM (43% ABV, $80). Georgia didn’t make it to the colonial party until 1733, but what the hell, that’s early enough for our purposes. Richland claims to be America’s only single estate rum — meaning the entire process, from growing the sugarcane to bottling the finished product, is done on-site. Distilleries are popping up so fast that there may be another one by the time you read this, but hey, Richland got there first. Richland is made with cane syrup instead of molasses, like a rhum agricole, and sure enough, it shares some of those vanilla-and-grass notes. But it’s also quite tannic and smoky, and it’s got an earthy funk that resembles a Jamaican pot still rum. In other words, it’s all over the map, but in a good way. A delicious way, even. It’s a hell of a sipper; at $80 a pop, it’s a little expensive for mixing, but its powerful, dry flavor would hold up well in a sweeter cocktail (dare I say Tiki Thanksgiving?). And if you’re feeling the late-fall chill after a day of stuffing yourself, a Richland hot buttered rum is a splendid idea.
CATSKILL DISTILLING CO. ONE AND ONLY BUCKWHEAT SPIRIT (42.5% ABV, $40). When is a whiskey not a whiskey? When it’s not distilled from grain. And surprisingly, buckwheat is not a grain, but a seed. So while you can’t call this a whiskey in the technical sense of the term (although its mashbill is 20% grain), it looks like one and it drinks like one... kind of. It’s quite sweet, with lots of vanilla, burnt caramel, and toasted marshmallow notes, but the sweetness is tempered by dry leather and tobacco, along with a bit of spice on the finish. It’s not a bourbon, it’s definitely not a rye, it’s... unique, is what it is. And it’s well worth your time, especially on Thanksgiving, when it matches up quite nicely with turkey and stuffing.
TWENTY BOAT CAPE COD SPICED RUM (47.5% ABV, $45). The Massachusetts-based South Hollow Spirits distillery makes dandy rums from a mix of cane juice and molasses, giving them a rather unique flavor profile. Their dark and light rums are worth trying, but the spiced rum really knocks me out. “Spiced” rum is usually synonymous with overly sweet, vanilla-heavy concoctions, useful only for diluting in cocktails. You’ll taste the vanilla here, too. But you’ll also get bite from cinnamon and nutmeg, a touch of bitterness from orange peel, and a beautiful fragrance which reminds me a bit of chai tea. Sure enough, there’s chai in the botanical mix, too. Unlike most spiced rums, you can serve this simply — on the rocks with a twist of lime or orange, for instance. And if you want to break out the Yuletide cheer a little early, it makes an amazing boozy egg nog.
SAMUEL ADAMS UTOPIAS BEER (28% ABV, $200). I’m not normally a beer drinker. But I’ll make an exception for this not-very-carbonated brewski that’s so boozy it’s actually illegal in more than a dozen states. This hoppy colossus has been aged up to 24 years in a variety of barrels, including aquavit and Moscat, and it comes in the coolest beer bottle I’ve ever seen. It will not pass the “does it taste like the Sam Adams I usually swig while prepping the turkey and watching the Lions on the tube?” test — if anything, with its bold, fruity flavor, it tastes more like a port or a madeira. But it’s absolutely stunning, both with the turkey or as a post-meal quaff. Utopias is a limited edition, every-other-year release, and each bottling is different. This year’s batch is limited to 13,000 bottles, but in the Thanksgiving spirit, share it with the rest of the table.
BARDSTOWN BOURBON CO. COLLABOR&TION - BRANDY BARREL FINISH (56.5% ABV, $125). This is from Kentucky, which falls a little outside the scope of my New England/colonial theme (the Bluegrass State wasn’t recognized until 1792), and it doesn’t harken back to any Plymouth Rock-era types of distilling. But hell, it’s a wonderful whiskey, and it’ll make a worthy addition to your bar on Thanksgiving or pretty much any other day. Weirdly enough, it’s the brandy which is Kentucky-made — at the Louisville home of Copper & Kings, one of the most exciting and groundbreaking distilleries in the state — while the bourbon was distilled in Indiana, at the mighty MGP distillery. But as they say, it ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at. And Collabor&tion is standing on the corner of Different and Delicious. The bourbon is finished in the brandy barrels for 18 months, giving it plenty of time to absorb the brandy’s round fruity notes — they accentuate the bourbon’s natural sweetness rather than fighting it. This is glorious stuff, great for any whiskey cocktail you can think of, but I’ll take it neat every time. At cask strength of 113 proof, it’s powerful enough to cut through a fat-laden turkey dinner, but smooth enough to not need water. And all that alcohol makes a good anesthetic for dealing with annoying family members.
BARDSTOWN BOURBON CO. COLLABOR&TION - BRANDY BARREL FINISH (56.5% ABV, $125). This is from Kentucky, which falls a little outside the scope of my New England/colonial theme (the Bluegrass State wasn’t recognized until 1792), and it doesn’t harken back to any Plymouth Rock-era types of distilling. But hell, it’s a wonderful whiskey, and it’ll make a worthy addition to your bar on Thanksgiving or pretty much any other day. Weirdly enough, it’s the brandy which is Kentucky-made — at the Louisville home of Copper & Kings, one of the most exciting and groundbreaking distilleries in the state — while the bourbon was distilled in Indiana, at the mighty MGP distillery. But as they say, it ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at. And Collabor&tion is standing on the corner of Different and Delicious. The bourbon is finished in the brandy barrels for 18 months, giving it plenty of time to absorb the brandy’s round fruity notes — which accentuate the bourbon’s natural sweetness rather than fighting it. This is glorious stuff, great for any whiskey cocktail you can think of, but I’ll take it neat every time. At cask strength of 113 proof, it’s powerful enough to cut through a fat-laden turkey dinner, but smooth enough to not need water. And all that alcohol makes a good anesthetic for dealing with annoying family members.