Spectacular spirits for the season of entertaining

Our spirits writer Neil Ridley looks back at some of the year’s most spectacular spirits releases – spanning whisky, cognac, rum and tequila – as thoughts turn to gifting and celebrating

Mount Gay rum, one of Neil Ridley's spirits of the year
Mount Gay rum
(Image credit: Courtesy of Mount Gay)

As the gifting season begins to shift up a gear alongside the festive celebrations (see our Wallpaper* gift guides), it’s given me a chance to think back about some of the real highlights from a year packed with stupendous spirits releases. So whether it's an innovative tequila or cognac, a landmark Japanese whisky or a truly remarkable Scotch single malt that you’ve set your sights on, we’ve well and truly got you covered.

Remarkable spirits worth celebrating this year

Whisky: still very much THE spirit of 2023

whisky bottle and glass and case

Hibiki whisky

(Image credit: Courtesy of Hibiki)

With both rum and tequila sales on the up, and a much wider array of connoisseur-led, super-premium bottles out there – whisky is still very much at the top of the spirits tree when it comes to refinement and luxury. This year saw the 100th anniversary of Suntory, the founder of Japan’s incredible success story in the world of whisky, and celebrate it most certainly did, with a documentary created by acclaimed director Sofia Coppola, starring Hollywood icon Keanu Reeves.  

The occasion also saw the release of several landmark bottlings, including the reintroduction of Hibiki 21-year-old: a blended Japanese whisky, skillfully crafted by chief blender Shinji Fukuyo, using whiskies from the Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita distilleries. Hibiki has long been held in high regard by whisky connoisseurs, thanks to its exceptional balance and this 21-year-old is extraordinarily complex, with notes of fresh fruit, wafts of incense, soft peat smoke, oaky spices and rich sherry notes, giving you a whisky truly like no other.  

£995 thewhiskexchange.com

Festive spirits round-up

Ardbeg The Rollarcoaster

(Image credit: Courtesy of Ardbeg)

Over on the west coast of Scotland and the Ardbeg distillery on the island of Islay -  (a real mecca for the single malt purists)  celebrated its very own landmark release with Rollercoaster,  a highly limited edition set of two vintages, which marked the changing fortunes in the history of this now iconic Scotch whisky. In 1981 the distillery was closed down –  its fate unknown – until the stars realigned and it was reopened in 1989, eventually ending up in the hands of its current owners, the LVMH group. Very few casks from this era remain and whisky maker Dr Bill Lumsden and his team have selected both a 42-year-old whisky – the last filled before its closure – and a 33-year-old to represent the tumultuous rollercoaster ride.

Both vintages are notable for their uncharacteristic ‘lightly-peated’ style (as opposed to Ardbeg's usual pungent smokiness) and demonstrate incredible complexity and diversity: soft waxiness, a touch of light citrus and a beautiful delicate creaminess, as well as orange fondant, gentle woodsmoke and a hint of cracked black pepper. 

£85,000 per collection ardbeg.com  

Tequila: a continued success story

Festive spirits round-up

El Cielo by Patrón

(Image credit: Courtesy of Patron)

The rise of super-premium tequila brands is nothing short of staggering, with the category now in full flight, partly thanks to the growing number of celebrity-endorsed partnerships: with everyone from George Clooney to Kendall Jenner getting in on the action. However, long before this, Patrón set the benchmark for a new appreciation of the spirit, with its multi-award winning 100 per cent blue agave Silver, Reposado and beautifully aged Extra-Añejo expressions educating drinkers in just how exquisite tequila can be. In July 2023, the brand released El Cielo, a new four-times distilled blanco-style tequila, designed primarily for sipping over ice, which delivers a surprisingly complex, herbaceous citrus/spiced note alongside a well-rounded, smooth mouthfeel.   

£170 BBR.com. Also available at Selfridges.com and Harveynichols.com

Rum: the next major spirits trend

Festive spirit round-up

Hampden Estate 8 Year old

(Image credit: Courtesy of Hampden)

Given its versatility in cocktails, it’s easy to see why we can’t really have enough rum, especially a lightly aged version in a freshly made Daiquiri or El Presidente. This year saw some outstanding rums arrive in both the light (seek out Clarin – a rum only made in Haiti,) and more premium, dark rum categories (including the phenomenal Hampden Estate 8 Year Old, £59.95 thewhiskyexchange.com) helping to cement its place as arguably the spirit of 2024.

Leading the way is Barbados-based distiller Mount Gay, which launched its inaugural Single Estate release, focusing on the natural terroir of the sugar cane grown locally to the distillery. This first batch celebrates molasses from 2016 and 2017 harvests, giving the resulting rum a wonderfully nutty complexity, with swathes of vanilla, mango, passion fruit and fresh citrus notes, alongside a warming oaky spice.    

£340 hedonism.co.uk

Cognac: innovative times for a global classic

cognac and barr

Grand Champagne Cognac, matured in Japanese Mizunara oak casks

(Image credit: Courtesy of COURVOISIER)

With Cognac being arguably the perfect festive fireside spirit, it's no surprise that there are plenty of options to explore at this time of year: from delicate, more floral and honeyed VSOP expressions such as Frapin (£56.75, masterofmalt.com) to darker, richer and spicier XO styles (Hine, £149, drinksupermarket.com) and small batch exclusives (Jean Fillioux Lot 92 Grande Champagne Cognac, £135, thewhiskyexchange.com).

However, if you’re looking for something completely different altogether then seek out the 2023 Edition of Courvoisier’s highly regarded Mizunara Cask Cognac. A passion project collaboration for cellar master Thibaut Hontanx and Suntory’s Shinji Fukuyo, this is a highly innovative blend of Grand Champagne Cognac, matured in Japanese Mizunara oak casks, which are famed for imparting wonderfully aromatic incense notes into a spirit. The results are spectacular: well-rounded, spicy and rich, with a charismatic waft of floral incense-led top notes.

£2,250, thewhiskyexchange.com

Neil Ridley is a London-based, award-winning drinks writer and presenter.  He is the co-author of eight books on spirits and cocktails including Distilled, which is now published in 14 different language editions. For the past eight years he has also served as a drinks expert on TV show Sunday Brunch on Channel 4