Invoking the Christmas spirits 

The holiday season stirs up many emotions in people, feelings that are as vast and varied as the different holidays we celebrate: love and giving, family bonds, spiritual reflection — not to mention stress, anxiety, loneliness and utter misery. What sort of holiday token best transcends these oft-conflicted human tendencies? Is there a gift that’s universally appropriate for nearly every person of every nature?

Why, of course, silly. Booze!

That’s right. From grandma’s eye-watering eggnog to svelte, tinkling champagne glasses to the requisite office party shenanigans, ’tis the season for libations. An artfully stocked home bar will guarantee a successful holiday party, and a nicely wrapped bottle of premium liquor is a timeless classic — the fail-proof gift that keeps on giving.

A trip to the fancy-schmancy party store can be intimidating and perplexing, however, given the seemingly endless rows of elegantly sculpted bottles and exotic imports. Thus, we at Metro Times have taken on the onerous duty of sampling and rating some classic spirits, as part of our diligent dedication to your needs, dear reader.

Our Hunter S. Thompson-style guide to gift giving was spearheaded by staff writer Lisa M. Collins, our listings editor (and former bartender) Eve Doster and yours truly. The taste-testing journey began at Wood-Ruff’s (212 W. Sixth St. in Royal Oak; 248-586-1519), the quintessential romantic little nook, and the ideal atmosphere for sampling some of the classier spirits on the market. Wood-Ruff’s resident expert, manager Rick Gianasi, has a long and seasoned career in fine liquor and tending bar that spans 20 years.

Gianasi began with a critical discussion of vodka, his personal favorite drink, and his pick for the best safe bet as a gift. To test our vodka savvy, Gianasi gave us a blind taste test akin to the Pepsi challenge, using three vodkas: Absolut, a popular favorite, and Chopin and Belvedere, two high-end Polish vodkas. I’ve been a staunch advocate of Belvedere for years, championing the vodka as my ultimate favorite — and humiliatingly enough, I was unable to correctly identify it. Gianasi says this occurs about 99 percent of the time when he administers the blind tasting to customers and recommends the test to anyone who wants to try out a new brand of their favorite liquor.

Lisa, Eve and I all agreed that each of the three vodkas in the test was superb, even the Absolut, which some may view as too common for a gift. Gianasi also recommended Vox vodka as a gift, particularly for its aesthetically appealing bottle, which was designed by an artist who also creates French perfume bottles.

For those who prefer a more unique approach to gifts, Gianasi offered a simple way to create your own personalized vodka. Pick your favorite fruit — Gianasi recommends raspberries, cherries, oranges and honeydew melon — pour the vodka and fruit into a container, soak for four days, then remove the fruit and, voila, your own personally infused liquor. Eve came up with the idea of purchasing some elegant old glass bottles frequently found in antique stores to house the personalized liquor creation.

Up next: after-dinner drinks. Gianasi first presented Chambord, a powerfully sweet raspberry liqueur. “It’s perfect to pour on ice cream, or you can add a drop to champagne, if you have guests who don’t normally like the taste of the dryer champagnes,” he said.

Our breakdown ratings:

Lisa: Wow, that’s really sweet. Raspberry overload.
Sarah: I like it, but I can see how it could be too sugary for some.
Eve: It would be good on ice cream, but it’s too sweet straight.

Next we tried B&B, Gianasi’s favorite winter drink, which he says “warms you up.” This was an across-the-board winner.

Lisa: It’s spicy and warm, but has a little bite. Perfect!
Sarah: This is definitely a cozy drink for a romantic night. I love the warm feeling.
Eve: This would be a perfect after-dinner drink. It’s classy, but not too harsh either.

In summary, our best picks: Chopin vodka, Belvedere vodka and B&B liqueur.

Phase two of the testing took place at Gusoline Alley (309 S. Center St., Royal Oak; 248-545-2235), and our resident liquor experts consisted of barkeeps Patrick Tierney and Patty Pearson.

When queried for gift ideas, Tierney recommended Baileys Irish Cream and Kahlua. Given their versatility, the creamy liquors can be used in coffee and desserts, and a bevy of exotic concoctions.

For sampling purposes, we started out with Goldschlager, a strong peppermint schnapps festively flecked with tiny bits of gold — the resulting aesthetic appearance being very “Christmassy,” according to the consensus. The flavor, however, was debatable.

Lisa: Very nice and strong cinnamon flavor. With the gold flakes, it would look lovely wrapped in a big red bow.
Sarah: Gak! This is about as subtle as shoving a stick of Big Red up your nose.
Eve: (Refused to sample based on previous traumatic experience.)

Since Gus’ is known as a scotch and whiskey bar, we decided to sample some of the popular scotches. Seeing as I’m not a “scotch woman” by any definition, I left the brunt of objective criticism to Lisa and Eve.

Scotch #1, single malt — Glenfidditch

Lisa: It’s a bit dry, but nice.
Sarah: (sputters and gags uncontrollably)
Eve: It’s kind of oakey. It’s not bad, but not my favorite scotch.

Scotch #2, blend — Johnny Walker Black

Lisa: This has a stronger flavor and a richer smell.
Sarah: (sputters and gags uncontrollably)
Eve: This is my favorite of the two. This would be nice with soda.

For our final sample, Tierney offered us something a bit gentler, the hazelnut liqueur Frangelico.

Lisa: Yummy! You just can’t go wrong with this. It’s perfect.
Sarah: This is my favorite! It’s sweeter than the B&B, and buttery and rich and delicious. This is perfect for sipping after dinner.
Eve: I don’t like it straight, but maybe in coffee. It’s too nutty for me.

Pearson then offered her favorite use of Frangelico, a drink called the “Vanilla Monk,” composed of equal parts Frangelico and Vanilla Stoli vodka. Pearson said the drink is “classy, tasty and easy to make,” and can be served in a martini glass with a chocolate olive for an elegant presentation.

Upon tasting, we all agreed, and decided to make the Vanilla Monk our favorite pick of phase-two sampling. Pearson commented that a bottle of the two liquors, along with a nice set of martini glasses, would make a perfect holiday gift.

In summary, the Gus’ picks were Baileys Irish Cream and Kahlua, Frangelico and Vanilla Stoli vodka.

Very late the next morning we all decided that, when you’re wrapping your special package-liquor gift, you should include a bottle of Advil and another of Evian — just to be on the safe side.

Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at sklein@metrotimes.com

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