Fire, arguably the most important naturally occurring phenomenon after fermentation. Over Christmas these two marvels come together in a pairing as essential as the baby Jesus and a manger. Many of us will slip away from the family mayhem to stare into the flickering flames and contemplate the year gone by, and if this applies to you, you’ll need a decent dose of neat spirit for the occasion. Whether burying a tricky year or smugly nodding to a one of celebratory delight, nothing lifts spirits or slaps you on the back like a tumbler full of strong booze.
Here then are our recommendations for the perfect fireside sips, the drinks that will help you asses where everything went wrong in 2017, and take you across the Rubicon into the New Year.
Selecting one single malt for the fireside can be a challenge. Do you temper the temperatures of your flame licked nylon sweater with something soft and sweet from the Speyside set? Or match the sooty hearth with a punchy peaty, smoke-driven Islay? To help you navigate, we recommend the Diageo Special Releases. All of them. The tasting set enables you to work through the entire selection (£524.95 from Master of Malt) but sipping all during one fire-side approach isn’t advisable – we always implore you drink less, but better. So, if we’re jabbing our poker at the red-hot embers of this collection, we’d turn the coal of the Lagavulin 12-year-old (Whisky Exchange, £88.85), which pairs nicely with any damp logs on the fire. A smoky aroma and palate, as is characteristic with the distillery, it also delivers a stunning sweet oily note, with a pepper heat to finish.
We heartily recommend you give armagnac a try this year. We’ve always argued that cognac is for export, but the sneaky French really fuel their own festive fun with this stuff, and would probably revolt if you thought about sticking it on your pudding. Château du Tariquet is a worthy advocate for a fireside musing, simply due to the extraordinary family history. Over a century, the various Tariquet family ordeals have blended the perils of bear taming with bayonet injuries during world war one, not to mention a love affair painfully divided by the Atlantic and escapes from WWII prisoner of war camps, which should make any of your own festive feuds seem trifling. The Château du Tariquet XO (£48.89, Master of Malt) is a remarkably priced spirit, and a worthy fire side companion. The Bas-Armagnac region from whence it hails is as prestigious as Cognac’s Grand Champagne, and has a sandy and silty terroir producing lighter spirit. But thanks to a minimum of 15 years in oak, this XO takes that and builds a rich chocolate character with some warm winter spice and coffee.
If you’re fireside reminiscing of 2017 leaves a bitter taste, sweeten the teeth with some rum. One of the richest rums available is the Venezuelan Diplomatico Ambassador (£199, Whisky Exchange) which arrives in a bottle that can stand with true authority on any mantel piece. It’s a 47% spirit, so assertive, but the alcohol is far from overpowering, and with a blend of discerning pot-still rums aged for a minimum of 12 years, in both ex-bourbon and Pedro Ximinez barrels, it delivers nutmeg, cinnamon and sultanas, evoking all the flavours you want at this time of year.
Your pose as twisted fire-starer could possibly be a little crouched if you’re approaching the coals post-Christmas lunch. Best then the battle any over-enthusiastic portions of brussels sprouts with a historic after-dinner digestif. Amaro, Italian for bitter, is a botanical blend of herbs roots, fruits and spices, originally engineered to tackle tummy trouble. These botanicals can be macerated in a spirit, neutral, brandy or wine, sweetened and rested in oak, but can range in alcohol levels, anywhere between 16%abv and 40%abv. A lower alcohol drink is a wise change of pace at this stage, so try the Cocchi Vermouth Amaro (£26.45, Whisky Exchange), which at 16% sports a flavourful vermouth base. More specifically, this is an aromatic Barolo Chinato, the ‘wine of the kings’ from Piedmont, which has an infusion of quinine, orange peels, cloves and rhubarb root amongst other botanicals. The flavours are intensely fruity and mildly bitter and with a rich mouthfeel it’s like a warm, spicy spirit but with the ABV of a strong wine.
Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham are the Thinking Drinkers, award-winning writers and performers who will be hosting their comedy drinks tasting The Thinking Drinkers’ History of Alcohol at the Museum of Comedy in London from December 12-23. Each member of the audience sips five different drinks as the show explores alcohol’s influence on human history. Tickets and details here: www.thinkingdrinkers.com