Have Yourself a Boozy Little Christmas


Holiday gift bottles

This is another in a series of columns for the North Coast Journal called The Drunken Botanist. Book by the same title coming in 2013.


Several years ago, at a family Christmas gathering in Sacramento, my brother-in-law served the pie and asked if anybody would like a drink to go with it. There was a pot of decaf going in the kitchen, so I asked him for a coffee with Bailey’s. He gave me an odd look.  “Are you sure?”

Was I sure?  Well, it wasn’t my house, and maybe I was being a bit presumptuous. I’d scanned the liquor supply earlier and decided this was the best postprandial option on offer.  “Um—yeah,” I said.  “Is that okay?”

He shrugged and nodded and disappeared into the kitchen. He came back a few minutes later and presented me with a cup of coffee spiked with one dried leaf.

 “What is this?” I said, pulling the dead organic matter from my mug.

 “Didn’t you want a coffee with bay leaf?”

 Ah, the merriment that ensued! Every family gathering needs a charming anecdote to get us through the evening.  The offending leaf was tossed, my coffee was topped off with Bailey’s, and since then, every year, my brother-in-law has presented me with a bottle of Bailey’s and a jar of bay leaves at Christmas.

And I love it.

 A bottle of booze is really the perfect gift for a drinker.  It’s a consumable item, which means you’re not cluttering up their house for long. It’s inexpensive: even if your budget is limited, you can come up with something luxurious that they might not otherwise buy for themselves. And it shows that you were thinking about them. There’s nothing like a picture frame/scented candle/coaster set to say, “I don’t really know who you are, and I guess I never will.” Those meaningless gifts are responsible for the sort of lonely, miserable, empty feelings that come over some of us at the holidays and drive us to drink.  So why not skip all that and go right to the drink, eh?

 To create this list of holiday gift bottles, I’ve set a maximum budget of $40, which also means you’ve got some reasonable options for hostess gifts. Oh, and one handy tip:  Give your liquid offering to the lucky recipient well before Christmas morning and encourage them to open it right away.  Finding yourself surrounded by bottles of liquor and wrapping paper while you’re still in your pajamas on December 25 is just weird.

Gin:  St. George Terroir Gin. Inspired by the flora of Mt. Tamalpais, our brilliant friends at St. George in Alameda have created the ultimate slow (not sloe) gin: a bright botanical blend of Douglas fir, California bay laurel, and coastal sage. This is the gin everybody’s talking about this year. It’s a gardener’s gin.  A treehugger’s gin. A locavore’s gin. Pair it with a small bottle of dry (white) Dolin vermouth and one timid suggestion, if you dare: Try your Terroir martini with a lemon peel, not an olive.

Vodka:  Tito’s Handmade Texas Vodka. This vodka’s made of corn, y’all, and it’s as good as everything else that comes out of Austin. It’s won all kinds of awards and accolades from critics. But all you need to know is that this is a genuinely tasty vodka.  Forget that crap about filtering vodka eighteen times to make it quote-unquote smooth. This is made in an old-fashioned pot still just like whiskey is, and it’s meant to be savored.  I’ve never understood the rationale behind a vodka martini, but to those of you who do, I say this:  Order a vodka martini with Tito’s, and you’ll never look back.  

 Tequila: Gran Centenario Rosangel. I tried this at a fancy tequila tasting in Tucson, and I didn’t realize at the time that I was drinking hibiscus-infused tequila. (The rosy color should have tipped me off.)  Had I known that, I probably would have turned my nose up at it. Who pollutes tequila with flower infusions? Good thing I didn’t know what I was drinking, because it freed me up to fall in love. Rosangel is for sipping, not for slamming down your gullet or mixing into margaritas. It’s smoky and only faintly floral and really beautiful.  

Whiskey Pendleton 1910 Canadian Rye.  That’s right, I said Canadian rye. I don’t care whether you drink Scotch, bourbon, Irish whiskey, or anything else brown and aged in oak, you are going to dig this rye—which, by the way, is distilled in Canada but bottled in Oregon at Hood River Distillers. It’s aged for a glorious twelve years, and during its long and happy marriage to the barrel it loses all its rough edges and takes on a kind of vanilla/tobacco/maple wonderfulness that you really have to taste to believe. This is pushing the upper end of our price limit, but it’s an astonishingly good value for the money.

Liqueur Coole Swan Irish Cream Liqueur. Your grandmother will like this.  Your toddler will like this.  [Don’t actually give this to your toddler—Ed.] It’s like Bailey’s, only better.  White and sweet and creamy and wonderful.  Or, if you prefer the fruity side of sweet, get any of the fine fruit liqueurs made from Portland’s Clear Creek Distillery.  Blackberry, loganberry, cranberry, pear, cherry—they’re all made from real, fresh fruit, and there’s not a dud among them. They’re tasty by themselves and they work in all kinds of cocktails. Even the non-boozehounds will pour them over ice cream and be oh so happy.

The Assortment:  A dedicated cocktailian would love an assortment of unusual bitters from Fee Brothers, Bittermens, or The Bitter Truth. They would also be charmed by a collection of stocking stuffer-sized miniatures that allow them to mix that one cocktail they’ve never had the right ingredients for.  Dozens of options are available at larger liquor stores, and they’re priced right for any budget. Give it a go.   


  1. I’m inviting a firestorm on myself but I’ll voice a reaction that’s been getting more pronounced over the time I’ve been reading (and mostly loving) gardenrant.

    Why do you write about alcohol and your alcohol consumption here? Could you tell me what it has to with gardening?

    I drink moderately and don’t have a problem with others drinking. I’m not a purist about this blog having to be only about gardens, gardening and gardeners.

    But my questions stand and I am genuinely curious. Am I the only one who wonders?

    Marie Tulin

  2. I wish you had included some Mid-Western distilleries. How are those of us east of the Mississippi supposed to enjoy your recommendations?

  3. For Marie, the article was written for journal drunken botanist so botany, gardening go together? What the heck, time of year to celebrate! Happy holidays everyone.

  4. For those who want ot make their own bitters or liqueurs or cordials, the book The Herbal Kitchen by Kami McBride is wonderful. I don’t drink alcohol but do use herbs and I’m tempted by her recipes.

  5. Marie, I’m only a commenter and can’t speak for Amy or the bloggers here, but I will say that all alcoholic beverages have their origins in plants. All of them (wine is a good example) depend on a plant, it’s varietal, the season it’s grown in, how it’s grown, where it’s grown etc. It’s just as relevant as things from the garden that are canned or juiced or processed in other ways. What’s great about this blog is that all aspects of gardening are written about, including what is done with the harvest.

  6. From Marie,
    Responses noted.I’ll just continue to skip the booze articles. All I need is an occasional vodka and tonic in summer after a hard day at work, and the ability concentrate on my balance so I don’t fall over while I’m weeding. mt

  7. Hi everybody,

    Sorry to be away from this conversation for a few days–but yes, here’s the deal: My next book is called THE DRUNKEN BOTANIST, and it’s all about the connection between booze and plants. As with any book, there are lots of little out-takes and odd bits of information that don’t fit into the book, so to that end, I started writing a cocktail column for my local alt-weekly, the North Coast Journal. And I’m posting that column here every month when it comes out.

    Some of the columns I’m writing are more plant-related than others. This one is only vaguely plant-related (gin made with bay laurel and California sage?) but others lean more in the plant direction.

    More on the new book in the new year!



  8. For those in the midwest I would check out Death’s Door white whiskey and they also make gin. Some of the ingredients are grown on Wahsington Island which is just off of Door County Wisconsin. Beautiful stuff!
    To me nothing better than after an afternoon or evening of gardening/weeding/other gardening activities than to sit or walk around and admire my work with a beer or wine or even a Pimms cup!

    Can’t wait for the Drunken Botanist book!

Comments are closed.