The Best Lunar New Year Gifts
It’s hard to explain how important gifts are across various Asian cultures. No guest would ever dare to cross the threshold of an Asian home on a holiday without a platter of food or a bottle of something strong, sweet or bubbly peeking out of an extravagant gold bag.
Gifts of spirits play prominently in my memories of Lunar New Year. On the first day of Seollal, or Korean Lunar New Year, I would sneak into the kitchen and inhale the aromas of tall piles of just-fried golden mandu dumplings, sesame-scented platters of japchae with spinach and carrot and giant bowls of steaming rice cake soup flecked with seaweed. Though the food varied every year, there was one constant at our Lunar New Year—the strong scent of Johnnie Walker Black wafting from glass tumblers on a low rosewood table.
Although Seollal is traditionally a family holiday, my immigrant parents were separated from their extended families, so they celebrated it with the only family they had: a tight-knit group of friends from their Korean church who loved to drink. Every Sunday, my parents’ social circle of doctors, professors and restaurant owners sat in their church pews, prim and pious, nodding their heads at the fiery preacher’s sermon reminding us Jesus died for our sins. Come 7 p.m., though, ensconced in the sanctuary of our home, they belted out Johnny Cash’s “Personal Jesus” on our karaoke machine and ate and drank like heathens, fêting their successes and drowning their failures over food and drink. As soon as my mom filled the soju glasses, there wasn’t a dry mouth in the house.
I found these celebrations amusing, bewildering and especially tiresome when I had school the next day. After these 20-odd friends drained a few bottles of Johnnie Walker and even more of Chamisul soju, they’d throw their arms around one another, singing “Arirang” and calling to bring out the “jechigi,” the Hacky Sack-like Lunar New Year kids’ game. Inevitably, eyes would water for a homeland that was changing as rapidly as flowing water. At that age, I couldn’t presage that those drinks would someday serve as crucial bridges between me and my ancient homeland in celebrating Lunar New Year—that tasting makgeolli, a beverage my farming ancestors brewed, just felt and tasted right.
While the specifics on Lunar New Year celebrations differ from family to family—admittedly, many are far more chaste than my parents’—it is customary to show up to the festivities with a gift. A special bottle of spirits or wine often does the trick (especially if paired with a cash-filled red envelope, mooncakes or a large basket packed with oranges and pomegranates).
To determine what bottles make for the best Lunar New Year gifts, we tapped a range of industry pros, so you’ll be ready to impress come February 10. From AAPI-owned brands to classics—yes, Johnnie Walker included—here’s what beverage and hospitality insiders suggest.
Kikori Rice Whiskey
Many Asian households stock several bottles of decent whiskey, but only a select few hold fine Japanese whiskies like Kikori Rice Whiskey, an AAPI woman-owned brand made with Kumamoto rice. Caer Maiko, veteran bartender and co-founder of Daijoubu: A Super Asian Cocktail Pop-up, appreciates that this whiskey is gentler on the palate, while still packing a flavor punch.
“A more wine-focused drinker can find notes they love in it because it’s a lighter style of whiskey, but the Sherry and French oak barrels used are quite impactful,” Maiko says.
Total Wine & More
Oka Kura Japanese Bermutto Sake Vermouth
Sharon Yeung, who co-founded Daijoubu with Maiko, recommends both the dry and sweet iterations of Oka Kura, a Japanese sake vermouth.
“It’s super fun to make it a combo gift with a favorite gin and a bottle of Oka Kura Bermutto (this is their standard and dry style), or a bottle of whisky with their Oka Kura Sweet Bermutto, so people can mix their own martinis and Manhattans at home,” Yeung suggests. “Since the Gibson is one of my favorite cocktails, I really love the addition of an Asian pickle for a savory martini kind of vibe.”
Want to punch it up? Yeung suggests bringing the Japanese Bitters’ Umami Bitters to make cocktails at the dinner.
Astor Wines & Spirits
Northern Rhône Syrah
You’d be remiss to forget that it’s the Year of the Dragon, and that in the year ahead, fortune will favor the bold. That’s why Nikita Malhotra, head sommelier at Pressoir in New York City, doesn’t shy away from strong choices for Lunar New Year events, like a Cornas from Julien Cecillon or Franck Balthazar.
“The savory, spice and fruit notes all come together quite well and in a balanced way, but what made me choose Cornas was that it is the darker, more gutsy version of Syrah from the Northern Rhône,” she says. “The meatiness and the subtle unfurling of smoke brings about images of dragons in the night sky.”
Red wine is a popular pick for Lunar New Year, Malhotra says, because red is a lucky color in several Asian cultures. Don’t forget to find a vintage ending in eight—the 2018 Cecillon Cornas does the trick.
The Rare Wine Co.
Kapena Li Hing Infused Tequila
If you want to bring something unique, or if you’re celebrating with Hawaiians, this spirit possesses a familiar yet novel taste. Khamphone Jot Voraphaychith, whose Village Ghost brewery creates Lao rice wine, suggests gifting Kapena Li Hing Infused Tequila, a spirit that blends 100% agave and the salty-sweet, dried Chinese-Hawaiian plum powder called li hing mui. That salty-sweet flavor plays nicely in margaritas and cocktails, but it also stands alone nicely, whether neat or on the rocks.
“You may have had li hing mui if you’ve had various Hawaiian dried fruit snacks or candy,” Voraphaychith says. “Kapena’s li hing mui infused tequila gives off a velvety smooth vanilla flavor ending with a lingering li hing mui sweetness.” Take your pick of three flavors: the aforementioned Li Hing Mui infused, chili infused or the Kapena Silver.
Ming River Sichuan Baijiu
“For me, there is nothing more synonymous to the Lunar New Year celebrations than firecrackers, red envelopes and baijiu,” says Philip Ly, lead bartender and beverage director at General Lee’s Cocktail House in Los Angeles. “Growing up, our household was filled with generations of family members, all with food-stuffed smiling faces socializing throughout the night. Red-cheeked adults gossip at the table drinking baijiu out of unusually tiny little drinking vessels.”
Ly enjoys Ming River’s version of the clear and potent Chinese spirit for its bright, fruit forward character, which he says makes it the perfect cocktail ingredient and makes for an easy baiju introduction for newcomers. The distillery’s tried-and-true chops—it’s over 400 years old—appeal to seasoned baijiu enthusiasts, but the chic bottle and branding also appeal to the younger generation.
Total Wine & More
Hennessy X.O x Yang Yongliang
The family of Dan Q. Dao, culture and food writer and founder of District One Studios, loves Hennessy as much as mine did Johnnie Walker, and these limited-edition bottles honor the Year of the Dragon with aplomb.
“Likely a holdover from the French colonial era, Cognac is seen as a luxury good and status symbol in modern Vietnamese culture,” Dao says. “Growing up in a big Vietnamese family, I always saw Hennessy poured at weddings and parties—a bottle on every table.” Showing up at a Tết dinner with either a showstopper gold X.O. or lucky red V.S.O.P. bottle festooned with dragons by artist Yang Yongliang is a party starter, for sure.
“A bottle of X.O. is sure to be a crowd-pleaser for Vietnamese aunties and uncles,” Dao says. “A pleasantly smooth-sipping option with all the requisite brandy notes of butterscotch, toasted caramel and candied orange peel, it’s a safe bet for gifting since it appeals to the palates of both newcomers as well as experts. That warming finish of spicy cinnamon and oak is also welcome during the cold winter months.”
2022 Aligoté from Cho Wines
Bailey also likes the Aligote by Cho Wines in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, run by Oregon’s first Korean-American winemakers Dave and Lois Cho. You’d be welcome at any party with their pét-nats or classic Pinot Noir in hand, but the Aligoté offers more texture than the Chardonnay, along with “truly unique aromatics,” Bailey promises. Plus, it pairs well with whole fish, often served on Lunar New Year tables.
Magnum of Beaujolais
More is more on Lunar New Year, according to June Rodil, master sommelier and CEO/partner at Goodnight Hospitality in Houston, Texas. She recommends a magnum of Beaujolais for the holiday of prosperity.
“To truly embrace the spirit of ‘more’ in 2024, reach for a wine that goes above and beyond,” she says. “Nothing screams ‘I care’ like a magnum-sized bottle. It’s not just about the wine; it’s a statement of generosity and togetherness.”
A light and fruity wine strikes the perfect balance with oftentimes complicated-to-match Lunar New Year menus, Rodil says. “With its deep layers of umami, Beaujolais is the ideal companion for the table and won’t overpower the delicate flavors of fish and vegetables, yet it’ll stand its ground with the bold spices and hearty meats.” Opt for Marcel Lapierre, Foillard, Mee Godard, Guy Breton and Charly Thevenet—you can even go the extra mile by seeking out a wine from the 2012 vintage to commemorate the last time we welcomed the year of the dragon.
Hart & Cru
A Bonus Bottle:
Korean makgeolli may have started as a humble farmer’s spirit, but finding a small-batch, American-made bottle of this milky, sweet, effervescent rice wine at the Korean grocery store can be a challenge.
“Makgeolli is not only a delicious traditional Korean spirit, but this particular brand is being produced by a small, Korean-owned microbrewery right outside L.A.,” says Dustin Lee, co-owner of Jilli, a Korean bar in Los Angeles. “Bringing makgeolli is the perfect way to add a touch of Korean culture and tradition to the Lunar New Year festivities.”
Lee says he’ll be bringing bottles of Los Angeles-made Angma makgeolli with him to parties and dinners. While it can be hard to track down—it’s only sold at a handful of brick-and-mortar spots in California—this small brand is well worth the effort. “It’s such a versatile beverage—it’s naturally carbonated and pairs well with a lot of dishes, like tofu kimchi, steamed tofu with stir fried kimchi and pork belly. It’s the perfect way to add a touch of Korean culture and tradition to the Lunar New Year festivities.”
Published: January 23, 2024
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