All I Want for Christmas Is a Good Dram

Times are tough, so now's the perfect time to indulge in a little soothing whisky

The economy is officially in recession. But that doesn't mean that the holidays aren't coming. Nor does it mean that people have stopped enjoying their favorite tipple.

In fact, sales tracking by drinks giant Diageo (DEO) shows that what drop-off in sales there has been at bars and restaurants is pretty much being made up by retail purchases as people drink more at home to save money. Also, people are trading down within their brands to make up for the lost bonus—maybe passing on the 20-year-old whisky and grabbing the 10-year.

Sales trends show continued strong demand for vodka and whiskies. But there is also growing interest in tequila. Distillers continue to spice up the shelves with premium and super-premium blends, specially aged offerings and almost any wrinkle they can find to stir up interest, and charge a few extra bucks.

Not all the new products are worth the fancy prices. But many are, and make excellent gifts—to yourself or someone else.

Scotch Whisky

Scotch whiskies, especially single malts, continue to be in big demand, so much so that distilleries are making their first big investments to expand production and storage in 20 years. Thanks to the global demand of the past decade previously shuttered distilleries, like Ardbeg and Bruichladdich, have roared back to life. Others that have lived mostly a back-stage life as an important ingredient in big brand blended whiskies, like Ardmore, are now marketing their own branded singe-malt to meet demand. Meantime, some of the venerable mainstays of the top shelf, like Oban, are so popular they are on allocation in most countries.

Glenmorangie, which is distilled in Tain, Ross-shire in Scotland and is owned by luxury congolmerate Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH), has just released Signet, a $175 super-premium that carries no age statement. That's because some of the whiskies from this Highland distiller are undoubtedly younger than 10 years. But the recipe includes an uncertain amount of malted chocolate in the barley mash that gives Signet a unique depth.

On the other side of the age spectrum is Diageo's Talisker 30-year-old. This limited-run product (fewer than 3,000 bottles) sells for about $340 and must be special-ordered as it's awfully tough to find except in big-city whisky specialty stores. Talisker, of course, is somewhat special at any age as it is the only distillery on the Isle of Skye. Another Diageo property, Oban's newly released 18-year-old, is a spicy and pleasantly dry expression with a faint but pleasant iodine tinge that runs $150. If you can track it down, you might also consider the Brora 25-year-old, a limited run from the closed Highland distillery that packs a complex taste profile of toffee, oak, citrus, and a touch of wood ash.

Brora was closed in 1983 because of the recession, and today its buildings are used as warehouses and as a visitor center for its still-active sister—the Clynelish Distillery. Brora whisky has been bottled as a single malt whisky by several independent bottlers. It's not hard to find, but prices are increasing. At around $300, it makes a nice collector's whisky.

Macallan, one off the steadiest of the Speyside distilleries, offers its 30-year-old for around $825. But, I would also have no problem receiving the 18-year-old for $145. Smoky, spicy, with a streak of sherry, it has a delicate nature that I appreciate on a cold night. For more regular imbibing, the Macallan 12-year-old, priced around $49, is an excellent choice.

If your gift recipient likes a strong dram, and relishes cask-strength, you can hardly do better than Aberlour A'bunadh, which has become my hands-down favorite cask-strength expression. At 120-proof, it has a spicy dose of sherry and wood. A touch of water opens it up, but I can't bring myself to mitigate the grab-you-by-the-collar greeting of the stuff. About $80 a bottle.

On a stricter budget? My picks for the best under-$60 single malts that pack sophisticated tastes are Glenlivet Nadurra 16-year-old and The Macallan 18-year Highland Single-Malt finish-aged in Sherry casks.

On the blended-whisky side, I recommend Dewar's Special Reserve 12-year-old for $38. The distiller, which is owned by Bacardi, issues a limited run of this expression every year. The blend of whiskies is "married" up for a time in oak barrels, where the flavors have additional time to harmonize and the whole expression develops added smoothness. If the recipient is really deserving, pair the bottle with Aberfeldy 12-year-old, $34, the single malt that is the heart of Dewar's blended whiskies.

Irish Whiskey

If the people you are buying for drink Jameson, then you could impress them with a bottle of Jameson's Gold. A handpicked selection of old Jameson whiskey—which is owned by Perond-Ricard (PERP), matured in oak casks for 10 to 20 years. Complex and lovely. Honey and apple notes. And a touch of smoke. It is a good value, too, at $65.

Jameson 18-year-old Limited Reserve is also worth the premium. A blend of exceptionally matured whiskeys, ranging from 18 to 23 years of age, this older blend has fruitier notes than Jameson's other vintages and blends, with notes of butterscotch, orange, and even apricot. For Bushmills drinkers, you can't go wrong with a bottle of Black Bush. Priced around $28 to $30, it is slightly deeper, smokier and oilier than regular Bushmills.

If your budget is higher, then consider giving your Irish drinker Bushmills single-malt, $60. Its nuttier character is a malt that is part of the Bushmills blend. If your shop has Connemara Single Malt, take a chance and introduce your Irish whiskey drinkers to a brand they may not have had before. A bit grassy, with a chocolate overtone, and priced at about $60, it has an interesting structure. Redbreast is a 12-year-old blended, highly rated and an interesting alternative, at $42, to the ubiquitous Jameson and Bushmills labels.

Japanese Whisky

In an episode of M*A*S*H, "Hawkeye" Pierce and "Hotlips" Houlihan are languishing at an aid station, under enemy fire. Pierce pulls a bottle from his knapsack described as "Japanese Scotch," about which Houlihan remarks, "How good could that be?" Putting aside that there is no such thing as Japanese "Scotch," if the bottle was the Yamazaki 12-year-old, it would be a delight. This honey-like, pleasantly woody whisky from Suntory is the most readily available Japanese brand. At about $46, it is a welcome addition to the whisky library of anyone who collects from different countries, or just enjoys a good whisky.

Suntory's Hibiki, which was chosen as best blended whisky for the second straight year at the World Whiskies Awards, a competition hosted by Britain's Whisky Magazine in April, is also a worthy gift. But you may have to resort to buying it online or at duty-free. The 30-year-old can be $800 to $900. It is special. But for more modest budgets, plunk down $90 to $100 for the 17-year-old—spicy and bold, but refined into a sophisticated dram. The trouble you go to will impress the recipient.

Canadian Whiskey

Crown Royal has been busy spinning new expressions out of its storehouses. Crown Royal Cask No. 16 is a bit of a misnomer in that it is not a single-cask whiskey. Instead, it is a blend of 50 different whiskeys that are married up in cognac casks made from French oak. (The "16," we're told, comes from a stamp on the casks indicating their place of origin.) Very smooth, with distinctive vanilla and apricot notes, it works well served neat or with a single ice cube. Price: $100.

Crown Royal XR Extra Rare is certainly packaged to impress, and priced that way too. For $180, XR gives you a spicier mouth feel with shades of rye and Bourbon. Why rare? It's made from blending whiskeys that were saved from the Waterloo Distillery, which burned down.

Crown Royal Reserve, formerly known as "Special Reserve" is blended from just 1% of the company's whiskey stocks. Not surprisingly, the taste notes are a little bolder and spicier than Crown Royal's flagship expression. A bit of dried fruit and cinnamon notes stand out. For gift-giving, it even comes in a gold velvet bag. At $45, it's a relative bargain for a classy pour like this.

Canadian Club is seeing a bit of a revival of interest since Jim Beam Brands—a subsidary of distilling giant Fortune Brands (FO)—began putting the first advertising campaign behind the venerable brand in two decades. While the flagship product is a solid shelf brand, you might consider the Canadian Club 30-year-old if you can get your hands on it (there are only 3,000 bottles on the loose). At $175 to $200, a bottle of this limited run 80-proof whiskey should impress, and would be an excellent gift for a regular CC drinker or one who keeps a library of whiskeys from different countries. I can't recall drinking a Canadian Club expression that wasn't smooth, and this is no exception.

American Whiskey

Jim Beam released a limited quantity of "The Distiller's Series" premium collector's bottles. The latest release, aged seven years, is characterized as a "new recipe." At $20, it is a bargain for a special edition that also tastes great. Heaven Hill just released the 14th annual edition of its Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon; this time the 1999 vintage. As with the previous 13 vintages, each bottle of the '99, priced around $26, is marked with the date it was placed in oak and bottled, as well as the serial number of the single barrel from which it was drawn.

Let's say you know a serious Bourbon Drinker. My new favorite is George T. Stagg, the limited-edition label distributed by Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Ky. And my pour of the moment is the 141.8-proof edition, which retails around $65. It is a blanket in a bottle, but with lovely vanilla and toffee notes shining through.

Another recent discovery is Bulleit Bourbon. Distilled in Lawrenceburg, Ky., this 90-proof spirit purports to be reborn from an 1830s recipe of the original. Copper-colored with a high rye content, it's smooth and a bargain at around $25. It also comes in a cool apothecary-style 750-ml. bottle. For fatter wallets, you can impress your Bourbon drinker with Wild Turkey Spirit 101, a single barrel expression of the bird for $85. Distiller Jimmy Russell picks the barrels himself, and there's hardly a better judge. It offers a more layered taste than Wild Turkey's flagship brand, and a longer finish.

Rye is on the upswing in retail sales and at bars. Don't get me wrong. It is still a tiny slice of the American whiskey scene. Jim Beam and Heaven Hill can make enough rye to satisfy a year's worth of demand in two days, up from one day a few years ago. But one of the most interesting products to hit my in-box in the last few months is Jim Beam's (ri)1. Between the too-hip-for-the-room name, the modern bottle and the $48 price tag, I was prepared to be bored. Instead, I kept going back to the bottle. A bit of honey and then the spice that is the hallmark of rye, it has a clean straight-forward finish. The hip package makes it ideal for giving someone a cocktail shaker and a bottle of bitters to go with it.

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