Holiday Spirits for Whiskey Lovers

Retailers and marketing firms report a slight softening of whiskey sales as a result of the current economic malaise. But most of that decline seems to be in sales to bars and restaurants. Whiskey lovers are still drinking their favorite pours at home, and would especially like to receive those tall, skinny, wrapped boxes during the upcoming holiday season. Click here to see 10 recommended whiskies for $50 or less. (A note on spelling: In Scotland, "whisky" is spelled with no "e." Everywhere else it's "whiskey.") A recent amble through the Malt Advocate's WhiskyFest in early November in Manhattan turned up several terrific gift ideas for the dram lover. First, a word about giving whiskey. The whiskey lovers I know typically keep themselves stocked in their core brands. If you know what your lucky recipient drinks, I wouldn't recommend just getting them a bottle of that brand's flagship, such as Dewar's White Label or even the excellent Macallan 12-year-old. While they'll appreciate it, it doesn't show as much thought. Instead, if your budget allows for it, get them a pricier, hard-to-find, or otherwise special or new expression of their favorite brand. By doing so you not only give them something they are sure to appreciate—or, who knows, something they may like even better. For drinkers who like Japanese whiskey, Yamazaki has been pretty much the only game in town until now. Just introduced to the U.S., though, is Hibiki, a blended whiskey from Japanese drinks giant Suntory. The 12-year-old version, $55, is the only expression of this brand sold in the U.S. One of the single malts used in the blend was aged in plum liqueur casks. It is also filtered through bamboo charcoal. Those uniquely Asian characteristics make it a distinct pour in its own right, not a Japanese mimic of Scotland's product. The Macallan, of course, is one of the largest single-malt distilleries in Scotland, and one of the busiest when it comes to keeping the shelves fresh with new expressions of their whisky. The latest is the 1824 Collection—three limited-supply whiskies, which are available exclusively through duty-free channels in airports worldwide. So, if you are traveling, do some shopping. blessings from seasoned barrelsThe Macallan 1824-Select Oak is a reflection of the marvelous work being done, especially in the Highlands, with different barreling. Select Oak, priced at $65, is a blend of different whiskies that have been aged in different barrels—American bourbon barrels, American oak barrels seasoned with sherry, and first-fill European hogshead oak casks seasoned with sherry—and then married up before bottling. The result is a medium-sweet whisky, with lovely overtones of vanilla and butterscotch. The Macallan 1824—Whisky Maker's Edition, priced at $96.50—is a whisky made expressly from malted barley grown on Macallan's own estate. The spirit is then aged in American bourbon casks and sherry seasoned oak. There is no age designation on any of the 1824 Expressions. But they don't need them to communicate smoothness. The Estate Reserve is nutty and smooth, and tastes like the whisky is aged between 7 and 12 years. If your whisky drinker favors peaty, smoky drams, think Ardbeg. If the intended recipient already has an Ardbeg, such as the 10-year, whose cap they like to unscrew, get them Ardbeg's new Supernova, priced around $140. Jim Murray, author of The Whiskey Bible, just rated it "Scotch Whiskey of the Year." The smoke in this whisky stays on your tongue an hour after drinking. If you can't find it, pick up Ardbeg Corryvreckan, 114-proof, $85. Corryvreckan's taste notes: over-ripe oranges, bitter marmalade, and hot-buttered toast. Another great choice for peat lovers is Talisker's 18-year-old, which is not only a great pour but old enough to make an impression ($75). Compass Box's "Peat Monster," $46, is also a welcome addition to any peat lover's shelf, and has a fun name to boot. Many distilleries have been playing about with finishing their whiskies in wine, sherry, and port barrels. If you have seen a lot of interest in these at your gift recipient's bar, then pick up a bottle of Glengoyne Glenguin 16-year-old, finished in Glenguin Shiraz casks ($96). Glenmorangie's Sonnalta is another great choice. Chosen as Murray's "Best New Scotch Brand," it is the first of Glenmorangie's new "Private Collection" line of whisky, available only in duty free. Bill Lumsden, master distiller at Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, is arguably the best whisky finisher in Scotland in terms of his choices of barrels. Sonnalta, with no age statement and priced around $70, is finished in Pedro Ximenez (PX) sherry casks. Benrinnes 23-year-old is a single-malt finished in sherry casks that also caught my nose and would be a nice find under the tree for those appreciating the grassier, more honey-inspired whiskies made from grains grown near the River Spey. irish sleepersFor drinkers of Irish whiskey, there are an increasing number of single-malt expressions hitting the shelves. Yet so many of the Irish whiskey drinkers I know are unaware of this because of the dominance, I think, of Jameson, Bushmills, and Michael Collins blended whiskies. Here is where you can score on creativity by introducing something unique. Try Knappogue Castle Irish single-malt, $38.00—crisp, slightly grassy, and floral like a good Irish-blended whiskey should be, but with a more intense flavor. Clontarf single-malt, $30.00, is sweet and earthy. And Michael Collins Single-Malt, $45.00, is a slightly peaty expression with notes of floral and cocoa. Complex, full-bodied, and a very good value. Among new blended offerings, Dewar's Founder's Reserve, an 18-year-old that sells for around $90, has finally made its U.S. debut after many years of forcing fans to stow it in luggage on the way back from Europe. Very smooth and buttery with vanilla, strawberry, and even rhubarb taste notes, it would be a unique gift for a confirmed Dewar's fan. Another fine gift for such a drinker would be a bottle of Aberfeldy 26-year-old, single-malt ($160), or the 12-year-old, $42, which is the principal single-malt whisky in Dewar's Blended Scotch. Another great choice this year for blended fanciers is Ballantine 17-year old, which Murray recently named "Best Blended Scotch of the Year." Priced at around $100, it's a premium price for a scotch with an under-appreciated reputation in the U.S., but worth it. For Canadian whiskey drinkers, I'd get Crown Royal Cask 16, $80 from Diageo (DEO): a blend of 50 different whiskies that are then brought together to age in old cognac casks made from French oak. Another choice for this crowd is Crown Royal XR Extra Rare, $180, a blend of bourbon and rye characteristics with notes of vanilla, with a creamy finish. The XR was crafted from whatever rare whiskies Crown managed to save when the Waterloo Distillery in Ontario burned down in 1993. rye on the upswingRye has been taking off in the U.S. with bartenders, who like its spicy taste notes for mixing new cocktail recipes. If your gift recipient has been mentioning rye, I'm willing to bet they only have one brand on the shelf, so this is a chance to demonstrate particular thoughtfulness. Murray surprised many by naming Sazerac Rye-18-year old as his top pick for the world's best whiskey. It was priced at $65, but Murray's rating has been jacking up prices. At the high end, locate a bottle of High West Rocky Mountain Rye (Batch #2, 21-year-old, $130.00). A relatively new distillery, High West, has been blending stocks purchased from other distillers until its own is ready to unleash. But it is smooth and lovely nonetheless. At the somewhat lower end, pick up ri-1, a really solid recent offering from Jim Beam at $45.00. Balanced and spicy and my go-to rye for Manhattans, the concept (soon there will be ri-2, and so on) will be a hit, especially with the younger cocktail drinker set. Think of its as rye for Gen Y. As rye is on the upswing, I'd recommend introducing bourbon drinkers to Bulleit Bourbon, $30, if they haven't tried it yet. The small-batch bourbon has more rye content than any other, and is developing a significant following. It's a bourbon for the in-the-know crowd, and comes in a pretty nifty apothecary-style bottle that makes a nice presentation. For more traditional bourbon drinkers, let me heartily recommend Parker's Heritage Collection, a blend of whiskies from Jim Beam that marries up whiskies from each of the last five decades. Complex and oaky, with notes of candied citrus: $150. For Wild Turkey drinkers, you can't go wrong with a bottle of Tradition, $100. Aged for 14 years in extra-charred barrels and bottled at 101-proof, it will make drinkers' eyes gleam when the wrapping comes off. And even if the bourbon drinker in your life isn't an Evan Williams drinker, I'd still be tempted to buy them Evan Williams Single Barrel 1999 vintage, $30. A terrific expression at a great price. Not every holiday gift for the whiskey drinker has to come in a bottle, though it is highly recommended. One alternative to a pourable gift is 99 Drams: The Accidental Hedonist's Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink, by Kate Hopkins (St. Martin's Press). At $19.95, her book is highly a literate saunter through whiskey—Scotch, American, and Canadian—via historians, pub owners, distillers, and corporate executives, with useful tasting notes on numerous brands. And then there is always a subscription to the quarterly Malt Advocate for $14, with a gift certificate to an upcoming "WhiskyFest," where tickets range between $120 and $160. Click here to see 10 recommended whiskies for $50 or less.

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