Corn Whiskey Done Right – Balcones vs. Preconceptions (Part 1)

For a long time, corn whiskey has been one of the least interesting forms of whiskey to me, being closest to the new makes and usually used to crudely approximate some sort of notion of moonshine. I don’t know that there’s much out there that’s quite as lame as an officially approved fake bootleg of something. Corn whiskey long was in this mental ghetto for me.

The most premium corn whiskey I’d had, if you could call it that, was Mellow Corn. Perhaps you’ve seen it staring out from the pages of one of those “n Whiskies You Need To Drink” books. It’s got an almost unnatural yellow hue to it, as if to scream, “I’M MADE OF CORN AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT!”

SERIOUSLY! I AM YELLOW!!

Don’t be misled – Mellow Corn is not a bad whiskey, it’s squarely in my “not to my taste” window, but almost pushing into the level of things I’d like to have on hand. It’s got a very light nose, hints of corn, a general strong and sweet presence – like what you’d get from white dog, but not quite as sugary and raw. There’s some white pepper on the nose and some wood, which gains strength and has a vaguely floral component.

The mouthfeel is thin and lightly woody; it becomes more thick after a moment. It’s lightly sweet, vaguely caramel-toned, but dominated by heavy sugar with a sprinkle of white pepper. The finish again has some wood and black cherry. The palate shows some white pepper and some heat, and is slightly vegetal, which is unsurprising.

Like I said: it’s not bad and it has more nuance than one might expect, but it’s still young and unrefined.

And I was content to leave corn whiskey in that spot for the longest time, until this summer I had an opportunity to sample a huge range of Balcones whiskey, courtesy of the distillery. This included the new make, Baby Blue, True Blue, Brimstone, and the TX Single Malt, in addition to some non-whiskey offerings – Rumble and Rumble Cask Reserve. I remember receiving all the whiskey and seeing a whole lot of very light whiskey. I was fairly unimpressed and thought I was in for yet another run of overpriced, underaged, substance-free craft whiskeys.

I’ve gotten away from reading whisky backstories anymore. I feel like they can taint a pure tasting experience or lead to preconceived notions. If I hadn’t read all the information about Glenmorangie Signet, would I have picked up on the darker chocolate and espresso type notes? I’m not sure that I would. Sometimes the stories are impossible to avoid (Jefferson’s Ocean Aged) due to the hype surrounding them, but I enjoy approaching every bottle with little information.

Sometimes, as with many craft whiskeys, it can be hard to understand exactly what’s going on – odd finishes, unusual matter used for smoking/peating the whiskey, etc. Reading about it after having had an initial impression can help bring things into focus for subsequent tastes if there’s confusion.

In this case, the extent of the story I knew ahead of time was “corn whiskey”.

A mental ghetto.

The first whiskey I had was the new make – presented as “Blue Dog”. This is not available as a product on the market currently, but I think it’s an interesting precursor to the rest of the line. I’m obviously not a huge lover of white whiskey, but it can tell us something about the whiskey before it ages.

The nose, unsurprisingly, was a strong new whiskey smell – vegetal sweetness, turbinado sugar, and corn husks. The palate, also unsurprisingly was sweet, with the vegetal sourness resembling damp corn husks on a hot day. The sweetness was strong, but not overpowering. Plenty of heat, but not out of line for a new whiskey.

The finish was warm but dried, with corn, a surprising flash of cinnamon, with a slight doughy/yeasty character that has a floral character – probably their yeast showing thorugh. There’s a nice texture and it resolves to a light, doughy, corn taste.

Honestly, as far as unaged whiskey goes, it’s one of the better ones I’ve had. I think of all the unaged whiskeys I’ve ever had, my favorite still is the High West Oat whiskey, but that’s also at a lower proof and the dilution likely helps smooth the edges. This has a much more dimensional character even new than most I’ve had, and the sweetness is more nuanced as well.

It’s a promising start, to be sure.

The next I tried is available – Baby Blue. Baby Blue, like the unaged “Blue Dog”, is made from blue corn which Balcones claims adds some nutty notes to the whiskey. The whiskey is then aged in “lightly charred” barrels.

The nose on Baby Blue is still young – it’s got more of a sweet corn presence to it, less edgy sugars, faint hints of wood and a little spice, and some slight vegetal tones. After a bit it opens up and shows a little more wood influence.

The palate was a surprise – more wood influence than I expected, with some gentle oak and a touch of cinnamon. There’s some sweet corn on the palate and faint vegetal notes – only slightly sour. There’s plenty of heat on the palate, which carries through to the finish. There’s corn upfront, cinnamon, an almost subliminal dose of cherry. Gentle oak and slight doughiness round out the finish.

I wasn’t expecting much from the nose, but the palate really takes off in an unexpected and pleasant direction. It’s young, but it’s already developing some more depth of flavor. This one exceeded my expectations.

The Baby Blue is also available in a cask strength version, True Blue. The nose on it showed corn sweetness with a touch of caramel and vanilla. It was a little sharp and almost had pine-like notes to it, as well as a low-grade malt-like character to it. It had wood, but not too much, and I noticed a bit of coconut – closer to coconut oil than fresh coconut.

The palate, as expected, starts warm and gains heat. Tons and tons of black pepper dominate initially with some chili oil. It’s a little woody and has a slight barbecue note to it. Sweetness provides a foundation with corn and caramel. Again, I detected a malty character and a touch of A1 steak sauce. (I don’t touch the stuff but I can’t forget the taste).

The finish is hot, black pepper and wood, with chili oil on the lips. It fades quickly and turns to slightly bitter wood.

Being a cask strength whiskey, it’s worth attempting some dilutions. I didn’t find the watering down to be very helpful in most cases; the nose started to seem like a subpar Irish whiskey – musty and piney. The body becomes more sweet with caramel and wood; fine enough but not as enjoyably nuanced. Finally, the finish does improve, but it’s a bit musty.

For me, I found True Blue to be a bit overproofed. It’s an interesting whiskey, but I think it needs time to settle in and let a dominant note emerge – to me it was like a young hyper-peated whiskey that hasn’t quite figured out what it wants to be.

Even with these three, I found some surprises. There was a lot more nuance to the flavor of these than most young whiskeys. I can only assume that cask management is great, and I know they’re starting with a high-quality distillate. The notes that come through on the unaged whiskey, especially in the finish, I think speak to a promising yeast selection as well, avoiding the harsher and almost grainy flavors left by some other yeasts.

Though my impressions had already started to change early in the tasting, there was plenty to go, and everything ahead is even more interesting. I’ll pick up the story of Brimstone, “1″ TX Single Malt, and some other interesting spirits in the next update.

At a glance:

Mellow Corn 50% ABV
Nose: 
Light; corn present as is a general strong sweet presence (similar to but not quite as raw as the more sugary punch of white dog), a light undercurrent of white pepper and some wood which gains strength, vaguely floral. 
Palate: 
Thin mouthfeel, light wood; mouthfeel becomes a little more thick after a moment. Light sweetness, vaguely caramel but heavily sugary. Light white pepper. 
Finish: 
More wood and a touch of black cherry. A little white pepper on the palate and some heat as it goes down. Slightly vegetal.
Comment: 
Not bad; clearly young. More nuance than you might expect.
Rating:
 C+ 

Balcones “Blue Dog” Unaged Newmake 62.3% ABV 
Unavailable Commercially
Nose:  Newmake. The usual vegetal sweetness you’d expect. Corn, light hint of turbinado sugar; corn husk.
Palate:  Sweet as expected; with the damp corn husk on a hot summer day vegetal sourness. Sweetness is strong but not overpowering. A fair bit of heat but not out of line for new make.
Finish:  Warm but dying down, corn, a touch of cinnamon actually, a bit of slightly doughy/yeasty character for a second which is lightly floral. Leaves a nice texture in the mouth after a minute – a lightly doughy corn taste.
Comment:  As far as white whiskeys go, this is one of the better ones I’ve had (I think I still prefer the High West oat one slightly). It’s a little more dimensional than other distillates and the sweetness has some nuance to it. 
Rating:
C 

Balcones Baby Blue 46% ABV
Nose: 
Fairly young still – sweet corn; a less edgy sugary presence; faint hints of wood and a little spice; a little vegetal note. Opens to have a little more wood.
Palate:  Surprisingly has more wood influence than the nose suggests. Gentle oak presence and a touch of cinnamon; still a sweet corn note on the palate and a faint vegetal note. Just slightly sour. Plenty of heat still. 
Finish: 
Heat initially with some corn upfront, then some cinnamon and maybe just a touch of cherry for a fleeting second. A little gentle oak, and it has a slight doughiness that can also be found on the new make. 
Comment: 
The nose leads in one direction, but the palate is different (and better). It’s definitely young, but it’s got some developing flavor. Much better than I expected. 
Rating:
C+ 

Balcones True Blue 62.9%
Nose: 
Corn sweetness on the nose with a touch of caramel and vanilla. Somewhat sharp and with an almost pine-like note to it. Also a low-grade almost malty character. Wood there but not strong. A bit of coconut? Closer to coconut oil than fresh coconut.  Water makes it smell like a subpar Irish whiskey – musty, with the pine note coming forward and going in the direction of Pine-Sol.
Palate:  Warm initially and gaining heat – tons and tons of black pepper, a little bit of chili oil. A little woody and with a slight barbecue note to it, but lightly so. Sweetness is a foundation here with a bit of corn and a bit of caramel. There’s a slight maltiness to the palate that I get at well. A touch of A1. Water doesn’t do much favor to this. Generally sweet, lightly malty, some caramel and wood with the chili oil peeking up at the back.
Finish:  Hot on exit. Wood with black pepper, chili oil on the lips. Fades quickly and turns to slightly bitter wood. Water helps a bit here but it’s still a bit musty (like the nose was with water).
Comment: Interesting but over proofed. I diluted and it seemed to fall apart. If this were another whisky I’d say it needed more time to kind of settle in and let a dominant note; it reminds me of some of the hyper-peated young whiskies that haven’t quite settled in.
Rating: C+

Give Thanks! Caol Ila and Dusty Bourbons

This is a quick update – I’m busy getting ready for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving feast. However, a quick pause is in order to give a little more color to a whisky I recommended in the Haphazard Whiskey Holiday Gift Guide. I’ve gotten a bunch of questions about the $130 sherried Caol Ila I mentioned in the import section.

It’s true, this is a really fun whisky and I’m kind of stunned it’s still available. I perhaps overstated the sherry influence; it’s there but it just adds dimension that might otherwise be lacking. The nose on it has a light smoke influence, nice orchard aromas with ripe Fuji apples, some denser red fruity notes, a little prune, some waxiness and some buttery richness.

The palate is light initially but gets that familiar oily, weighty Caol Ila presence. Some light, dry smokiness is balanced with waxy apples and gentle wood. Light, gentle peppery spice is there as is some pleasing lightly tart apple flavor.

The finish is the best part of this one. A little smokiness, slightly drying, and some nice rich fruitiness. Apple cider and some pepper zip give this heat and it’s got a lightly medicinal presence too.

It’s an immensely drinkable Caol Ila, a great show of age and a decent price.

Now, for the Dusty Bourbons. LAWS recently had a great bourbon meeting featuring all kinds of mostly dusty (really) old bourbons. Sku is covering this periodically for Dusty Thursdays and providing some more color on them. I don’t have a lot of insight to add to this one but thought I’d give general impressions. Full tasting notes on this are up at LAWS and you can compare the different opinions, which is what makes meetings like that fun.

Old Grand Dad reminded me of modern Four Roses – spicy, nicely woody but with a hint of that vanilla creaminess. Fairfax County seemed a bit marred by green woody notes. Very Old Fitzgerald – I’ve detailed a VVOF from the ’70s here. This was the weirdest SW I’ve had. A good deal darker in flavor, a little more nuance. Very interesting. As Adam says, I think Stitzel Weller dusties are a touch overrated but it was a lot of fun.

For me, the highlight was the President’s Choice, the first Brown Forman I’ve loved. I’m coming to peace with my love for easy-drinking 90 proof bourbons and this was right up that alley. Eagle Rare 101 from ’79 followed, and it was modern in profile by comparison, but just a bit dry.

Kentucky Vintage was an oddball wreck and I thought it was overoaked. It had so much wood on it that it started to almost seem peated at times – exceedingly weird. I’ve discussed Jefferson’s Ocean Aged earlier here.

There’s not much more to add; it was a fun night and worth sharing.

Update: Apparently there is something to add. David OG from K&L posted his recap of the night at the K&L Spirits Journal today. 

At a glance:

Caol Ila 1984 27y (Distilled 1-1984, Bottled 6-2011) 52.4% ABV
TheWhiskyBarrel.com Exclusive (Bottled by Douglas Laing)
Nose: 
Light influence of smoke, a nice orchard aroma with ripe Fuji apples, a little bit of denser red fruity notes, a touch of prune, lightly waxy and a touch buttery. 
Palate: 
Light initially but gaining some oily weight. Light dry smokiness balances with some waxy apple notes, a gentle wood influence. Light gentle peppery spice. Some pleasing light apple tartness as well. 
Finish:
Comment: 
Immensely drinkable, a great aged Caol Ila. The finish is really enjoyable. I wasn’t initially blown away by it, but the lighter cider notes just killed me and made me keep wanting more. That said, just a touch short of my personal A-range.  
Rating:
B+

Overhyped & Underrated

This weekend I finally had the opportunity to taste the single most hyped American whiskey of 2012 – the Jefferson’s Ocean Aged bourbon. This whiskey was immediately notorious among whiskey fans for its backstory, which was either a clever idea or the dumbest ploy to date to separate people from their money. The story, in brief, was that a few barrels of bourbon were placed on a research ship and were aged at sea. If you believe the story, the elements encouraged greater wood interaction and gave it a profile of an older whiskey.

Oddly, this all sounds like a familiar version of the usual refrain from microdistilleries (which Jefferson’s/McLain & Kyne are not, they’re an independent bottler) which is some variant of “we have found a way to cheat time by altering some variable regarding the aging process”. Such claims should be regarded with the same suspicion you should have when you hear about cold fusion or perpetual motion. That’s not to say that larger climate differences don’t play a role – bourbons are pushing into greatness in the 8-12 year range and are dangerously woody in the 15-17 year old range, while Scotch whisky is really great at 15-18 and tends to get oakier in its 20s. However, Kentucky and Scotland have definite differences in climate.

If that was all there was to Jefferson’s, it would have just been ignored. This bourbon, however, was limited. Like 250 bottles limited, which is a pretty shockingly small run for a bourbon batch – closer to a single cask scotch release, honestly. And the price tag? It hovered around $200 - if you could find it. Most people couldn’t. The hype naturally blew up on Twitter, and reached fever pitch when K&L had a spirits auction for it. I personally set my over/under line at $750, thinking it’d just barely crest that number given the level of the hype and how crazy people were getting (not to mention the “whisky bubble” factor this year).

I was wrong – dead wrong. It broke the $1000 mark. K&L did a good thing and donated $900 to charity (so don’t crucify them, they just held the auction – your fellow spirits aficionados are the knuckleheads who bid it up that high). Jefferson’s Ocean officially crossed into “bizarre curiosity” territory for me, but with that kind of value on it I didn’t have much thought of ever trying it. Until, as I said, this weekend rolled around.

The actual Jefferson’s bottle we had – photo by Bino Gopal.

So what does aging at sea do? As best I could tell, not a lot. There were light rye notes initially, but then I got a very standard modern bourbon profile with sour, somewhat vegetal aromas on the nose and some lightly woody undertones. There were light hints of raw sugar as well.

The palate was light and a little thin, with faint wood notes, again the slightly vegetal sourness, a bit of corn sweetness, some turbinado sugar, brown sugar, and a touch of cinnamon. The finish opened up a bit and had some light black cherries, more turbinado sugar, a more straightforward cherry note (verging momentarily on Luden’s cough drops), and had an even later faint hint of peanuts.

Jefferson’s Ocean Aged was, to put it simply, very unremarkable.

For me, that’s a very unsurprising result to this ultra-hyped whisky. To be totally frank, it tastes like a very anonymous younger bourbon. I’ll give some benefit of the doubt to the micro-climate-aging and say the Evan Williams Single Barrel was what jumped to mind on when I had this. Good but by no means great – and absolutely NOT worth a thousand dollars.

So, on one hand there’s that, which blew the whiskey world up. On the other hand, we’re in the fall which is traditionally Pappy-and-Buffalo-Trace time. Already my traffic is spiking with searches about Pappy availability. If you hit this post wondering if Pappy or Stagg or Weller or any of the others are available near you, I don’t know. Make friends with your local liquor merchant, they’ll know better and it’s a relationship worth having if you are tracking hyped and limited releases.

But seemingly under the radar and ignored by the mass audience is the absolute best bourbon of 2012 – the Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition for 2012. I’m going to make this hard for me to find any future bottles, but it’s worth spreading the gospel: this is hands-down the best bourbon of 2012.

Start your spending.

This version of Four Roses is a mixture of four whiskies – the 17 year old OBSV that I loved so much earlier this year, an 11 year old OBSV, a 12 year old OBSK (also a great, spicy recipe) and a 12 year old OESK (a higher-corn mashbill). It’s about $75 though some people will no doubt gouge a bit on it. Unlike the boat bourbon, this is worth it.

The nose on the Four Roses has nice spices up front – fresh black pepper, a little cinnamon, some nutmeg in the background. There’s some clay earthiness but it’s balanced by some prominent wood. Caramel, a little fudge, and some molasses add a nice sticky depth. Mint and cedar give some top notes and there’s some corn at the center of it.

The palate has a wonderfully thick, almost syrupy mouthfeel, leading with wood and then building. A sweet, lightly vegetal (in an entirely pleasing way) corn body with accents of cherry and hints of oranges. It’s momentarily a touch salty, balanced with caramel sweetness and a little hint of apples hiding in the back.

The finish leads with wood, unsurprising with the 17 year old bourbon in the mix, black cherries and cinnamon, and it lasts and lasts. It’s a rich, strong finish with a vegetal hint to it that really works well when held as a counterpoint to the sweetness and wood. A little waxy apple emerges as it dries.

The Four Roses Small Batch 2012 LE is everything you’d want in a premium-priced bourbon: ridiculously complex yet totally accessible, full bodied and not overproofed, sweet but not cloying.

And in spite of all of this, everyone’s going to be freaking out about Pappy as usual this year. It’s a shame, because they’re missing out on one of the best.

At a glance:

Jefferson’s Ocean Aged Bourbon 41.15% ABV
Nose: Light rye notes initially, but then a very standard modern bourbon profile with sour, somewhat vegetal aromas and some lightly woody undertones. Light hints of raw sugar as well.
Palate: Light and a little thin, with faint wood notes, again the slightly vegetal sourness, a bit of corn sweetness, some turbinado sugar, brown sugar, and a touch of cinnamon later in the palate.
Finish: Opens up a bit with a light dose of black cherries, more turbinado sugar, a more straightforward cherry note (verging on Luden’s cough drops). Later faint hint of peanuts.
Comment: Very unremarkable.
Rating: C+

Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition – 2012 55.7% ABV
Nose:  Nice spices up front – fresh black pepper, a little cinnamon, some background nutmeg. A little mix of clay earthiness, but there’s some prominent wood. Caramel, a little fudge, some molasses. A little mint and a cedar aroma too. Corn at the heart.
Palate:  Thick and syrupy mouthfeel, a little wood leads and then continues to build. Sweet, lightly vegetal (in an entirely pleasing way) corn body with a little cherry accents, some hints of oranges; slightly salty for a moment; caramel sweetness and a little hint of apples hiding.
Finish:  Leads with wood, black cherries and cinnamon, lasts and lasts. Very rich and strong finish; a hint of vegetal character that really works well when held as a counterpoint to the sweetness and wood quality. A little hint of waxy apple as it dries faintly.
Comment:  Ridiculously complex but totally accessible, full bodied and not overproofed, sweet but not cloying, probably the best bourbon all year.
Rating: A-

The Haphazard Whiskey Holiday Gift Guide

This week while running errands, I saw plenty of stores with Christmas decorations already up and checkout stands looking more harvest-inspired than a week go. Unsurprisingly with Halloween now past, all eyes focus on the end of the year. As I think about making the wish list for my son, I recall the conversations I had with several friends this summer about a simple bottle buying guide.

Instead of mining the ever-more-ridiculous topic of overpriced official and independent bottlings, I thought I’d take some time and lay out a few whiskey buying suggestions. Hopefully those of you who have whiskey lovers in your life (or just like it yourself) will find this guide helpful.

Generally speaking, I’m staying within the realm of “should be available at a good liquor store” and not trying to stack up a year-end-best list with all kinds of bottles that everyone is going to be fighting for.

American Whiskeys
For many, this is the alpha and omega category of whiskey. Others believe that American whiskey is inferior to Scotch for any number of reasons, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re stylistically quite different, but premium bourbons can stand alongside any premium whiskey in the world. Here are a few worth checking out:

Affordable Pick ($25 and under): Old Weller 107. A wheated bourbon, Old Weller 107 can show a lot of classic sweet flavors of caramel, maple syrup, light wood influence, traces of orange and some light pepper. A great sipper and mixes well too. Usually about $25.

Upmarket Pick ($50 and under):
Four Roses Single Barrel
. This is commonly available in a gift pack around this time of year with two glasses and a 750mL bottle. There’s no reason not to get it – it’s the same phenomenal 100 proof OBSV recipe that’s in the usual single barrel bottle. This recipe of Four Roses is a little more spicy than some bourbons, though not enough to be too extreme. Four Roses seems to be able to balance spice with an incredible creamy, vanilla taste and texture, and I’ve always thought this standard Single Barrel does it extremely well.

For those who aren’t fans of spicier bourbons, Woodford Reserve can be a winner (I’m not particularly fond of it) but the consensus pick still seems to be standard Woodford and not the Double Oaked – I’d agree with that as well.

I also think Blanton’s Single Barrel is great in this category. All of these are within 10 bucks of $50.

Other Options:
High West Rendezvous Rye - one of High West’s very best offerings, a mix of an old rye and a slightly younger rye, this brings a good dose of rye flavor with some wood and a floral characteristic as well.

Balcones Brimstone
– Corn whiskey that’s been smoked and aged in full-size barrels. Quite possibly the best whiskey produced by a smaller American producer. It’s very smoky (very smoky!) so it’s not for everyone. However, it’s a great mix of smoke and chocolatey flavors. Both around $50.

Scotch Whisky

Affordable Pick ($50 and under)
Glenlivet 15 year French Oak – a very nice, vanilla sweet Glenlivet single malt. Miles better than the 12 year old option, the 15 is a perfect companion to desserts or just for relaxed sipping by the fireplace. I wouldn’t use the word “challenging” to describe it, but I would say “really enjoyable”. (about $40)

Clynelish 14 – A terrific, bold and character-heavy single malt, with a pleasingly waxy character that comes to dominate older Clynelishes. Underrated and a great value in the ever-more-expensive single malt category. (about $50)

Compass Box Great King Street Artist’s Blend – A waxy profile on this blend (likely from Clynelish), with a lighter character and some fruitiness that you get from blends. One of the very best blends of the last couple years. (about $40)

Upmarket Pick ($125 and under)
Glenfarclas 21 - A great single malt with plenty of age on it, while not feeling tired or overoaked. A little pleasing spicy tingle; again, a whisky that could be sold for much more than they’re asking for it. ($120)

Ardbeg Corryvreckan – For smoke and peat lovers, this is one of the greats of Ardbeg’s range. Plenty of smoke and tar, with a little bit of malty and vanilla sweetness behind it. Frequently overlooked in favor of Uigeadail or the latest limited release, Corryvreckan is still a treat. ($90)

Rest Of The World
Yamazaki 12, from Suntory, is a fairly reasonably-priced Japanese single malt that’s a reliable crowd-pleaser. A nice mix of white pepper and tons of vanilla, it’s got body, complexity, a little sweetness and a character that’s just a bit different than your standard pick. (about $45)

Redbreast 12 Year Old – beloved by many fans of Irish whiskey, with a more oily, substantial presence and more developed flavors than your average bottle of Jameson or Bushmill’s. Among Irish whiskey aficionados it’s a recent favorite.

Off The Beaten Path: Import Choices
If you want to get something for a US drinker that’s not available here, you can get some interesting picks from the UK. Generally speaking, The Whisky Exchange, The Whisky Barrel and Master Of Malt are my favorite dealers.

These are sold in pounds so the prices may fluctuate, and be sure to budget for shipping. That said, I’ve never had any problems with any of the three.

Yellow Spot Irish WhiskeyMy favorite Irish whiskey to date. A mix of three casks types and twelve years of maturation. A great, honeyed, well-developed Irish whiskey. Limited run, available overseas only, and a real special treat. (about $80)

Caol Ila 27 Year Old For The Whisky Barrel - a sherry-matured Caol Ila. This is again for the lover of smoky whisky, though in this case it’s mixed with some sweetness and fig flavors courtesy of the sherry. Bargains like this don’t come around often and it’s a limited run. (about $130).

The Whisky Advent Calendar – Who knows what’s in here? Hard to say. 24 individual 30ml pours (slightly less than an airline bottle), which is about as much as a standard bottle of whisky. Master Of Malt says one of the pours is a 50 year old single malt that normally sells for about $550. Not bad! The set sells for about $240 and is one of the most fun ideas I’ve seen.

Everything Else: Decadent Splurges And Fun Gifts

My list begins with Macallan 18 – practically shorthand for the midlevel premium single malt. While this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how expensive single malts, this is the black tie malt. It’s timeless, always appropriate, and will be appreciated by the recipient. Aficionados will doubtless argue the relative merits of this compared to previous years, but let’s be honest: Receiving a $140+ dollar bottle of whisky as a gift is a rare occasion. Perfect for a loved family member, a boss who you want to impress, a hardworking employee, or just a quiet no-pressure gift for yourself.

Glenfarclas 40y is the most expensive item on this list, coming in in the neighborhood of $450. Yes – it’s a LOT to pay! There’s no question. But perhaps for the right person, or if you simply have plenty of disposable income, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime gift. It’s the most reasonably priced, high-quality official bottling from a major distillery.

On the other end of the spectrum, Old Pulteney again has a neat holiday gift. Last year they were packing their 12y offering with two Glencairn glasses for less than they would cost to acquire individually. This year they’ve got two small bottles packed together with their 12y and 17y whiskies. This is about $40 in Southern California.

Finally, though this is not as common, it can still be found. Compass Box has a five-whisky tasting set of their blends packaged in a neat wood presentation box. The whiskies are individually bottled in long tubular vials – it kind of looks like a chemistry set! It has the five core whiskies of Compass Box’s range of blends: Oak Cross, Spice Tree, The Peat Monster, Hedonism and Asyla. This is a fun way to let someone taste multiple whiskies without committing to a full bottle, and as I said, the sampler set has a really cool presentation. This is fairly variable in price, but I’ve seen it for as low as $40 and as high as $75 so we’ll split the difference and call this one roughly $60.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but if I were to shop for someone or if I were looking for suggestions when I was starting out, this would be what I’d wished someone had led me towards.

Happy holidays! Remember, there’s more to holidays than the Pappy Hunt or the Diageo Chase. Enjoy the time with friends or family!