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.
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.
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.
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 Whiskey – My 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!