Your Holiday Spirits Guide Part Three: Whiskey
If I had to gamble, I’d bet on there being more whiskey changing hands this year than any other spirit, perhaps all other spirits combined. It is a vast, evolving, and occasionally overwhelming category that offers a seemingly endless sea of gifting potential. From tiny American craft distillers to long-lived Scottish single malts, there is a whiskey out there for everyone. You just have to find it (which can be a pretty fun search).
The big, burly 114 proof chief of Jim Beam’s Small Batch line celebrates its 25th anniversary with a special bottle that ups the stakes. Made from whiskey aged between 9-11 years and with proof ranging between a massive 121-130 (approaching George T. Stag levels), Booker’s 25th is everything you expect from bourbon and then some. An absolute beast in the very best sense of the word.
Seattle’s Westland occupies ground somewhere between craft and macro distilling, but rather than worrying about how to classify them, concentrate on picking up a bottle of their single malt whiskey. Young but mature, with big malty flavors. Westland is an example of how to do everything right. Westland won the Washington State Distillery of the Year in the 2014 NY International Spirits Competition.
Few Spirits Rye ($60)
Few Spirits products exist in the rarefied air, the top tier of what small American craft distillers can do. Their rye whiskey -- made with 70% rye, 20% corn, and 10% barley -- is an endlessly drinkable meeting of rye spice and corn sweetness. This is a young spirit that has tamed all the potential pitfalls of being young. Add to that a bottle that looks like it should have been an art deco building, and you have one hell of a good gift rye.
Wild Turkey Forgiven ($50-55)
While it’s doubtful that Wild Turkey would (and would continue to) “accidentally” mix bourbon and rye stocks, the resulting whiskey is simply delicious. Made of 78% six-year-old bourbon and 22% four-year-old rye end up tasting like a glass full of slightly spicy Cracker Jacks.
A youthful but well-balanced and unique whiskey made from 100% organically grown NY state wheat and distilled in Brooklyn. Vanilla, maple, and citrus, with little in the way of the harsh edges one expects from a young spirit. For a long time, Breuckelen was just a two-person operation, but those two people worked wonders with this one. Bronze medal winner in the 2014 NY International Spirits Competition.
Although overshadowed by their neighbor in Lynchburg, Dickel is the best Tennesee whiskey has to offer, and the Barrel Select is the best Dickel has to offer-- and all this for forty bucks. Oak and toffee, tropical fruit and chocolate covered cherries. If all you know is Jack, George has a thing or two to teach you.
For the price of a healthy lunch, you could instead buy a bottle of this, perhaps the single best value in whiskey. The “double” age means eight years, and those eight years mean you have a really smooth, classic bourbon (a bronze medalist in the 2014 New York International Spirits Competition) that combines the sweetness of corn with the dry oak and vanilla from the barrel.
Macallan Rare Cask ($300-350)
Scotch is loaded with premium bottles, ranging from hundreds of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, but this release from Macallan hits that sweet spot. It’s expensive but not insanely expensive (not compared to the $28,000 Macallan). It’s big and full of sherry flavor from the barrels in which it aged. Chocolate covered cherries, dates, spice, coves -- this is how you end the night, provided the night needs a long, warm finish.
Springbank 18 ($150)
Those who know, know Springbank. This distillery in Scotland’s Campbelltown region makes some of the most consistently incredible single malt in the world. Tropical fruit meets the salt of sea air; ripe red fruits meet bitter dark chocolate, all with the faint whiff of peat behind it. It might not be on your recipient’s radar now, but it sure as hell will be after they have their first sip
Glenrothes 1995 ($95-100)
Shaped like the Holy Hand Grenade from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Glenrothes comes in a bottle practically made for gift giving. Inside is one of the very finest examples of a Speyside whisky. Sixteen years old, rich, sweet with flavors of apples, bitter orange, and salted caramel.
Laphroaig Triple Wood ($65-75)
In all of whisky, there is no monster more legendary than this single malt from Scotland’s windswept Islay. Ultra peaty, oily, cured pork, full of smoke and tar and something to do with licking a hot motorcycle engine. The time this whisky spends split between different types of barrels lends vanilla, candied nuts, and even a subtle creaminess to the riot. Tread lightly. This bronze medalist at the 2014 New York International Spirits Competition is not for everyone. But those who love it are committed to it for life.
Johnnie Walker Double Black ($45-50)
If Blue is out of your price range or just seems too predictable, and Black is just too common, consider Double Black, an award winner in both the 2014 and 2012 New York International Spirits Competition. It takes the smoky, peaty character of Black Label and raises the bet, aging the whisky in deeply charred barrels to create a blend with real muscle behind it. As with bodybuilding, though, symmetry counts. Smoke and campfire mask a heart of honey.
Another brand highly regarded among scotch aficionados but little known otherwise, Compass Box is the premiere creator of blended malts. This, the latest in their “Great King Street” line, is a phenomenal deal for the price. A rich, full whisky with lots of cinnamon spice, smoke, and vanilla.
Monkey Shoulder ($30)
Speaking of phenomenal blends, this offering from the people behind Glenfiddich and The Balvenie is just about the best deal that can be had. Named for the overly muscular shoulder that can come from shoveling malted barley all day, and inside a bottle adorned with awesome little brass monkeys, this is the perfect gift for someone looking to expand their repertoire without going the full Laphroaig.
Whisky (Everyone else)
Kavalan Concertmaster ($90-95)
The newest kid on the block is turning everyone’s head, including winning silver in the 2014 New York International Spirits Competition. A single malt whisky from Taiwan? That isn’t just good, but is really damn good? The Concertmaster spends time in ex-bourbon casks before being moved for additional aging in three different types of ex port casks: Ruby Port, Tawny Port, and Vintage Port. The result is thick, rich, and bursting with red fruit, chocolate, honey, and leather.
Much coveted by whisky seekers, Japan’s storied Nikka distillery only recently broke into the US market. There is nothing under the Nikka banner that isn’t worth giving to someone (and keeping a second for yourself), but the Taketsuru 12 year old is a perfect introduction to this legendary whisky.
Hardcore whisky drinkers are probably well-acquainted with Japan’s Suntory, but this is the year they really broke out into the mainstream. So do the scotch drinker in your life a favor and buy them a bottle of this superior blended whisky. Unlike blended scotch, where a blending company buys single malt from all over, the single malts in this all come from Suntory’s own distilleries, giving them an unparalleled control over flavor and quality.
Amrut Fusion ($60-65)
India only produces two true single malt whiskies, but they are outstanding. And Amrut is the one that started it all. If you didn’t know it wasn’t scotch, you wouldn’t guess. The fusion happening here is between barley. This malt is made from both Scottish and Himalayan barley. Pears, caramel, peat, and heat await the adventurous imbiber.
With so much experience distilling Cognac, the French are a natural fit for trying their hand at whisky. But very few do. Brenne single malt is a wonderful example of what happens when they try. Originally distilled as private stock by a Cognac maker, Brenne is aged in old Cognac barrels makes for an amazing, unique whisky full of palm oil, coconut, tropical fruit, and caramel.
This small Dublin distillery is producing some of the best whiskey Ireland has to offer, and Ireland has a lot of good whiskey to offer. After spending time in regular oak, the whiskey is transferred to barrels that previously held Flor de Cana rum. The light, floral character of Irish whiskey takes on familiar rum notes: papaya, banana, lemon, and a corn sweetness. Don’t think that Irish whiskey has nothing to offer beyond shots of Jameson. This stuff is dynamite.