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The Twelve Scotches Of Christmas: Whisky Picks For Last-Minute Shoppers

Posted: 12/19/11 06:17 PM ET

Time was, when Christmas or Hanukkah suddenly loomed large on the calendar and last-minute shoppers began to panic, there were three places you could reliably count on for a quick armful of pretty cool presents -- the record store; the bookstore; and the liquor store. Well, record stores are about as difficult to find as moderate Republicans nowadays, and bookstores are rapidly going the same route. Which leaves liquor stores, at least until someone figures out how to download a cocktail.

Scotch whiskies, especially single-malts (meaning the malt used to make the whisky is from a single distillery), are a perennially popular gift item; according to the Adams Liquor Handbook, almost a quarter of Scotch whisky's annual sales come in November and December. Why, you ask? More than any other spirit, I think, a single-malt says, "I don't know if you like this stuff or not, but it's going to look damned impressive in your liquor cabinet regardless."

But suppose you want to buy a Scotch that actually, like, tastes good, but you don't know your Speyside from your elbow or your Islay from a hole in the ground? I mean, what on Earth is a peated cask? And what's the difference between an 18-year-old and a 12-year-old, apart from six years? These are valid concerns, some of which I may even address in the descriptions of the dozen single malt scotches I've listed below.

Heaven knows it's not a comprehensive list. Even if you combine it with the list I made last year, there are still hundreds more delicious brands out there. It is with apologies to Talisker, Caol Ila, Bruichladdich, and all the other noteworthy single-malts that I overlooked and under-drank this year, that I suggest the following whiskies for your gift-buying needs, and perhaps even your own personal drinking needs as well.

You'll find brands ranging in price from $40 to $20,000 (most of them are closer to $40, don't worry). They come from the Highland, Speyside and Islay regions of Scotland. They taste like everything from honey to seaweed, with lots of flavors in between. In other words, there should be something for everyone here. So as the Scottish say, "A cock's aye crouse on his own midden-head." As the Scottish also say, Slàinte! And as I like to say, Happy Holidays!

(Feel free to chime in with your favorite single-malts in the Comments section. Harangue me enough and I promise I'll write about your top picks next holiday season, so don't be shy!)

Ardmore Traditional Cask ($45)
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If you're wondering about that "traditional cask" moniker, it means that after being aged in standard American oak barrels, the whisky is then finished in much smaller "quarter casks," in order for the liquid to come into more contact with the wood. Ardmore is the only Highland malt that's fully peated, but although it's got the peat and smoke associated with Islay malts, it's still somehow... different. On the plus side, the peat seems somewhat gentler than most Islays I've tried, almost grassy. On the down side, it's a little one-dimensional. I taste a lot of peat and smoke and... peat and smoke, although a few drops of water help to bring out some vanilla and dried fruit notes. Ardmore may not be as rich and complex as Lagavulin or Laphroaig, but it's also a lot easier going down the hatch, with a smooth, clean and short finish. For the price, it's an excellent buy, and it's a great introduction to peated whisky.

Highland malt; 46 perent alcohol by volume, aged 6-8 years
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