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, and some, maybe even most of them, are answered in the descriptions of the ten 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. So 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." And as the Scottish also say, Slàinte! And as I like to say, Happy Holidays!
ARDMORE TRADITIONAL CASK (Highland malt; 46% alcohol by volume, aged 6-8 years, $45 suggested retail price). 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.
GLENROTHES SELECT RESERVE (Speyside; 40% ABV, age not stated, $45). Glenrothes' distillery has been active, mostly producing whisky for blends, for more than 130 years. But it's only been marketing its own single-malts since the '80s, which may be why it's not as well-known as some other Scotch whiskies. The brand is known for its vintage bottlings by year; my favorite is the 1985 (a fine year for Glenrothes as well as Glenn Frey, it turns out). The Select Reserve, a blend of several different vintages, doesn't have its age stated on the bottle, but I'm guessing it's pretty young, thanks to its light golden color and mellow flavor. There's a lot of fruit up front and on the nose -- apricot, orange and lemon, to name three. It starts out sweet but ends up quite spicy, providing for a long, lingering finish. A nice change of pace for the whisky drinker on your shopping list, and definitely better than a Glenn Frey CD. (Next Christmas I'll likely be raving about Glenrothes' about-to-be-released Editor's Cask, a new expression that's already garnered a lot of buzz.)
LAPHROAIG 10 YEAR OLD (Islay; 43% ABV, $40). Islay malts make up only a fraction of all single-malt Scotch whiskies, but to a lot of people who don't drink them, they're the stereotype of what Scotch tastes like -- a massive peat-and-smokefest. And Laphroaig, with its ultra-intense peaty and smoky notes, is the stereotype of what Islay malts taste like. Now don't get me wrong, Laphroaig is one seriously smoky n' peaty Scotch. I first started paying attention to it a few years ago, when bartenders would add, literally, a couple of drops to cocktails to give it a slight smoky edge. Make the leap from a couple of drops diluted in a mixed drink to a full unadulterated glass of the stuff, and you've got some idea of what you're getting into.
Stereotypes aside, this 10-year-old is one glorious whisky. Even before you take a sip, a mere sniff will, as my wife said, "make you feel like the fog is rolling in." You can see the green grass and rolling hills, taste the salt air... the whole megillah. Tasting it, yes, you get a ton of smoke and peat -- and what's wrong with that? You also get a little oak, a lot of seaweed (surprisingly appealing), and just a hint of vanilla sweetness in mid-sip. The finish is spicy but not overwhelmingly so, with a lot less aftertaste than you'd expect. This huge, rich, slightly medicinal, insanely flavorful elixir is not for everyone, but if you love Scotch, you can't help but love Laphroaig. And it's hard to beat for the price.
TOMINTOUL 10 YEAR OLD (Speyside; 40% ABV, $45). While in Brooklyn at an Orthodox Jewish-run liquor store, I asked the owner what kind of cocktails the Orthodox drank. He said, "They don't, really. They drink single malt Scotch." (One reason why I never finished my article about kosher cocktails.) When asked for a recommendation, he selected Tomintoul, which calls itself "The Gentle Dram" (and he did a mitzvah by saving me the tax). At 80 proof, Tomintoul is a little less alcoholic than most whiskies. The nose is light and somewhat dry, full of barley, heather and a little fudgy chocolate. Drunk neat, it's drier than most Speyside malts. But add a few drops of water and that gentle vibe really shines through -- much more in the way of honey and vanilla, with a pleasant, lingering finish. This is not a great whisky, but it's a good one -- I wouldn't bust it out for Mom & Dad's golden anniversary celebration, but makes for a nice dram while checking out Monday Night Football.
BOWMORE 15 YEAR OLD DARKEST (Islay; 43% ABV, $80). I've long wanted to try the legendary 1964 "Black Bowmore" whisky, a 42-year-old masterpiece which was issued in an extremely limited edition a few years ago. Bottles can still be had, if you don't mind shelling out $5,000 or so. Barring a sharp increase in my net worth, I'm more than happy to stick with Bowmore's Darkest, which is supposedly a fairly close approximation of the '64 Black Bowmore, at about 2% of the cost. Finished in sherry casks, the sherry notes share the stage with Islay's traditional smoky flavors, and it's a marriage made in heaven. Also along for the ride are notes of toffee, dark chocolate, and dried fruits like figs and raisins. Truly a work of art, and a great comeback-in-a-glass for anyone who kvetches that Islay malts are all about the smoke and peat.
THE GLENLIVET 18 YEAR OLD (Speyside; 43% ABV, $73). Ah, the 'Livet... a beautiful, delicate, almost dainty whisky. If you were to sip a snifter of Scotch with your pinky sticking out, this would be the one. I'm a big fan of Glenlivet's 12-year-old, but I hadn't tried the 18 until recently. It's got that same flowery sweetness to start with, but then it gets just a wee bit heartier than the 12, with a little more oak, spice, and just a touch of peat. They're both brilliant, but in the end I think the 18-year takes the prize. It does cost more, but if you're feeling flush, it's definitely worth trying. The Glenlivet caresses your taste buds rather than smacking them around like many Islay malts, so it's a great whisky for converting the unconverted at gift-giving season. But dyed-in-the-tartan Scotch lovers will enjoy it too, of course.
GLENMORANGIE FINEALTA (Highland; 46% ABV, age not stated, $80). Who doesn't love a Scotch with a good story behind it? Finealta is a recreation of Glenmorangie as it is thought to have tasted at the turn of the 20th century, based on a 1903 recipe found in their archives (the distillery was founded in 1843). That same year, the ultra-exclusive Savoy Hotel in London ordered no less than five casks of Glenmorangie, so you know it was considered "the good stuff." 108 years ago, their whisky tasted a little different than it does today, mainly because their malt was peated, meaning it was dried over a peat-fueled fire. So in addition to the delicate sweetness that's made Glenmorangie the most popular single-malt in Scotland, there's also hints of peat and smoke, especially on the finish. The flavors butt heads a bit, but that just makes me want another sip to figure it out a little more. And hey, if this stuff was good enough for the likes of Oscar Wilde and the Prince of Wales, both of whom frequented the Savoy (and, presumably, its bar), it's good enough for me. This is a limited edition, so don't wait for next year's holiday season.
MACALLAN 12 YEAR OLD (Highland; 43% ABV, $50). One thing I like about the Macallan -- well, there are a lot of things I like about the Macallan, but here's one thing -- is that they make a lot of whiskies at a lot of price points. Whether you're pinching pennies or have ridiculous amounts of money to spend (how ridiculous? Read on and find out), there's probably an expression that will fit your budget. And while it sounds cheesy, the Macallan signifies quality -- see that name on the bottle and you know there's some damn good whisky inside, no matter the cost.
The 12-year is one of the less expensive Macallans, and it's somewhat less complex than its pricier, longer-aged brethren. Aged in Spanish sherry casks, sherry is a predominant flavor both on the nose and the palate. You'll also taste a lot of wood, spice, fruits like plums and raisins (again, from the sherry) and a wee bit of vanilla and honey. It lacks some of the magic of the pricier 18-year and the mind-blowing 17-Year Fine Oak, but it's a great everyday dram or a starter Scotch for single-malt newbies. This holiday season, the Macallan 12 is being packaged in six limited edition boxes featuring the X-ray photography of Nick Veasey, each photo highlighting one of what Macallan calls its "six pillars" (my favorite is the "curiously small stills," which are featured on the Scottish 10-pound note). Yet another reason to pick one up for your favorite snow angel.
$100 AND UP:
THE BALVENIE 17 YEAR OLD PEATED CASK (Speyside; 43% ABV, $125). Every year, the talented alchemists at the Balvenie tweak their gorgeous Speyside malt a wee bit and market the results in limited edition, highly collectible bottlings. One year they finished it in rum casks. Another year, Madeira wine casks. Used Islay malt casks, new, previously un-used American oak barrels, port pipes -- check, check and check. Each different process adds a unique layer to the underlying honeyed sweetness that's the Balvenie's signature flavor. The Peated Cask was one of last year's limited editions, but it's still pretty widely available. The whisky was finished in casks which previously held a heavily peated (and still-unreleased) version of the Balvenie, so it makes for an oddly interesting mix of sweet and peat. Those gorgeous honey, vanilla and dark fruit notes are still there, but they bump up against tangy, smoky and earthy notes from the peated cask. It sounds weird on paper, but you don't drink whisky with paper -- and my mouth happens to love it. It's also one of the most beautiful smelling single-malts I've had the pleasure to sniff. Worth searching out.
DALMORE 1263 KING ALEXANDER III (Highland; 43% ABV, age not stated, $225). When I drink single-malts, I don't think of the Dalmore as often as I should. But their brilliant Cigar Malt Reserve, released a few months ago, got me into a Dalmore state of mind, and that led me back to this labor-intensive whisky. King Alexander gets moved around more than Mitt Romney's position on healthcare. It's aged in various wine, sherry, Madeira and port casks before it's finally finished in American bourbon casks. But all that recasking pays off, because the flavors combine to make a fascinating -- and delicious -- whisky. There's a lot of dried fruit here, along with citrus and berry flavors, but what really slays me are the dark chocolate notes that take over on the finish. The mouth feel is smooth and buttery, very luxurious -- it makes me want to break out my smoking jacket and slippers and crack open a volume of Robert Burns. And it makes for a much better gift than a bottle of bubble bath. Dalmore, take me away!
HIGHLAND PARK 18 YEAR OLD (Highland; 43% ABV, $105). F. Paul Pacult, esteemed spirits connoisseur and editor/publisher of the Spirits Journal, declared Highland Park 18 "the Best Spirit In The World" in 2005 and again in 2009. Is that little fact mentioned on the bottle? Oh, you betcha. While it's not my favorite spirit in the world, it's tough to disagree with the claim. Distilled since 1798 on the Orkney islands -- one of the northernmost distilleries in Scotland -- it's a near-perfect blend of peaty smoke, rich wood, lively cinnamon/pepper spice and creamy sweetness. It's like a combination of the best elements of Highland, Islay and Speyside malts in a single dram. The flavors all combine seamlessly, no one sticking out more than the rest, which some may think slightly boring, but which I think is harmony in a glass. A perfect gift, provided you're offered a taste, of course.
MACALLAN 60 YEAR OLD LALIQUE (Highland; 53.2% ABV, $20,000). If the Macallan's 12-year-old is a Scotch for the 99%, here's a perfect gift for your favorite one-percenter. The fourth in a planned series of six ultra-rare limited editions packaged in specially-made Lalique crystal decanters, the 60-year is the oldest of the lot thus far. It's a pretty incredible experience to drink a whisky that was laid down when Harry Truman was president, and not just for the backstory. Macallan 60 is very dry and rich, smokier than modern-day Macallan, with wood, cinnamon, apple and slight citrus notes, and a long, spicy finish full of malt and smoke. Is it worth plunking down 20 grand for? Depends on who's doing the plunking, I guess. But don't forget, only 400 of these babies are being sold, with a mere 70 of them going to the U.S. market. And you do get to keep the Lalique decanter when you finish the booze.
Now's the time when I ask you, the readers, to chime in with your favorite single-malts. Harangue me enough and I promise I'll write about your top picks next holiday season, so don't be shy!
Follow Tony Sachs on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RetroManNYC