This is a new Golden Age for whiskies, spirits whose popularity was long ago eclipsed by tasteless vodkas and white rums. The emergence of single malt Scotches, small batch bourbons, even a resurgence of new ryes, has made it a hot category again--and not a cheap one. Indeed, the price of a lot of what's now out there is not based on anything extraordinary about the whiskey, and some, like rare Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, have become such a cult spirit that people are paying whatever it takes--$250 and up--to get hold of a bottle that retails (if you could find it) at $80-$108.
Now that New Year's Eve is upon us, so-called "brown spirits" are always a good gift idea, so here are some that I've been impressed by, not because they are so rare or come in a really nifty bottle, but because they are really quite distinctive.
Penny Blue XO Single Estate Mauritian Rum ($75-$80)--"XO" (extra old) is not a label term you see outside of Cognac, although its distributor, Anchor Distilling, says the small batch (5,946 numbered bottles for the whole world this year) is matured in French oak Cognac casks. The name Penny Blue alludes to one of the world's rarest stamps, with twelve in existence, and it's made by Doug McIwor of Berry Bros. & Rudd of London and the Master Distiller Jean Francois Koenig on the island of Mauritius. Rums from that African island don't leave it often, so the complex, spicy Penny Blue is not going to be in everyone's Christmas stocking this year.
The Macallan Rare Cask ($300)--Available in a stunning gift box, this Scotch is made from carefully selected oak sherry casks, and Macallan has never shied away from an oaky flavor in its Scotch. Master Whisky Maker Bob Delgamo balances this with vanilla and chocolate notes along with some citrus, with a fine lingering finish that remains chewy on the palate.
Michter's US*1 Toasted Barrel Bourbon ($48)--The novelty here is that this bourbon is aged in two different barrels--one for maturation, one for finishing in a cask never charred, as is otherwise typical. At 45.7 percent alcohol, it's not tame. Michter's made its rep on the basis of its aggressive 10-year-old ryes, which sell around $70, and it wants its bourbons to show innovation rather than just small production.
Crown Royal XO Blended Canadian Whiskey ($50)--Just as rye has created its own niche market, there is renewed interest in Canadian whiskey--the thing you used to drink with 7-Up in college--and the old distillers are falling over themselves to come up with a new edge. Also using that "XO" word, Crown Royal's new whiskey also matures in old Cognac barrels, and it joins others in the brand's portfolio like Crown Royal XR (its "rarest" whiskey), Maple Finished, Crown Royal Deluxe, and Crown Royal Black. The XO is culled from 50 whiskies and is smoother than most Canadian spirits, with far more charm and elegance.
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve ($41)--You can tell how thinly spirits makers are slicing the onion when you see a label that boasts of being a "single barrel" bourbon then adding "Reserve," promising it is the only single barrel, 120 proof example aged for nine years. That's a long time to keep a bottle in the barn, and the aging has the effect of mellowing the texture and bringing out more nuance in a bourbon that comes from just a single barrel, which means each one varies in flavor.
Springbank Cask Strength Single Malt ($70-$85)--The come-on here is that this Campbeltown Scotch comes straight from the barrel without any dilution, so it's a powerhouse. It's also got the characteristic smokiness of Cambeltown with a good dose of peatiness. It's really quite distinctive and a true Scotch lover will want it in his cache. At 12 years old, it's two yers older than their usual 10-year-old. It's also nice to know that Springbank is one of only two (the other is Kilcoman) of the region's distilleries in Scotland to malt their own barley and go through every step of production on premises. Still best enjoyed splashed with a little water or seltzer in a crystal glass.
Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition Blended Scotch Whiskey ($32)--Cutty Sark was founded during Prohibiton in America and when that idiocy ended, the company was well positioned to capitalize on the thirst of Americans for good, cheap blended Scotch, which grew lighter in body after the war. This "Edition" hearkens back to a fuller-bodied style favored in the 1920s, and there is certainly more complexity to it than ever, made mostly from a blend of Speyside whiskies, bottled at 100 proof. It's got a bite, and there's no apology for that. Still at its best on the rocks.
Johnnie Walker Gold Reserve ($85)--Welcome back, Johnnie Gold! Well, sort of. Gold, originally a limited edition mainly for the Asian market, was discontinued, but now it has been introduced in a one-of-a-kind format bottle, without the prior "18 Year Old" statement on the bottle. It has the characteristic creamy texture, peatiness, lots of oak, and sweet notes of all the JW issues--24 of them--including the basic Red Label, the smoky Double Black, and top-of-the-line Blue Label, at $225. The Gold is generally available in a regular bottle, but a gift edition is gold-colored in a gold box guaranteed to impress the recipient..
Laphroaig Islay Single Malt 10 Years Original Cask Strength ($66)--Now, if you really like briar and peat and smoke in your whisky, Islay is the place to find it, and one of the finer, more complex versions is from Laphaoig. You either like such eyebrow-raising Scotches or don't, but you get what you pay for here. The whisky is aged in seasoned, charred oak barrels and slightly barrier-filtered just to remove the small char particles present, so the Scotch may even appear a tad cloudy.
GlenDronach Distillery 15 Year Old Tawny Port Wood Finish ($80) and The GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch ($150)--These are two new Scotches from The GlenDronach distillery (founded 1826), which foundered for a while but is now back in good hands. The Old Tawny Port Wood Finish takes on some of the sweet character of Port, mellowing the whisky and adding caramel notes. The Cask Strength Batch is matured in Sherry casks, which impart their own flavors of nuttiness and orange.
1800 Tequila Milenio ($125)--Tequila is rarely thought of as a brown spirit, but the aged versions take on a definite color. 1800 Tequila's second release of Milenio (the first produced in 2000), made from 100 percent blue agave, is double distilled and aged in Cognac barrels for five years, making this a tequila to be sipped like any fine brown spirit, not to be sloshed into a blender to make a margarita. Excellent also with Mexican-style tapas and Serrano ham.