Are you close to a Whiskey, Whisky, or Scotch lover? Do you want to get them the perfect bottle as a holiday gift? Do you have no idea how to shop for a bottle of whiskies?
Because of my love for whiskies and my involvement with the 3 Drunken Celts, I am often asked for suggestions as to which bottle would be a good gift for a friend, family member, or boss. To this end I present: “Seamus’ Opinionated Guide to buying Whiskies as Gifts”
When accosted for a recommendation, my initial response is: “Find a bottle of ‘The Balvenie’ which suits your price point and buy it. You won’t go wrong…”
However, I have found that not everyone is as enamoured with the distillery as I am (cough, Raz, cough). So in a vain attempt to help out those recipients who don’t always prefer The Balvenie, I will attempt to provide some basic guidelines to choosing a suitable bottle as a gift. (If you just want Seamus’ top picks for each price point, scroll to the bottom past all the drivel in between…)
Ok, if you are still with me, let’s get to the substance of this article:
First and foremost, figure out what your price point is. There is no use finding the perfect bottle, only to realize it is way out of your range. Price can be used as a general guideline: the more costly, odds are it will be better than the cheaper stuff. But don’t let that get you down; there are some GREAT whiskies on the market which far outshine their lower price points. Just remember, there ARE deals to be had! Find some whiskies in the price range you are comfortable with, and then begin narrowing down from there.
Like price, Age is also a decent guideline where the older is typically better. On general principal a 21 year old whisky will be smoother than a 10 year old whisky. This guideline, however, tends to only stand up within the same distillery. Once you begin comparing differing distilleries and differing ages, the guideline begins to break down with too many exceptions.
When using Age as a guideline, it is also best to add Region in as well. You may well find a great 22yr Single Malt, only to discover it is from a region known for its brine when your recipient prefers peat.
If at all possible, you should try to determine of the recipient has any specific preferences when it comes to his/her whiskies. If so, you have it easy… stick with those preferences. Straying from a preferred distillery/region can be a risky venture as most connoisseurs are quite particular with their drams.
Assuming that the recipient has no particular preferences, you’ll have your work cut out for you. At the least, try to determine if he/she likes the smoky, peaty, briny, or sweeter whiskies. This will help you narrow down to a smaller regional subset and progress from there.
Some general regional characteristics to help you along the way:
Highlands – Arguably the most popular region appealing to the widest range of tastes including peat, brine, and smoke.
Speyside – A very popular and quite prolific region. Sweet, delicately complex; some with a refined smokiness, some with fruity finishes.
Islay (pronounced “Eye-la”) – Gives the Highlands a run at most popular. Challenging, Peat, brine, smoke and sometimes a tinge of salty seaweed
Skye and Orkney – Similar in character to the Islays but tend to be softer on the pallet. The Peat on the Orkneys is from heather which imparts a honey like flavor.
Lowlands – This region no longer boasts the copious number of distilleries as it once did. Soft, smooth and mild. A little of the peat and brine of the Highland malts, but much more subtle.
Campbeltown – This also use to be a prolific region, but is now in rarity. Slightly briny but not as aggressive as the Islay malts.
Irish – Not as popular as Scotch malts but this is a developing malting region its blends are quite popular. Distinguished by the un-malted barley used along with malted barley. Smooth, complex and frequently with some fruity flavor. Once known for peated whiskies, this is rarely done now.
Bourbon – From the Bourbon County, KY area of the US. Sour, sweet and smoky
American – Not from the Bourbon County area. Many are quite new to the market place with varying differences in flavours.
Assuming you have a set price range, you can really start narrowing down your selection set based on Age/Year, region, and the particular palette imparted by each bottling. Of course none of this can take the place of experience (i.e. sampling and knowing how each tastes); but if you knew already, then you wouldn’t need this guide would you?
At this point the internet is your best friend. You can find some great tasting notes on darn near any bottle ever produced! Start your searches on some on-line liquor retailer websites to find the bottles in your price range, and then do a few Google searches to find tasting notes and ratings on each. You should have a short-list selection in no time. From there, either order your choice from one of the sites who will ship to you (even with shipping you can get some wonderful deals on the internet), or take your list to your local purveyor of spirits to fill your order.
Now, it seems that even after I espouse my diatribe above, people still look at me and ask “…well that’s fine and all, but what do YOU recommend?”. I have two answers to that question:
1. If you are asking this question, then you haven’t understood a word I have said. Whiskies are a complicated thing and can be very personal for each drinker. You are best to follow the advice above, lest you buy a bottle which doesn’t meet the recipient’s desires…
2. If you are still going to demand a particular bottle recommendation, and were buying said bottle for MY palette, here you go:
Seamus’ Top Picks by Price Point (2 bottles each category):
$250 and higher:
The Balvenie 25 year / Bowmore 35yr
$120 – $249:
The Balvenie 21yr Port Wood / Edradour 22yr Port Wood
$100 – $119:
Midleton Very Rare / Compass Box Hedonism
$75 – $99:
Compass Box Flaming Heart / GlenRothes 1987
$50 – $74:
Oban 14yr / GlenRothes 1991 14yr
$30 – $49:
Sheep Dip / Knappogue Castle 1992
$10 – $29:
Aberlour 10yr / John, Mark, & Robbo’s The Rich Spicy One
For the Bourbon lover: Bulleit Bourbon is an amazing distillation, which at $15-$30 can’t be beat at all!
For a fun grab-bag type surprise, choose any Bruichladdich bottling (pronounced ‘brook’- ‘law’-‘day’). NONE are the same and will challenge the connoisseur’s palette and expectations. You never know what you’re going to get!