Friday, December 4, 2009

Mortie's Holiday Whisky-giving Guide

With the holiday season in full swing, it's a great time to review some whiskies for their potential as gifts. Gold, frankincense or myrrh? None of these warm the belly on a cold winter's night like a nice dram. However, before you drop huge coin on an expensive bottle for a friend, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind when making a whisky-related purchase for any aficionado on your list:

1) Gift cards are not bad

2) Don't be afraid of making a mistake

3) Go for value, not just age or price

4) Purchase based on recipient's preferences, not yours

5) Underestimate taste tolerance

Let's start with the gift card thing. I know that these have become more popular lately, but I feel like they still get a bad rap. There is a stigma attached to gift certificates and gift cards that insinuates the giver didn't have the time or energy to find a real gift, so they settled on getting a gift card. Personally, I love getting gift cards. They let me go shopping later for what I really wanted in the first place. It may not be as nice as getting exactly what you desire in a completely spontaneous fashion, but it certainly beats an receiving an ugly sweater. As a whisky-lover, I often use gift cards (from NBLiquor here in New Brunswick) to make a nice bottle that's been tempting me for a long time suddenly seem more affordable.

I've had several friends and family members who have told me they didn't want to buy me a bottle of whisky because they were intimidated and thought they might get something I wouldn't like. I'm always really sad to hear that, because even getting a bottle of something I might not have bought myself is a nice surprise. Sometimes my own bias against a particular brand will prevent me from buying it myself, but I'll be very pleasantly surprised to discover how good it really is after receiving it as a gift. Unless you're very wealthy (or financially reckless), you will experience some measure of guilt when spending 50+ dollars on a bottle of liquor. Gifts are a wonderful way to build your whisky portfolio while maintaining financial health!

Everybody falls into the trap of price and age when buying whisky. If you don't know your Ballantine's from your Balvenies the gut instinct is to go for the old, expensive, and single malt. Unfortunately, there are some really bad, old malts out there that will burn your palate along with your cash. Ask for recommendations and do a little bit of reading to determine which whiskies are good bang for their buck. I received a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue for my 30th birthday and although it is a good whisky and I was very appreciative, it saddened me to think of other malts I could have gotten for the $200 price tag. The industry has been booming over the last decade or so, resulting in a great many producers trying to sell older stock for premium prices, whether or not it's actually good whisky. Inform yourself before you buy.

Buying whisky for others can be a lot of fun when you're a connoisseur, but it is very easy to forget you're buying for somebody else and not yourself. Hubris can be a real handicap here, if you start to think you know someone else's palate better than they do: "Trust me, you'll really like this!" It's best to be conservative when buying for others and try to find something they will actually enjoy, even if your conditioned tastes might find it somewhat muted or uninspiring. Better to underestimate someone's tolerance to strong flavours than to go over the top. No one wants that nice cask strength bottling or smoky Islay malt to end up like those "super" hot sauces - served as a novelty but never actually enjoyed.
If the ultimate goal is to help the gift recipient enjoy whisky, this will be better served by slowly building their tolerance and palate. Guilting someone into drinking something they don't really enjoy can turn them against that drink altogether (bah, humbug!)

With that all out of the way, here are some great whiskies that will be enjoyed by just about anybody:

Highland Park 12: I'm a big fan of this Scottish island distillery as they make very complex malts with a nice balance of sweet and peat. There's something in this dram for everyone and the price is right. Neophytes or hardcore whisky lovers alike would both enjoy a bottle.

Benromach (no age statement): Gordon and MacPhail of Elgin, Scotland recently re-started production from this distillery and they know their stuff. Another complex speyside malt with some smoke and peat. This time of year they offer gift packs of a 750ml bottles with two Glencairn glasses for about 55$ CDN. That is a steal.

MacAllan 12: Even people who don't like whisky have a hard time disliking the MacAllan. These masters of sherried malts specialize in sweet, buttery whiskies. Loved by connoisseurs but accessible to everyone, this bottle sells for $60 CDN and up, but is a great value under $80.

Dalwhinnie 15: This light, delicate scotch is a great bottle for people just starting to develop a palate for whisky. Try to find it for under $70 CDN.

Buffalo Trace: This Kentucky bourbon is difficult to find, but worth the effort. Bourbons can be very smooth as they often lack the peat and smoke of malt whisky. A stellar example of how good bourbon can be.

Balvenie Doublewood: This sherried speysider is a great value and a regular recommendation by your blogger. Not as sweet as the MacAllan, but great balance and wonderful presentation. This gift won't disappoint (note the empty bottle).

I could go on and create an exhaustive list, but all of these bottles (except Buffalo Trace, sigh) are available in New Brunswick on a regular basis for under $80. In future posts, I'll discuss other value-priced bottles of higher-end stuff that make great gifts for more knowledgeable whisky fans. The bottles discussed here are appropriate for those starting their whisky journeys of discovery, but should also light up the eyes of any seasoned whisky-lover. When given as a gift, the spirit in which it's given is as important as the spirit in the bottle. Enjoy them with friends and remember to drink responsibly.

Happy Holidays!

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