A small gift of scotch goes a long way
By Joseph “Whisky Joe” Gratkowski Some people are harder to buy gifts for than others. For instance, we all have one or two ultra-picky relatives who will turn up their noses at any article of clothing that’s even the barest shade off in color, motivating you to be sure to include gift receipts with any and all purchases. Fortunately, whisky lovers are not as difficult to shop for! Generally speaking, scotch, bourbon and world whisky enthusiasts are eager to try a new and unfamiliar bottle, and almost any selection will be well received. Besides, much like a respectful person cleaning his or her plate at an unappealing meal, whisky lovers will gladly take on the task of consuming the bottle, even if it may not be an immediate favorite. I love fielding questions from people about purchase or gift suggestions. Their queries range from the vague “I’d like to get him/her something special for his/her birthday” to the more specific “My spouse/friend likes Jack Daniels. What is something unique that I can give as a gift?” Well, there are many options, and the task of choosing the perfect bottle can seem daunting especially in the face of the constantly expanding market. That expansion has led to a whisky world riddled with trends, like the fact that craft distilleries are popping up everywhere, including New Jersey’s first distillery since Prohibition (Jersey Artisan Distillers). However, I think my favorite trend right now is the tearing down of some old stereotypes. Whisky is no longer just a “man’s” drink, and it is no longer only reserved for rich old men in a stuffy back room somewhere. Women are truly starting to gravitate towards versatile whisky as their drink of choice, either neat or in cocktails, which is wonderful. The more the merrier! Scotch is not just for men, and it is not only for the rich. It is one of the most social beverages imaginable, with over a decade of history in virtually every pour. Times are tough for many of us, but time is also short. There is something to be said for enjoying a few of the finer things in life, and to slowing down a bit in this fast-paced, instant messaging kind of world. With that end in mind, I am going to list my top ten scotches to help you stop and smell the roses. (Or should I say, smell the scotches?) In an effort to be realistic, I will keep my choices to those priced under $60. After all, while there are some fantastic whiskies that cost hundreds of dollars a bottle, not all of us can pull that off. Luckily, even in the $60 and under price range, the options are as vast as the ocean. Here is a select list that should meet the needs of both your discerning scotch connoisseur buddy and fledgling newbie without putting your wallet through the wringer.
BALVENIE 12 DOUBLEWOOD
This is one of the first scotches that I recommend to folks who are either new to scotch or looking to move up the ladder from blends to single malts. The Balvenie expressions are notoriously honeyed in flavor, leading to a smooth and mellow experience. There is a consistency to the Balvenie product line that I love; it has an air of class to it, but is still “working class,” if that is possible for a drink. This is a testament to how truly handcrafted their whiskies are from inception to fruition. This one will treat your palate to a wide range of flavors from the two casks (Sherry & Ex-Bourbon), without any smoky peat to distract you.
This multi-award winning scotch is made unlike any other. Created using the Solera Vat method, this scotch is a combination of three casks—sherry, bourbon, new oak—married together in an Oregon Pine Solera vat. The idea here is that the vat never gets drained below half way during bottling, so that theoretically there is some very old whisky in here. Long story short: it is a refreshing fruit and cinnamon blast, with a solid oak backbone to earn your respect. This is a bottle to spend some time with in order to nurture the depth of its essences and delights. An absolute steal!
The mighty Talisker is the only scotch from the Isle of Skye, and she is a beauty. This one is for a little bit more of a seasoned veteran of whisky, with a peppery smoky kick. Much like the environment it comes from, this scotch is rugged and bold, with notes of sea air. It is worth noting that James Bond (in Ian Fleming’s books) didn’t drink martinis, shaken or otherwise. He drank Talisker. If the mood grabs you, don’t be shy, tap into your inner 007 and prepare for a wild ride.
This flagship scotch for the Lagavulin Distillery is an outstanding dram. Hailing from the salty sea region known as Islay, this is a complex beast, and a true masterpiece. There is the trademark peat smoke there, but the beauty is a subtle sweetness…plus the iodine and seaweed that comes through truly shows the exposure to the coastline and the extremely slow process this spirit has gone through. I would imagine this is what Neptune’s smoking jacket smells like!
Labeled the “gentle spirit,” it is one of the older whiskies on this list. A great starter whisky, this one is balanced and gentle, a very easy drinker. There is just enough smoke to keep it interesting. It is very reasonably priced for its age, and I have yet to hear anyone find it offensive. Although it is not overly complex, it is a safe bet if you need to buy a single malt for someone.
Another intensely peated scotch, the Laphroaig Distillery has a big cult following, and a solid history. A great deal for the money, this is one of the expressions that many scotch drinkers tend to keep on hands at all times. With a different peat flavor profile than the other Islay-based drams on this list, the salty Laphroaig is one of the best choices for pairing with seafood and a nice fireplace.
BALVENIE 15 SINGLE BARREL
There are not too many single barrel offerings that I can put into this price range, and the idea of one cask yielding 350 unique and unrepeatable bottles is just too good to pass up. One of the higher proofed scotches on this list, this stunner is another outstanding offering from this family-owned and completely handcrafted distillery. Honey and vanilla dominate, along with the omnipresent oak, and it has enough of a backbone to hold up to anything… even, dare I say it, ice.
HIGHLAND PARK 12
In a remote nook off the northern coast of Scotland’s mainland lie the Orkney Islands. Home to Highland Park, a Swiss army knife of a scotch, this one can do it all. Featuring malty sweetness and a floral nose, it is balanced out by a restrained smokiness. This is a great selection for someone who may not have a favorite region yet, and is looking for a bit of everything. Speaking for myself, I am always in the mood for this one.
One of the most well known names in the scotch business is The Macallan. Widely available and well respected, the Macallan 12 is a mainstay of numerous bars and many enthusiasts’ collections. Sherried and rich, this is another solid introductory scotch that may appeal to your sweet tooth. Those who might not be able to swing the hefty price tag of the Macallan 18 and Lindt chocolates will be pleasantly surprised to discover how wonderful it feels to kick back with the Macallan 12 and some Hershey Kisses.
Glenmorangie boasts that it is one of the favorite drinks in Scotland itself, and they do have quite a range of unique scotches. Beloved for its notable nose, this distillery is known for its lively aromas and approachable tastes. Very affordable, this 10 is often gift-packaged together with a couple of glasses during the holidays, adding to its allure. Unlike many other spirits, scotch offers such a wide variety of taste spectrums and preferences that you can spend a lifetime trying to narrow down your favorite. Any of the above should really set the groundwork for what could be a magnificent whisky journey of your own. As an added bonus, the shelf life of scotch is measured in years, not months. It’s truly a gift that keeps on giving. Besides, there is never any need for gift receipts.
Whisky Joe, a New Jersey resident with a full-time career in the chemicals industry, is a brand ambassador and whisky enthusiast. He is on twitter @whiskyjourney, online at www.whiskyjoe.com, and may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.