Somehow, it’s already mid-December. And there’s still a lot of shopping to do. Good news: a fine bottle of spirit always makes a welcome gift. You could stand in a liquor store for hours, paralyzed by shelves of options. Or you could read our guide, find the perfect bottle for your occasion, and keep moving. With any luck, your giftees will understand the importance of sharing.
The Ice Breaker: Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection 2011 Rare Rye
The Master’s Collection is an annual release of special Bourbon, showcasing flavorful whims from distiller Chris Morris. But this year, he’s left Bourbon entirely; he’s releasing rye whiskey—two of them. Both are made from 100% rye, both identically proofed, and sold together in 375-ml bottles for $100. The catch: one is aged in a new charred barrel (like a Bourbon), and the other is aged in a used Bourbon barrel (usually seen in Scotch). The contrast—notable just from glancing at the bottles side by side—really highlights the importance of the barrel in whiskey making. The “New Cask” rye offers rich rye muscularity, and the “Aged Cask” has a solid grain presence, accented with vanilla. If you’re looking to jumpstart the conversation at a lagging holiday party, this duo will get ‘em talking.
The Steal: Jameson Black Barrel Select Reserve
Jameson’s new limited edition—an extension of their Select Reserve range—appears to have gotten swept up in the industry’s collective crush on black (joining recent releases The Black Grouse, Black Bull, and Johnny Walker Double Black). But if the name isn’t noteworthy, the whiskey certainly is. Black Barrel introduces grain whiskey aged in heavily charred bourbon barrels to a recipe not dissimilar from Jameson 12-YR. It’s a creamy, succulent pour, with great depth, and a puff of char on a satisfying finish. Jameson Black provides a good counterweight to the light, devilishly shoot-able standard label. And the $35 price tag makes it one of the best values of the season.
The Stand-By: Lagavulin 16-Year Old
We love all the malts of Islay, but backed into a corner, forced to choose only one, we return to the noble Lagavulin—the malt whisky that triggered our fascination with brown spirits years ago. Among the island’s champions of peat, Lagavulin is more intensely oily than Ardbeg, and less medicinal than Laphroaig (its two Port Ellen neighbors). Lagavulin is a soulful malt. It gathers you in a rough embrace of peat, leaving bruises of smoked fish and Lapsang Oolong tea. A classic whisky for approximately $80, it is immune to trends and never disappoints. Given as a gift, Lagavulin says as much about the giver as it does about the recipient.
The Looker: Clase Azul Reposado
This small batch Tequila producer does not have national distribution yet, but that’s bound to change soon. It caught our eye on a recent trip to San Diego; you understand why. Tequila Clase Azul is packaged in a gorgeous ceramic “Talavera” decanter (recognizable by its milky glaze, introduced to Mexico by Spanish artisans during the Colonial period), each one hand-painted and individually numbered. Luckily, the liquid delivers on the bottle’s promise. Aged for a minimum of 8-months and made from a blend of Bourbon, Cognac, and Sherry cask tequilas, Clase Azul reposdao offers a smooth, sweet, lightly spiced tipple. Could be habit forming. Find it on the West Coast, or at a West Coast-based online retailer, for somewhere north of $100. (A comely blanco, almost dessert-like in agave sweetness, is also worth seeking out).
The Insider’s Pick: Jefferson’s Presidential Select, 17-Year Old Bourbon
While everyone else is scrambling—and over-paying—for anything branded Van Winkle, you can stroll in to most any specialty liquor store and procure a bottle of this outstanding 17-year old Bourbon for about $100. Like Pappy, Jefferson’s Presidential is made from a “wheated” mashbill (substituting wheat for rye). Unlike Pappy, this stuff comes from the great and now silent Stitzel-Weller distillery; a term that affects Bourbon aficionados the way a dog whistle does a labradoodle. Gentle, finely layered, with generous helpings of cinnamon and fruit, this is one of the best showcases of American whiskey on the market today.
The Dream Bottle: Glenmorangie Pride 1981
If you’ve got the swagger for some big-ticket gifts, $3,500 will get some fortunate soul on your list one of the mere 100 decanters of Glenmorangie Pride released to the United States this past spring. Pride is a 28-year old Glenmorangie (the oldest they’ve released to date, as their delicate house style doesn’t take to uber-long maturation) all taken from 1981—a year that produced Master Distiller Bill Lumsden’s favorite batch of whiskey to date. After 18-years in first-fill Bourbon barrels, Pride was transferred to casks acquired from iconic Sauternes maker Chateau d’Yquem. 10-years later, the company bottled it at 56.7% ABV in oval custom Baccarat crystal decanters enclosed in wooden cases (that open, by the way, like something swiped from the Starship Enterprise). What do you say about a $3,500 bottle of booze, except that it’s incredibly special; about the sexiest whisky we’ve ever tasted, so luscious and silken and full of dessert flavors that hyperbole becomes unavoidable. And if you’re prepared to purchase one for somebody, you probably don’t need us to tell you any of that.