Christmas is approaching fast, the decorations are going up and people are starting to panic about what presents they are going to buy. Christmas is also a time when people buy whisky either to enjoy themselves over the festive period or to give as a gift. For many of these, it may be the only time in the year that they purchase a bottle of whisky and it can be a daunting experience to go into a supermarket or specialist retailer. Which one of the vast array on the shelves is the right one to go for? Here, we at Whisky For Everyone will try to help with a few suggestions and things to think about.
1 - A common misconception is that you need to know loads about whisky to buy something other than the big popular brands. This is not true. How much you know about whisky is not important - what has to be considered is what you think you would like or what the person that you are buying the gift for would like. If you are not sure, then think what other things and flavours that you or the person receiving the gift usually enjoy. This can be other spirits, wine, food etc - do you/they enjoy strong, rich flavours or something lighter and fresher? This will give you some clues. It may be that you enjoy a particular whisky or know a whisky that the recipient of your present likes.
2 - Budget is an important consideration. Set an upper limit and stick to it. Single malt whiskies start around £20 for a 70cl bottle and most will be under £50. Blended whiskies can start for as little as £10 (sometimes even less if it is a supermarket own brand). Of course, there are whiskies that can fit any budget with some costing hundreds and even thousands of pounds!
3 - Where to start? There are a few options - specialist whisky retailers, supermarkets, liquor stores and the internet. Specialist retailers (as pictured left - The Whisky Shop, London branch) offer a wider range of whiskies and knowledgeable staff who will help you make a decision. These shops can be daunting but if you go in having considered the first two points, then they will be able to recommend you some great choices. Supermarkets are different in that they sell the products but staff may not know a great deal about them, especially as many have cut back on specialist wine and spirit staff in the recession. The distilleries help you here, as many of them now print basic tasting notes on their packaging and this will give you an idea if you like the sound of it or not. Liquor stores can vary from the knowledgeable to the clueless. Knowledgeable stores can be up there with the specialist retailers but the clueless can offer some real hidden gems and great bargains. The trick is to pop in for cheaper beer or wine and have a nose around, then do a little research on the bottles you have spied. With the internet there are many places to buy whisky and many of these print helpful tasting notes on each page, with some giving more information, customer reviews and distillery facts to help you make your choice.
Now, we are going to give some suggestions considering each of these points. Most of the whiskies recommended have been reviewed by us and the detailed notes can be reached by clicking on the name of the whisky. We have split the whiskies in to four categories to cover the wide scope of flavours and tastes that could be encountered in point 1. We have set a budget of £30, as this is the most common price point for gift purchases of whisky. Where you choose to buy your whisky from is up to you. We hope this helps ...
Light and fresh whisky
This can be described as light, clean, delicate, fresh and crisp so look out for these words on packaging. Key flavour characters may be vanilla, cereal grains, nuts, grassiness (fresh or dried) and floral. Famous examples of this style are the Glenfiddich 12 years old, Glenmorangie Original and Glenlivet 12 years old. You could go for one of these as they are all very good and are some of the best selling whiskies in the world but what if you want something different. There are some very under rated whiskies in this category and ones worth considering included Glen Grant, Speyburn and Glengoyne which all release good 10 year olds. Also, there is the Benriach 12 years old and for something slightly different, try the Japanese single malt Yamazaki 10 years old.
Rich and sweet whisky
These whiskies are much fuller bodied, sweeter and richer than the previous category. They can be described as thick and creamy and have key flavour words such as caramel, dried fruits and citrus peel, spicy and toffee. The Macallan 10 years old is the best selling and most well known brand of this style of whisky. There are many others worth considering including the Glenrothes Select Reserve and Glenfarclas 10 years old, which are reasonably common. The Tomintoul 10 years old and Glendronach 12 years old are harder to find but worth tracking down. If you are wanting something non-Scottish then look towards something like the Bushmills Black Bush or a bourbon such as Bulleit Bourbon or Maker's Mark. Most bourbons would fall in to this category.
A little bit smoky and peaty
This category is relatively small compared to the others. Generally, they are more robust but not always and have some of the peaty, earthy, smoky flavour and aroma but not as much as the next category. They tend to be from the islands around Scotland, but not always. The most well known examples of this style are the Talisker 10 years old, Highland Park 12 years old and Bowmore 12 years old. Other examples worth checking out include Ledaig 10 years old and Jura Superstition. Some whiskies have just the slightest hint of smoke and many people enjoy these as it is not too overpowering - Clynelish 14 years old, Springbank 10 years old and Glenfiddich Caoran Reserve 12 years old.
Very smoky and peaty
These are the big, heavy whiskies that are normally from the western Scottish island of Islay (although, again not always!). These will be labelled as rich, peaty, robust, fiery, earthy and smoky. If you see the word 'Islay' on an own brand supermarket whisky then 99 times out of 100, it will be in this style. The most famous and best selling brand of this typr of whisky is the Laphroaig 10 years old. Laphroaig (pronounced la-froyg) release another whisky in this £30 price bracket that is also very good and this is called Quarter Cask. Other quality whiskies to look for in this smoky style include Ardbeg 10 years old, Caol Ila 12 years old and Smokehead. If you want something smoky but not from Islay, then try the Benriach 10 years old 'Curiositas' or Longrow CV.
For further tips and suggestions on more expensive whiskies and other whisky related Christmas gifts, check out 'A whisky gift guide (2009)' on the excellent Scotch Hobbyist blog and 'Christmas picks 2009' by the legendary Dr. Whisky.