The holiday season is closing upon us, and you are probably stumped on what to give me this year. The answer is: whiskey. A lot of it. Under the tree, in the stocking, on the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth magical night, you get the picture. I want whiskey now.
Likewise, you probably want to be able to do most of your shopping in one place, so head out to the local packie/bottle/liquor store, and pick up some of these bottles for the whiskey lovers and assorted drunkards on your list. And get something nice for me yourself while you're at it.
1. Van Winkle , “Special Reserve” 12 Year Old Bourbon, “Lot B”
I’m going to start with an old favorite and then get into a series of new releases and expressions.
Julian Van Winkle, and lately with his son Preston, has been, in my estimation, making the best American whiskies for the last ten years. Whether from the now gone Stitzel-Weller distillery or now at Buffalo Trace, the Van Winkle line of bourbons and a rye is simply unparalleled for quality in a range of ages and proof levels.
The 12 year old, “Lot B” bourbon is my favorite Van Winkle expression because it is smoother on the palate than the two 10 year old expressions but not as oaky and tannic as the older expressions. While the 15, 20, and 23 year old expressions are silky smooth, the 12 year old is perfectly balanced with a wheated bourbon’s sweetness and a touch of rye spice. If you are looking to give me Dad, your wife or husband, or my mom a premium American bourbon, this is perhaps the place to start. Mom's really more of a pino grigio gal, but this is a really nice gift.
Keep going for more Whiskies
2. Compass Box, “Spice Tree” 2010
I am not a Highland malt drinker; the Macallan line, for example, that so many whiskey drinkers love, does nothing for me. But the return of this expression from the master blenders at Compass Box is a dram for the Highland Whiskey drinker on your your list this year because it represents the cutting edge of the art and science of blending.
In 2005, Compass Box brought out their first Spice Tree expression that followed wine makers’ practice of adding toasted oak staves to the barrel. The Scotch Whiskey Association didn’t like this and declared Spice Tree to be an outlaw. No, really. They did. Demand for this whiskey increased, naturally, but Compass Box deferred to the SWA and stopped production in 2006. Then they went to work to find a way to conform to the SWA’s definition of proper aging and blending techniques while recreating the taste profile of the original Spice Tree. According to their website, the whiskey was aged in “bespoke casks with new French oak heads of varying toast levels.” First of all, anything bespoke is by definition awesome in my book. Second, varying toast levels just sounds delicious. What Compass Box did was to conform to the SWA’s guidelines through experimentation and invention and get exactly the taste profile they wanted from the wood. In other words, they did what great hackers do—found a creative solution to a problem to get what they wanted in the first place and prevent the SWA's kilts from getting into twists.
3. Ardbeg “Supernova” 2010
On the other hand, I have enjoyed all the peated whiskies from Islay and the lowlands that I have been able to try. I love Oban 12 year old, Lagavulin 16, Bowmore 18, Laphroaig 10, and Ardbeg 10 year old. Of these, the last is my favorite. Ardbeg 10 year old is the color of spun gold, but has an earthy, smoky flavor that I just like to slowly and endlessly sniff. It’s just fantastic stuff. The Supernova release is heavily peated, in the 100 parts per million range; Ardbeg’s Blasda release is the lowest at 8 ppm while the flagship 10 year old Ardbeg is around 40 ppm. In other words, this is going to be an absolute blast of peat, and at 60% ABV, this is a near barrel proof dram, so adding water is going to be essential, I think. Sounds about right for sitting on the porch on a cold, wet afternoon, dreaming of, and afterwards smelling of, a boggy campfire. Want. Now. This is the whiskey for the person on your list you wouldn't mind sitting in front of a cracking fire with, or at least that person whom you'd like to give the gift of "fireplace mouth" to on Christmas Eve. It's just a delightful aroma to wake up to on that most magical of mornings.
4. 2010 George T. Stagg
This is one of the most sought after American whiskies and part of Buffalo Trace’s jerky: dehydrated, leathery, and bereft of life. In the bottle, Stagg has the color (though not opacity) of hot chocolate; on the nose, Stagg has notes of orange peel and other citrus flavors. Well worth tracking down. And hording. Not one to be shared with anyone who dumps Coke into their whiskey. Ok, maybe Craig Finn. But unless Finn's giving you something this year, give this one to the real connoisseur on your list.
5. 2010 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon
On May 19th, I received an email from Old Forester announcing the 2010 Birthday Bourbon. This series, begun in 2002 to celebrate George Gavin Brown’s birthday on September 2, is always a must find for the year. One of the things I like best about the Birthdays is the glimpse into master distiller Chris Morris’ barrel selection process. According to the email, the 2010 edition is “a single day vintage selection consisting of 72 barrels that date from October 24, 1997. These select barrels matured together in the very middle of Warehouse K, on the 5th floor, in ricks 42, 43 and 45 surrounded by open space, allowing the barrels to breathe deep during maturation and develop a rich character full of fruit and spice notes.” This could be a whole rickhouse full of bullshit. I don’t care. It sounds like what heaven must be like. And having been inside and around rickhouses, few places on earth smell as good as bourbon warehouses. This would be a great gift for baby's first Hannukah, Kwanzaa, or Solstice as it's one of the few American whiskies with a clear vintage to remember the year by.
6. Hudson Manhattan Rye
With the exception of the Compass Box blend, I have recommended whiskies that I have at least sampled something in the distillery’s range. Tuthilltown Spirits are wholly unknown to me. I have seen them on the shelves and was sorely tempted to buy. This year, I will give in to temptation. I have just heard too many good things from too many trustworthy sources. Nicknamed ‘the Baby whiskies’ because they are bottled in short, stout 375 ml bottles, Tuthilltown’s reputation is for absolutely top notch spirits. They produce this rye, bourbons, and a malted barley whiskey, as well as rum, vodka, and an unaged corn whiskey or white dog.
7. Makers Mark “46”
Lastly, release, 46 is supposed to be a more traditional tasting bourbon over the sweeter tastes of Maker’s regular release. My guess is that there is more rye and probably less wheat in the mashbill and the wood has been more thoroughly aged (perhaps similar to last year’s Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection: Seasoned Oak release). Without question, the wood selected for the barrels has been more deeply toasted than those traditionally used for Maker’s and toasted staves are added to the barrels for greater engagement of wood and spirit. It’s one of the few times that Bill Samuels Jr. has released a Maker’s product with a mashbill different from his father’s recipe, and when I get to Louisville in mid-June, this will be my first dram. Of many.
It will be difficult, not to say expensive for Santa or Hannukah Harry to procure all of these whiskies, but not to worry, what would New Years, MLK Day, Groundhog Day, or President's Day be without a new bottle of whiskey? Best of all, 750 ml fits everyone on your list.