The 2013 Gift Buyer's Guide to Whisky

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It's merely 2 days until Christmas. You have many people you want to shop for, and there is a whisky lover on your list. You've already gone into your local store a couple times and have left empty handed because no one could help you make heads or tails of the selection and whether or not it would be enjoyed by the person you are buying for. Where could you possibly turn for help? 

Well, this is one of those places. The first thing you'll need to do is make a list of what they have on their shelf at home. See a lot of Glenfarclas or Macallan on their shelf? That means you have a fan of sherried whiskies that you are buying for. Are there names like Elijah Craig, Maker's Mark, or Bookers staring back at you? Then you've got a bourbon fan on your hands. Are you staring at a myriad of bizarre sample bottles with hand written labels filling every nook and cranny of the room while 3 other shelves hold full-size bottles that are open, and another room holds the closed ones? Then get out of my house! 

All jokes aside, the label on a bottle, tube, or tin will be your first indicator of what you should be looking for. In fact, the best way to read a label is often in reverse. For instance if it says "Single Malt Scotch Whisky", then the bottle contains whisky, made in Scotland from malt (a process by which barley is allowed to sprout before roasting called "malting"), from a single distillery. Whereas "Blended Scotch Whisky" refers to whisky made in Scotland that uses a blend of different distilleries and types of whisky. Other things that you will find noted on the label could include the region of Scotland the whisky is from (Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay, Campbeltown, or Island), cask type (most commonly sherry or bourbon), an age statement that lists the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle, and the type of whisky it is such as Canadian, Irish, Bourbon, or Scotch. 

Once you have attended to looking into the contents of your subject's cabinet, turn your attention to thoughts of their favourite flavours. Both in terms of food, and if you can think of them, whisky. Do they enjoy smoked foods like pulled pork or beef brisket? Look for something with "Islay" on the bottle and you'll have a very good chance of bringing home a smoky whisky. Do they have a sweet tooth that sees them looking at the dessert menu before the mains in a restaurant? Then a whisky from the Speyside region will likely be a big hit with them.

Want more specific recommendations? Then read on...
As always, I will take a somewhat local approach to things meaning that I will link back to LCBO listings and, if you are lucky enough to be located elsewhere, please do make use of any of the great shops listed at the end. All referred shops are such due to the attentive, helpful, and knowledgeable nature of their staff. As for the prices listed, those are Ontario prices, meaning that many will likely find these whiskies for less elsewhere. 

Lastly, if you would like more detailed information on any of the whiskies or a picture of the bottle, a quick click on the name will take you to a full review.

Under $70

Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert by Davin de Kergommeaux.  A book? Yes. Again? Not "again", still.  Since it is only $15.67 on Amazon, you can combine this with any bottle for a complete experience, or simply opt for the book alone as it is the ideal companion to a fine dram of whisky. While its subject matter is entirely about the under-studied and often misunderstood world of Canadian whisky, it is by no means diminished as a gift for the Scotch or bourbon lover. Expansive in its detail, yet easily understood by the lay-person; it touches on everything including the history of the spirit, the process of making whisky of any kind, distilleries past and present, as well as offering reviews on dozens of existing Canadian whiskies. Suitable for fans of: whisky, whiskey, bourbon, Scotch, Canadian Whisky, and general knowledge.

The most inexpensive bottle on this year's list is by no means anything to ignore. A fantastically well balanced whisky, it delivers hints of sweet tea, light smoke, and an enjoyable nutty note. Hailing from South Africa, it also carries a bit of surprise for the recipient as few will have had the opportunity to taste a whisky from that part of the world before. For just $34.95, this one is also surprisingly easy on the wallet. Suitable for fans of: Johnnie Walker, Islay Mist, Laphroaig, Bowmore, and Black Grouse.

The Famous Grouse: The Famous Jubilee Special Edition Constructed using greater proportions of both Highland Park and Macallan in the blend than the average Famous Grouse bottling, this one has something for everyone. Rich, sweet, and deeply layered with toffees, cocoa, light spice and a hint of smoke, it is very hard to find anything to dislike about it, especially at just $39.95. Stock is now dwindling and when it's gone, it will be gone for good. So this may be your last chance to get your hands on it. Suitable for fans of: Macallan, Highland Park, Famous Grouse, Johnnie Walker, and just about any whisky.

Rich caramel, toffee, and maple syrup combined with peppery cloves, hints of orange, and semi-sweet chocolate. It is just about everything anyone enjoys in a seasonal dessert and it comes in a bottle from Canada's leading whisky maker. There are only 9,000 bottles of this limited release that have ever been made, so if your whisky fan also happens to by a fan of rye or Canadian whiskies, then this one is sure to be a hit. Priced at $69.95 right now, it may well survive the Christmas season, but like last year's Portwood Reserve, don't expect it to last too long. Suitable for fans of: Canadian whisky of any kind, Masterson's Rye, Wiser's, Bulleit Bourbon, and sticky toffee pudding.

$70 to $100

Honey roasted almonds, brown sugar, red apples, and just a hint of smoke throughout make this Speysider a superstar for $74.50. Impeccably balanced from beginning to end this whisky is arguably one of the best standard expressions coming out of Scotland right now and the small size of the distillery means that not all that many people are familiar with it. I know I would be happy receiving multiple bottles of this one wink wink. Suitable for fans of: Macallan, Aberlour, Lagavulin, Highland Park, and pulled pork sandwiches. 

The fact that this has been marked down to $77.35 is a testament to its obscure nature rather than its immense quality. It is rare to ever find an 18 year old single malt for anything under $100, let alone one from an extinct distillery in New Zealand. This rare prize exhibits all the traits of an old-style Speyside Scotch whisky with tangerines, caramel, honey, and barbecue wood smoke. Suitable for fans of: Benromach, Highland Park, Oban, Isle of Jura, and grilled fruits with butterscotch ice cream.

A limited edition of a rare single malt from a fantastic independent bottler. Apples and pears in a fruit salad one minute, candied oranges and mint chocolate the next. An excellent whisky with incredible pedigree, it is rarely found as a single malt here since much of the distillery's production goes into making blended whiskies. Silky smooth, this is a great gift for someone just getting into whisky or for the hardened fanatic, but you had better move quickly to secure one of the 17 bottles left in Ontario for $92.95. Suitable for fans of: Glenfiddich, Blavenie, Balblair, Old Pulteney, and fruit tarts.

Over $100

A remarkable dessert dram from benchmark independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail. Craigellachie is another rarely seen single malt used primarily for blended whisky, but one must wonder why when this expression delivers waves of peach pie, honeydew melons, and toasted coconut. This particular whisky was one of the crowd favourites in the tasting we held with a number of this bottler's whiskies back in January, which makes it all the more surprising that there are any bottles left right now. Currently, there are 18 bottles remaining at the LCBO for $119.95. Suitable for fans of: Glenfiddich, Old Pulteney, Glenmorangie, and just about any dessert.

One of the finest examples of what a great sherry cask can do with a single malt Scotch whisky is also one of the best possible deals to be had in Ontario. Priced $129.95 this fantastic whisky is back, but only in a limited quantity with just 34 bottles remaining. Cotton candy and bubblegum at first, but quickly evolving into butterscotch and almonds with candied fruits, Christmas spices, and dark chocolate. Highly recommended at any time of the year as it is one of the best bang-for-you-buck whiskies available. Suitable for fans of: Macallan, Aberlour, Dalmore, Highland Park, and Christmas desserts of any kind.

While it would be very easy to continue to recommend other bottles further up the price scale, it is here that I must conclude this guide as many of those same bottles can be had for much better prices in other locales. Speaking of other locations, there are some that are serviced by truly fantastic shops staffed by excellent people. Here is a short list of some of our favourite places to pick up great bottles. Regardless of whether they were found on business trips or vacations, you can stop in at these shops and, even in the final frenzied shopping hours of the season, find friendly advice and even better selection:

United Kingdom: The Whisky Exchange 
The world's finest whisky retailer. Bar none. For any whisky fan passing through London, this is a must-see destination. For those residing in the UK, but not in London, fear not, as TWE also provides online shopping.
Canada's finest retailer of spirits, and arguably the best in North America. Andrew and Hunter head up the whisky selection here and will steer you in the right direction without fail. Be sure to ask about the store's own single cask releases. 
Vancouver: Edgemont Fine Wines 
Located in North Vancouver's Edgemont Village, it is worth the trip to find bottles you can't get anywhere else.
Now up to 30 locations and featuring hundreds of whiskies to choose from, this has long been the go-to shop for fans of brown spirits in the Chicagoland area.
This tiny shop is found on the edge of Boston's financial district, and is just a short walk from State Street Station on the T. Don't let the tight confines throw you though, their bottle selection is excellent. Be sure to ask for Joe.
Home to a simply massive selection of single cask releases and almost all the standard ones, this is a fantastic spot to find unique expressions.
Johannesburg, South Africa: Whisky Brother 
Just past it's 1-year anniversary, it has become THE place to shop for whisky in South Africa. Run by whisky fanatic and still part-time blogger Marc Pendlebury, you can be assured of the type of personal service and attention to detail that is more commonly found at a Ritz-Carlton than a whisky shop. 

Those are just a few of the best places to shop, but should you not have the luxury to stop into any of these, please do reach out via Twitter, where even a picture of the shelf and a few words can result in a fast, effective recommendation. 

Regardless of where you reside, we at ScotchBlog.ca thank you for reading and wish you, your families, and all whisky fans around the world a safe and happy holiday season. 

Slainte! 

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