If you’re still searching for a decent gift idea for a friend, family member, or coworker, you can rarely go wrong with booze. (Of course, please at least do some digging to consider possible health and wellness-related issues.) But if you’re the type of person whose first thought is to swing by the wine aisle and grab a bottle of Three Buck Chuck, let’s pump the brakes and consider your better, more delicious options. Specifically, the sweet brown, golden goodness that is whisk(e)y.
Bourbon snobs and label chasers will tell you that Bourbon A is better than Bourbon B, C, and D or that John Q. Ryemaker, for $70 more, offers a smoother taste in a bottle that was hand-crafted by a fingerless nun in the mountains of San Bonerbarge. But we don’t have time for that, as the holiday season is already squatting over us. Instead, here are some personal favorites that just might make you the big winner at your company’s Secret Santa exchange. (Especially since Barb from HR is giving out framed pictures of her cat again this year. No one cares about Doctor Whiskers, Barb.)
W.L. Weller Special Reserve
Price: $25 and up
This bottle is usually at the top of every “If You Can’t Buy Pappy, Buy This…” list, and for good reason: It shares the same recipe as those hard-to-find and (when you settle for secondary market prices) obscenely expensive bottles. Today, the cool thing to do is pretend like Pappy isn’t even that good as to be so sought-after, so let’s just bypass all the jibber-jabber and dub W.L. Weller the cheaper, still-delicious nephew.
The problem with the Weller bottle, though, is that it’s also in high-demand, what with it being the “next best thing,” so finding it at retail is also a chore. When you do nab a bottle, it’s arguably the best value out there — its taste is simple and strong. You’ll get some oak and caramel, maybe even a little fruit, but mostly you’ll get a fantastic bourbon at a fantastic price.
Aberfeldy 12-Year-Old Highland Single Malt
When it comes to selecting spirits, you can almost always trust the experts to steer you in the right direction with regards to awards and honors. In 2014, after a long-anticipated re-launch and re-design, the Aberfeldy 12-year-old Highland single malt was released to rave reviews, even collecting “Best Highland Single Malt 12 Year and Under” and “The Best Highland Single Malt” honors at the 2014 World Whiskies Awards. But enough about what the experts think, is this bottle worth the historical hype? Hell yes.
The packaging boasts that the Aberfeldy is “mellowed for 12 years in handmade oak casks,” and mellow can’t be emphasized enough. The honeyed taste is undeniably delicious, and your first sip will be enough to have you reaching for the bottle to pour another. Drink it neat or with one rock, but certainly take time to savor the full body, because it goes down so smoothly that you may not realize when your glass is empty.
If I’m snobby about anything, it’s usually the word “craft.” People tend to see “craft,” be it beer or liquor, and assume that means it’s good. They think, “Oh, this is local and made by two men with their bare hands and bottled by orphans who filter the spirits through their wooden shoes,” and sometimes the truth is that the craft stuff is just okay. But what the team at Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. has done in making TX Whiskey deserves to be praised and celebrated. This award-winning craft whiskey made me deliver a loud Sulu “Oh myyyyyyyy” upon first sip, because this stuff is downright delicious.
It is insanely smooth, and before I even looked at the blenders’ tasting notes I was in love with the honey flavor. I couldn’t put my finger on what was giving this such a unique sweetness, and it’s definitely the unusual but fantastic inclusion of banana. This is one of those situations in which I take a chance on a bottle I’ve never heard of and I’m rewarded with something that I’ll keep on the cart as long as I can.
Additional bonus points for the boot leather cork and the gauze-wrapped neck. More bottles could use something to catch the excess drops so I don’t look like a lush at the holiday party by licking the side of a whiskey bottle.
High West Yippee Ki-Yay
High West released this mad scientist batch earlier this year, and the name alone had me hopping around trying to lock down a bottle. In truth, just about every bottle in the High West line is worth your time and money, from Bourye to Campfire, and this one is my new favorite. Basically, High West took its already delicious Double Rye and poured it into oak barrels that had previously been used for vermouth and Qupé Syrah (a wine, you punk n00b). The result, the distillery admits, was “an all-natural, not disgustingly sweet whiskey.”
They’re being playful, but the truth is the Yipee Ki-Yay is a blast of flavor from the first sip. I immediately loved the smokiness, but the cinnamon and spice eventually take over and make it absurdly good. If this was a year-end list of my favorite boozes, this bottle would be No. 1 by a mile, but for now I’m just telling you that it makes a great gift (for yourself, mostly).
Stranahan’s Diamond Peak
If you’re working within a cheaper budget, don’t roll your eyes at this pricier bottle. The original yellow label Stranahan’s is just as fantastic and will set you back less than $50. I’m pushing the Diamond Peak, though, because it’s my go-to Jack Donaghy thinking man whiskey, as I like to stare out the window and ponder life while sipping this American single malt. You’ll definitely notice the hints of caramel and chocolate, but what I love about this bottle, and why both labels have permanent spots on my liquor cart, is that the “freshly sawed wood” notes are no joke. First time I sipped the yellow label, I thought, “Man, I feel like I’m gettin’ drunk in a sawmill.” That’s a good thing, obviously.
Lagavulin 16-Year-Old Single Malt
Price: $65 and up
Ron Swanson was great for a lot of reasons, from his one-of-a-kind quotes to his iconic mustache, but the man also loved a good drink. When Ann Perkins told a very sick Ron to drink plenty of liquids, Lagavulin was his go-to bottle, and when he was making amends with Leslie Knope after a bitter feud, they shared a glass of his favorite brown stuff. He loved it so much, he even bought the dang distillery. And that was all for a simple reason: Lagavulin is freakin’ delicious. Everything about the notes — from the smokiness to the peat — makes Lagavulin somehow taste expensive, like a magical top hat suddenly appears on your head.
The price is what usually stops people at the liquor store, though. If you’re very lucky, you might find the Lagavulin 16 for around $50, but you’d have to be dining on unicorn meat for that kind of luck. Some online outlets have bottles for under $70, but shipping will bite your wallet harder. Thus, you’re at the mercy of the local liquor store price gun. Lagavulin makes for a great high-end gift, perhaps for the Ron Swanson in your life.
Jack Daniel’s Limited-Edition 150th Anniversary Tennessee Whiskey
You can chase labels all you want, thumbing your nose with and at the rest of the bourbon snobs, but there’s no debating that Old No. 7 always deserves a spot on your liquor shelf. This holiday season, you can enjoy a high-quality whiskey while paying tribute to a legend, as the Jack Daniel Distillery has released a limited-edition Tennessee whiskey to celebrate its 150th anniversary. This 100-proof bottle was made with the same time-honored Tennessee whiskey recipe, but it was given the VIP treatment at the Distillery, where the specially-crafted American oak barrels were stored in the “angel’s roost.”
What you get with this anniversary bottle is an unforgettably mellow flavor (pay tribute the right way by drinking it neat) that first treats you to delicious notes of toffee and butterscotch, but keeps you surprised and satisfied with every sip. This bottle will make you reminisce on all the Jack you washed down with Coke in college — smiling about how you can’t really remember anything from those hazy nights.