It’s easy in a bar. Your bartender is right there to offer recommendations. But it can be tricky when you need a last-minute gift and you face a wall of Scotch whiskey when you usually shop for Italian wines. In the spirit of the season of giving, here’s a basic roadmap to help you navigate the liquor store. As proof of the wide variety on offer, we’ve offered some suggestions, whether you’re willing to splurge or you prefer to save.
All cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac. Like burgundy wine or champagne, it has an appellation of origin and must be produced in a designated region of France with grapes grown in that region to be called cognac. Its flavors and body can be as complex and dramatic as its centuries-old heritage.
PIERRE FERRAND AMBRE ($45) Ripe pears and roses are the key notes on the nose of this understated beauty. It’s produced in the smallest pot stills in the Cognac region with first growth Grande Champagne grapes, which many distillers use in their higher end bottlings.
MARTELL CORDON BLEU ($85) This warhorse from the oldest of the major cognac houses is what to give to anyone who favors well structured Sonoma Cabernets. Rich raisiny, nutty aromas give way to a dry, elegant palate of spiced fruits and a persevering finish.
Rum often suffers from an unfortunate case of identity theft. You could blame Coke. Mix it with rum, and it robs the spirit of its distinctive characteristics. Truth is: there’s a pirate’s booty’s worth of stunning aged rums as delicate and snifter-worthy as cognac, but often a fraction of the price.
EL DORADO 12 ($29.99) El Dorado is distilled in Guatemala in the world’s only operational wooden column stills. Made from molasses, this dry, buttery rum is lighter in body than the allspice and sweet date aromas suggest, but it still warrants leisurely fireside sipping.
SANTA TERESA 1796 ($39.99) Produced at the oldest family-run distillery in Venezuela, this rum spends anywhere from four to 35 years in ex-bourbon barrels, then it’s aged in ex-cognac barrels using the complicated solera system, a method traditionally used to make Spanish sherry. The final product suggests maple syrup and macadamia nuts on the nose, It has burnt sugar notes and touches of cinnamon on the palate and a mocha-like finish.
By legal definition, bourbon whiskey must be made in the United States with at least 51 percent corn and aged in new American charred white oak barrels. It doesn’t have to be produced in Kentucky, but the best ones are. Remember how those outlaws in spaghetti westerns knock back harsh whiskey wincingly? Forget it. Bourbons can have the uptown class of a fine burgundy.
FOUR ROSES SMALL BATCH ($30) What hits you first is the oak. It makes you think of the storied dim barrel warehouses of Kentucky where a stunner like this lies maturing for years. The soft honey and caramel notes give way to a dynamic, warm, peppery spiciness. The chocoholic on your list will appreciate this to pair with Belgian milk chocolates.
BLANTON’S SINGLE BARREL ($50) Named for the distiller who originated the concept of bottling bourbons one barrel at a time (instead of marrying many barrels together), this handsome whiskey introduces itself with aromas of rich - almost exotic - vanilla bean, gingerbread, and pistachio. Every cliche about American whiskey is stamped out when you taste its powerful yet gentle chicory snap and enduring bitter chocolate finish.
Your liquor store’s Scotch whiskey aisle is arguably the toughest to negotiate. Ages, regions, strengths, and of course, prices vary radically. There are two truths to keep in mind as you start navigating: First, older does not mean better. Older Scotches are generally heavier and woodier. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference. Second, not all Scotches are smoky. The smokiest, peatiest Scotches come from the islands, particularly Islay. Many distilled on the Scottish mainland are floral or nutty or fruity. Single malt Scotch, which means it comes from one distillery (versus a blend, which contains single malts from many distilleries) is a far more egalitarian spirit than you think.
DALMORE 12 ($49.99) Like the Rolling Stones, this classically well-rounded single malt is all things to anybody. Made with whiskies aged in ex-bourbon barrels and Oloroso Sherry casks, novices will be pleased with its sweetness that isn’t cloying, just velvety, malty and delicious. Aficionados will appreciate its subtleties -orange rind, almond.
HIGHLAND PARK 18 ($100) Produced on a tiny Scottish island called Orkney, the peat used in production here is much more delicate than the intense peat of Islay, which can impart a profound savory - even ashy - quality. This single malt is aged entirely in ex-sherry casks. The result is a full bodied, graceful Scotch with cocoa and cherry aromas and an easy peat-kissed finish.