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23 April 2014

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The festive spirit: whisky for Christmas

(menu)

These days, when it comes to buying Christmas presents, a bottle of whisky springs to mind as readily as gold, frankincense and myrrh did to the Three Wise Men. Which can be a problem, because no one wants to feel they’re simply receiving whatever happened to be the most attractive 2-for-1 Crimbo promotion when you were at the supermarket buying cat food. So, if you want to give whisky, and you want it to be appreciated, you need to put a little bit more thought into your gift. Here are a few suggestions for some of the usual suspects on your present-buying list…

The best friend

whisky for christmas_best friend - jh_squaremeal_whisky_bestfriend.jpgYou will no doubt end up partaking of more than a few drams of this particular whisky yourself, so it’s imperative you make it a good one. Highland Park 21-year-old (47.5% abv) from Orkney, with its gently charred layers of chocolate fudge, buttery prunes and zesty orange oil, is perfectly suited for a deep-and-meaningful by the fireside, possibly with a cigar in hand. Another whisky to ponder is the splendid Caol Ila Cask Strength (61.3% abv), an intense Islay malt that’s a controlled explosion of coastal peat fires, salty sea air and sweet heather honey – at its best with a drop of water from the jug or a rain-blasted fell-side.

If your bestie has been really, really good to you this year, to the tune of, say, £6,000, you could think about splashing out on something especially rare, such as the newly released 1953 Glenfarclas 58-year-old (47.2% abv), available from masterofmalt.com. Bottled from a single cask that yielded just 400 bottles, it’s the oldest Glenfarclas ever released, yet remains rich and supple, snuffling its way through deliciously dank forest floors and velvety black truffles. Or, for a few grand less, there is the new Glenfarclas 105 20-year-old (60% abv from singlemaltsdirect.com), a feast of figgy, Christmassy loveliness.

If, on the other hand, American whiskey is more to their taste, then a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel (45% abv), with its more toasty, nut and spice take on the standard JD, makes an ideal present, clad in a smart decanter-style bottle that’s just right for putting under the Christmas tree.

The boss

whisky for christmas_boss - jh_squaremeal_whisky_boss.jpgIt could be that your boss is also your best friend (or your girlfriend, for that matter), but for the purposes of this exercise I’m going to presume that your relationship is purely professional. What you need, in this case, is a cast-iron classic that shows a respectable degree of investment without making you look like the school swot. Johnnie Walker Blue Label (40% abv), with its buttery, smoky sweetness, is always sure to please, although neophytes might also be taken by a bottle of the new Johnnie Walker Platinum Label (40% abv), an 18-year-old blend rich with dark, chewy fruit and battered leather.

The vigorous Talisker from the Isle of Skye is another perennial winner in my book, with a honeyed but briskly peaty style that’s as uplifting as a blustery coastal walk on a sunny winter’s day. The 10-year-old (45.8% abv) is excellent value for money, but if you want to push the boat out a little more, then the 2011 bottling of the 25-year-old (45.8% abv) uses those extra 15 years in wood to bring even more breadth and depth to the picture – imagine that coastal walk once more, but this time taken in the stillness of a deep red sunset.

If peat smoke is not your boss’s style, then the elegant, fruity whiskies of Highland distillery Glenmorangie are always a crowd-pleaser. Oloroso sherry casks give the silky Glenmorangie 18-year-old (43% abv) a warming nuttiness, while Glenmorangie Artein 15-year-old (46% abv) is finished, more unusually, in Tuscan wine casks to give it rounded prune and date flavours that make for delicious after-dinner sipping.

The girlfriend

whisky for christmas_girlfriend - jh_squaremeal_whisky_girlfriend.jpgIf you want a whiskey with a bit of old-fashioned romance about it, then how about Kentucky bourbon Four Roses, whose story begins in 1888, when founder Paul Jones Jr asked for a lady’s hand in marriage. If she wished to accept, he said, she should wear a corsage of four red roses. She duly did, and it was happy ever after. The mellow Four Roses style is, in my opinion, at its best in Four Roses Single Barrel (50% abv), where vanilla notes come studded with sultanas and nuts.

If she’s one for style as well as substance, then look to artisan whisky blenders Compass Box, whose masterly blending is matched by some truly lovely packaging.

New for this Christmas is The Entertainer (46% abv), a blend created exclusively for Selfridges and inspired by the more characterful, peaty blends of the late 19th century – as sweet, lively and mischievous as a soot-covered urchin.

Should she require a bit more seduction in the whisky department, then The Singleton of Dufftown (40% abv), a Speyside malt that’s as delicious and silky as a luxurious fur coat, is an ideal place to start.

The hipster

whisky for christmas_hipster - jh_squaremeal_whisky_hipster.jpgTo impress the hipster, we need something that’s out of the ordinary – and you don’t get much more out there than Islay distiller Ardbeg, which recently fired molecules of its unaged whisky into space to explore how whisky ages in a micro-gravity environment. While you can’t get your hands on these actual molecules, you can invest in the limited edition Ardbeg Galileo (49% abv), a new bottling created to celebrate the experiment, which fleshes out Ardbeg’s signature citrusy peat-wallop with moreish, fruity membrillo (quince) flavours gleaned from Marsala wine casks.

The Hipster may also appreciate a taste of the Far East. A decanter of Hibiki 12-year-old (43% abv), a blend full of joyously tropical pineapple and spice flavours, would make a stylish addition to any Shoreditch pad; while the vibrant Hakushu Bourbon Barrel (48.2% abv) – a rich mouthful of caramelised, spiced pears lifted by a fresh herbaceous finish – would make a really unique talking point after dinner.

A small-batch American whiskey such as the splendidly named Knob Creek (50% abv) is also guaranteed to win you cred with the kind of hipster who likes things old-school. Created to emulate the pre-Prohibition style of bourbon, it’s got a mash bill (distiller-speak for ‘recipe’) that’s unusually high on rye, making it particularly characterful and spicy. And you’ve got to love that label, too.

The whisky buff

whisky for christmas_whisky buff - jh_squaremeal_whisky_buff.jpgYou’re unlikely to outwit this most anoraky of epicureans, so rather than going for obscure, try instead to secure something rare. The annual raft of Special Releases from Diageo always includes a number of highly covetable whiskies from distilleries that are no longer in production. This year’s highlights include the Port Ellen 32-year-old (52.5% abv), a rich and complex malt in the old style, counterbalancing sweet, creamy/toasty oats with tangy maritime flavours; and a Brora 35-year-old (48.1% abv), a masterclass in the distillery’s signature scented, waxy note and softly spiced smoke. It’s worth noting that bottles from both these distilleries often prove to be good investments, too.

Japanese whisky is also achingly hip right now, and if your whisky buff is a fan of smoky Islay malts, then the peaty Nikka Yoichi 10-year-old (45% abv) from northern Japan, which rests ripe, soft fruit on a bed of charred wood and incense, is just the ticket. Alternatively, if you really want to blow them away, then shell out for one of the 500-odd bottles of the fabulous new 1983 Noh Cask no. 7576 from Karuizawa (57.2% abv), an atmospheric wonder from Japan’s smallest, and now defunct, distillery, that envelops you in the sweet, heavy fog of a damp autumnal bonfire.

Irish whiskey may have lacked some credibility in recent years, but the whisky buff will know this is now changing fast. A bottle of the award-winning Bushmills 21-year-old Madeira Finish (40% abv), or the prized Jameson 2007 Rarest Vintage Reserve (46% abv), will show that you’re one step ahead of the crowd.

The cocktail geek

whisky for christmas_whisky geek - jh_squaremeal_whisky_geek.jpgThe whiskey that’s on the tip of every cocktail geek’s tongue right now is rye. Spicier than its corn-based American cousin bourbon, rye was, in fact, the dominant whiskey style in America, and the default base for classics such as the Sazerac and Manhattan, right up until Prohibition. Pikesville Straight Rye (40% abv) is a favourite with bartenders, while the peppery tobacco and cassia power of Rittenhouse Straight Rye 100 Proof (50% abv) recently won Best Rye No Age Statement at the World Whiskies Awards.

Having said that, no spirits lover could fail to be delighted with a bottle of Woodford Reserve (43.2%), a small-batch bourbon that’s gorgeous, boozy banana cake and woody cigar boxes on the nose, followed by crème caramel, nutmeg and black chocolate on the palate. Great for a slow-stirred Old Fashioned or simple after-dinner sipping.

Scotch that mixes well is a little harder to find, which is why William Grant, the creator of Hendrick’s Gin, created Monkey Shoulder (40% abv), a super-smooth blended malt that will happily adapt to a wide variety of dance partners.

Whiskey cocktails also need bitters, and to that end, a neat stocking-filler would be a bottle of Master of Malt Christmas Bitters (58.83% abv; masterofmalt.com), made with gold, frankincense and myrrh, and purportedly sonically aged to the sound of Phil Spector’s Christmas album… Merry Christmas!

Unless otherwise specified, all whiskies are available to buy from thewhiskyexchange.com and other good retailers.

This feature was published in the autumn 2012 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.

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