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The best whiskeys to buy this holiday season

Delicious whiskey, from Scotch to bourbon, rye, bottled in bond, and more.

Craig LaBan's holiday whiskey recommendations.
Craig LaBan's holiday whiskey recommendations.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

My dear mother-in-law and I always had whiskey in common. Barbara Trostler was the world’s most devoted drinker of Dewar’s blended Scotch. I’ve always loved single-malts, bold bourbons, and spicy ryes. Though I could never convince her to upgrade to a fancier dram, each year, she was more than happy to splurge on the whiskey of my dreams for the holidays.

I miss her often, but especially around this time of year, triggered by the absence of her bottle-shaped presents under the tree. She died just over five years ago and I only realized just now that my annual list of whiskeys for the holidays was, in fact, subconsciously launched as an homage to her liquor-gifting grace.

So this year’s fourth edition of whiskey-fest has one particular choice with Barbara in mind — along with eight other excellent bottles culled from a tasting of 22 contenders. They represent a range of prices and the global reach of the whiskey movement, including a couple local bottles that reflect our growing excellence in the distilling art. Most are available in Pennsylvania or nearby South Jersey. Another might require a trip to New York or Baltimore. But a little drive for good whiskey never deterred me. So, with my snifters raised high in a holiday toast to you all, here are my gift-bottle picks for 2019.

Dewar’s “The Monarch” 15-year-old blended Scotch Whisky Would my mother-in-law have actually gone for this 15-year-old upgrade over her standard White Label Dewar’s? No. But this relatively new blend from Stephanie Macleod, Dewar’s seventh master blender (and the first woman to hold that job) is elegant, balanced, approachable, and complex, with a honeyed toffee nose, bright citrus notes, a vanilla wisp of barrel char, and a savory hint of salt on the finish. At the very least, Barbara and I could have both happily sipped a Dewar’s around the tree. 80 proof, $39.99 (PLCB item #34368)

Teeling Irish Whiskey Single Grain Teeling became Dublin’s first new distillery in 125 years when it opened in 2015, and its whiskeys have rightly won praise. This unusual “single grain” whiskey, made almost entirely from corn at Cooley Distillery (which the Teeling family founded), has a distinct kettle corn-like sweetness on the nose and first sip, which is then colored by red-fruit notes from aging in California cabernet casks. This dram still has some spicy zing and represents a good value for the quality. 92 proof, $44.99 (PLCB Item #588796)

Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Straight Rye Whiskey The pride of Bristol Borough long ago made the leap from great local distiller to national spirit star with its focus on reviving spicy Pennsylvania-style rye (eschewing the softer notes of corn or wheat). And after eight years, Mountain Laurel Spirits continues to get better and more mature, recently bumping up its “straight” rye from three to four years of age. The change brought more than just a different label color (apparently green is now the fashion for ryes). There’s a richer mouthfeel and deeper concentration to the drink, with a grainy spice hovering over apricot and cherry notes, framed by pronounced vanilla from the barrel and a lingering hint of mint. 95 proof, on sale for $51.99 through December (PLCB Item #36743)

Bowmore 12-year-old Islay Single-Malt Scotch Whisky This 12-year-old hails from one of the most respected distilleries on the peat-smoked isle of Islay. While its smoky nose isn’t as intense as, say, Laphroaig or Lagavullin, there’s an ever-present twang, like a sizzling rasher of bacon, that hovers over a brassy-colored spirit whose sherry cask- and bourbon barrel-aging reveals notes of chocolate, sandalwood, orange, and exotic fruits. A fair price for genuine whisky. 80 proof, $54.99 (PLCB Item #8979)

J. Riddle Peated Bourbon Whiskey Fans of Martin Scorsese’s new gangster flick, The Irishman, will get a kick out of the fact this bottle was named after Jimmy Hoffa (“Riddle” was his middle name), with the red fox on its label nodding to the Michigan restaurant where the former Teamster boss was allegedly last seen. But this “peated bourbon,” made by Detroit’s Two James Spirits, holds intrigue on its own as a hybrid between two distinct whiskey categories that rarely mix well — the peated smoke of British barley (hello, Scotch fans) and the New World sweetness of Michigan corn. Purists will likely sneer. But I found the balance unique and well done. It’s not available in Pennsylvania yet, but pop by stores in New York (Ambassador Wines, Bondi Wine & Spirits) or Baltimore (Canton Crossing, Bo Brooks Lighthouse Liquors) to find a bottle, and pick up Two James’ Grass Widow bourbon while you’re at it. 91 proof, $54.99 suggested retail price

Manatawny Still Works 4-year-old Bottled In Bond American Whiskey Time in a barrel is paying off for this rising distillery from Pottstown. This bottle isn’t cheap, but this small-batch malt whiskey is also high-octane (at 50% alcohol) and richly complex, its deep brown liquid segueing from roasty coffee notes to molasses sweetness, with orange peels, dried fruit, and hints of chocolate that, paired with persistent grain character, evoke a boozy oatmeal cookie. Bottles are available at Manatawny’s various tasting rooms between the distillery and two satellites in Philadelphia. 100 proof, $70

The GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch 8 This 193-year-old distillery from the Eastern Highlands is known for big, buttery powerful spirits aged in sherry casks. And the eighth edition of its cask-strength series, aged for a decade in sweet Pedro Ximénez puncheons and Oloroso sherry butts, takes that character to an intense level. The result is a dark burst of raisiny fruit, quince paste, and toasted almonds, with layers of cocoa, caramel, and coffee. Considering the alcohol level, this dram is impressively smooth. 122 proof, $99.99 at Benash Liquors & Wines in Cherry Hill, N.J.

Little Book III, “The Road Home” Blended Straight Whiskey This is the third edition in the collectible Little Book series from eighth-generation Beam distiller Freddie Noe, who’s drawn on bourbons from across the company’s spirit range (Knob Creek, Baker’s, Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s) for a unique blend. Noe tinkered with 57 recipes before settling on this dark-copper brew, and I love how it starts tightly coiled, then unfurls like a banner with barrel spice, caramel, dried fruit, toasty grain, and charred oak. It’s viscous and almost syrupy at cask-strength, but amazingly sippable. Bottles of last year’s Canadian rye-centric blend (“Noe Simple Task”) are also still available in Pennsylvania for $99.99 (PLCB Item 49097). 123 proof, $124.99 (PLCB Item #82030)

Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Chocolate Malted Rye These annual one-offs from Woodford master distiller Chris Morris have become eagerly awaited, and this year’s edition shows why. Morris experimented with toasting rye (instead of more commonly used malted barley) to a chocolaty hue, and the deep amber spirit draws out intense fruit notes that seem sparked by the grain. It’s like a Black Forest cake-meets-rye whiskey moment, where dark cocoa and cherry mingle on cedary spice, then ride a bittersweet-chocolate wave to a long finish. Supplies in the Philly region are limited. 90 proof, $129.99 (PLCB Item #82128)

Added Perk

New Liberty Coffee Liqueur No, it’s not whiskey. But after our whiskey marathon, I needed a gentle pick-me-up. I found it in this coffee liqueur from Kensington’s New Liberty, which, unlike many coffee spirits, avoids being too sweet. It actually tastes like a good cup of black coffee because distiller Rob Cassell uses the Telemetry blend beans from neighboring ReAnimator Coffee Roasters — then adds a judicious kick. It’s lightly kissed with beet and date sugar, plus a touch of vanilla, to keep it smooth enough to drink solo or to add vivid coffee character to a sauce or pastry. This is an affordable host gift available at several New Liberty outlets around town. 50 proof, $24.99