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16 great whiskeys for a sip of holiday cheer

There's a range of styles, prices and origins of whiskey, from Europe to Asia, Kentucky, Philly, and even Mexico.

Craig's Annual Holiday whisky / whiskey list. .
Craig's Annual Holiday whisky / whiskey list. .Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

I can only speak for myself, but after the historic awfulness of 2020, I’d appreciate a gift of great whiskey wrapped up in a bow. I suspect I’m not alone. So I made sure my annual tradition of suggesting several bottles for the holidays was undertaken this year with extra rigor and, of course, adhering to stringent social distancing guidelines for my team of tasters to sniff, sip, and banter our way through the 30-plus candidates to land on this final list of 16.

As always, there’s a range of styles, prices and origins, from Europe to Asia, Kentucky, Philly, and Mexico (yes, for El Whisky). Each has their own virtues. But shared with a special person in your bubble, each can offer a taste to traverse the world, transcend the moment, and warm the mood with a sip of cheer.

Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskeys, and Local Stars

Old Forester Straight Bourbon. Old Forester has been distilled continuously since 1870 and was the first American whiskey sold by the bottle. There are more complex editions of the brand, but the 86-proof standard remains a great value. This 72% corn-based spirit has bourbon’s classic profile of praline sweetness, fruit and grain, with a back note of tobacco. It’s also about as close to drinking a chocolate-cherry cordial as it gets. 86 proof, $21.99, (PLCB item #3290)

New Liberty Bloody Butcher Straight Bourbon Whiskey Single Barrel. The first edition of New Liberty’s Bloody Butcher Bourbon proved how good Pennsylvania distilling could be when it focused on local grains, in this case heritage red kernels of Bloody Butcher corn from Bucks County’s Castle Valley Mill and a smaller portion of malted rye from Deer Creek. Distiller Robert Cassell took it to the next level with this limited new edition, aged for two years (versus nine months in the standard version) in a single barrel with a deeper char. That’s still relatively young, but this richly textured pot-stilled spirit is fully expressive of the corn. A honeyed nose ripe with juicy pear melds with earthiness and a caramel corn finish, backed by a green aroma that reminds of shucking the silk off fresh corn. 95 proof, $59.99 direct from New Liberty Distillery or at the distillery’s stand at Christmas Village.

Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch Whiskey and Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey. Nathan Nearest” Green is finally getting his bottled due, thanks to entrepreneur and historian Fawn Weaver, who brought to light the story of the formerly enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel to distill Tennessee whiskey. Green went on to work for Daniel, who never enslaved people, after Emancipation. Daniel always recognized Green as a mentor. Green was eventually recognized in 2017 as Brown-Forman’s first distiller after Weaver’s research.

Weaver also launched a distillery in Shelbyville, Tenn., to pay tribute to Green’s liquid art with Green’s great-great-granddaughter, Victoria Eady Butler, overseeing the blending of currently sourced spirits. The two bottles I tasted were exceptional. The 1884 is blended with minimum seven-year-old whiskeys and layers lemon-pepper and nutmeg over brown butter caramel, with a savory finish. The 1856 is a darker blend of older spirits, from 8 to 14 years, with a deeper, more powerful 100-proof punch. Blending notes of dried raisins, brut dark chocolate, ginger, pecan pie, and a lingering toasty note reminiscent of the charred maple filtration that is Tennessee whiskey’s signature move. Uncle Nearest 1884, 93 proof, $49.99 (PLCB item #83071); Uncle Nearest 1856, 100 proof, $59.99 (PLCB item #74821)

Manatawny Still Works Scorpiones. One of the benefits of being a local distiller is the freedom to experiment. And Manatawny’s distiller Max Pfeffer is clearly having fun. His new make white whiskey turns straw gold after eight months in Scorpiones mezcal barrels, and is unlike anything I’ve tasted. The sweet and fruity nose is reminiscent of an aromatic white wine bright with green apples, citrus, and herbs. The mezcal’s smoke is soft but present, with a lingering saltiness, suggesting it would substitute nicely for agave spirits in cocktails. Try it solo alongside one of the many tinned fish options at Manatawny’s tasting room in South Philly, where operations manager Jennifer Sabatino pairs it with smoked mussels or razor clams. 90 proof, $35, available at Manatawny Still Works’ Pottstown distillery, South Philly tasting room (1603 E. Passyunk Ave.) or online.

Rye Times

Old Overholt 114 Proof and Old Overholt 11 year straight rye whiskeys. Old Overholt has deep roots in Pennsylvania’s rye lore, dating to 1800 in West Overton near Pittsburgh, where a distilling museum showcases the history of the Mennonite village and family that got it started. The recipe changed from spice-forward Monongahela-style rye to a softer, Kentucky profile when the brand was sold and moved out of Pennsylvania post-Prohibition. But Don Draper’s favorite bottle on Mad Men has retained its appeal. Current owner Beam Suntory recently issued two new expressions to honor the brand’s 220th anniversary. The 114 proof pays tribute to a Prohibition-era distilling style and pairs caramel sweetness with dry spice and a hint of mint on the finish, ideal for mixing (and a solid value at $30). The pricier 11-year-old is a wonderful sipper with layered complexity, mingling dried fruits and vanilla with mid-palate sparks of bold rye spice and fennel, plus a lift of citrus and barrel char that lingers long. Overholt 114 proof, $29.99, (PLCB item #98963); Old Overholt 11 year, 92 proof, $74.99 (PLCB item #98962)

Dad’s Hat Rock & Rye. The Dad’s Hat whiskies from Bristol’s Mountain Laurel Spirits are among America’s best Monongahela-style ryes — the deliciously spicy 2020 release of its bottled in bond straight rye ($65.99, PLCB item #75324) is 100 proof of that. The distillery’s take on Rock & Rye, however, is a worthy riff on the classic cordial of rye blended with rock candy. This all-natural version is less sweet than many competitors and is mixed with fresh citrus and apricots, baking spice, brown sugar, and minty horehound that adds herbal bitterness. Add a big ice cube and, as co-owner Herman Mihalich says, it’s like a ready-to-serve Old Fashioned. $39.99 direct from Mountain Laurel Distillery in Bristol or in many Pennsylvania state stores (PLCB item #75277)

Mexican Corn Spirits

Abasolo Alma De La Tierra Oaxacan Corn Whisky and Nixta Liqor de Elote. I’m always fascinated by the array of agave spirits from Mexico that go beyond tequilas and mezcals. Sotol, Bocanora, and Raicilla to name a few. Now there’s el whisky, made by Abasolo from ancestral Cacahuazintle corn that is nixtamalized before it’s distilled in copper pots — a traditional technique for preparing corn for masa. I do get a distinct whiff of fresh tortillas when I approach this honeyed spirit, which has a complexity and heat beneath its initial sweetness. But I can’t take my eyes off Nixta, Abasolo’s much sweeter, and more vivid companion, which isn’t technically a whisky, but a liqueur made into sweet wort from the same corn, but also macerated after distillation with ripe fresh kernels. The effect is deeply evocative of a sweet tamale, or the smell of a tortilleria during early morning production. Aside from its distinctive flavor, Nixta’s unique corn-shaped bottle is well worth a detour on your next trip to NYC (or for an online purchase) Abasolo, 86 proof, $43.99 (shipped from Urban Wines and other New York merchants); Nixta, 60 proof, $34.99 at Urban.

The Euros

Bruichladdich Islay Single Malt Port Charlotte 10 year old. Bruichladdich is one of the few Islay distilleries that doesn’t always lean heavily on peat-smoked malts. Its 10-year-old Port Charlotte is an exception. It’s peated a shade more intensely than Laphroaig and rolls across the palate like a whisky custard infused with kelp and smoldering autumn leaves. Bold but beautifully balanced. 100 proof, $69.99 (PLCB item #98792)

Highland Park Single Malt Scotch 12 Viking Honour This Orkney distillery pays homage to the island’s Nordic influence with a Viking-themed rebranding of its standard 12-year-old. Sounds gimmicky, but this dram also left a fine impression with its balanced personality — a fruitcake’s worth of rounded juiciness framed by subtle smoke and enough tangy brightness to give it length. 86 proof, on sale for $49.99, usually $57.99 (PLCB item #8001)

Tamnavulin Speyside Single Malt Scotch Double Cask. Until recently, this Speyside distillery was known for light and malty spirits intended for blending. Aged in American oak and sherry casks, its dark-amber liquid now stands on its own as a smooth-drinking entry-level single-malt, with toffee-coated apple notes, chocolate, and a lemony brightness that’s enjoyable, if not necessarily profound. 80 proof, on sale for $34.99, usually $44.99 (PLCB item #735)

The Legendary Silkie Irish Whiskey. This Irish whiskey with a mythical sea maiden for a name is sourced and blended by Sliabh Liag Distillers, which is still constructing its own Donegal distillery. Collectors are rightfully wary of marketing-forward products standing in until a distiller can make its own. That said, we still enjoyed this smooth sipper (new to the States this fall) for its honeyed notes, strawberry brightness, and creamy finish. For the price, it makes a worthy gift. 92 proof, $34.49 (PLCB item #625038)

Japanese Jewel

Yamazaki 12 year. I can’t stop thinking about this legendary Japanese single malt since Flow State Coffee Bar (sadly now defunct) turned it into a boozy luxury gelato that was as insanely delicious (and pricey). That’s because this whisky is a major splurge. Yes, Japan has many great spirits to consider. But a retasting of Yamazaki’s 12-year-old (minus the gelato) reminded why this classic is still one of the world’s greatest whiskies — a luminous golden beam of sunny fruits (pineapple and melons), dried fruits, hazelnuts, vanilla, and incense from Japanese oak finish. 86 proof, $124.99 (PLCB item #30981)