Nothing warms my holiday mood like the amber spirit of a special whiskey. But how to choose? There are more whiskeys than ever, and they aren’t getting cheaper. Enter my third-annual whiskey-fest. I spent early December sipping through a bunch of contenders so you don’t have to buy any pretenders. This year, I assembled 25 candidates currently available in Pennsylvania, and settled on just 11 for reasons of quality, global variety, and local interest.
There is a fast-growing contingent of local whiskeys to consider — many of them with promise. But on a table of international competitors, many of the local contenders still taste green around their deceptively dark-brown edges and could use more years in the barrel. One exception is rye, a historic specialty for Pennsylvania, which also happens to be one of the fastest-expanding categories across the liquor market. Several made this list. And if you’re a worldwide sipper like me, there’s a always place for Kentucky, Scotland, Ireland, and Japan in that liquor cabinet, too.
Snifters at the ready, here are my gift bottle picks for 2018.
Five & 20 Spirits SB2RW Rye Whiskey 90 Proof, $36.99 (PLCB Item #34519): Technically, this rye is made at a New York distillery, but it’s connected to Mazza Vineyards in Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie wine country nearby. Among the locals, it’s one of the better values, with a nice copper color from 18 months in the barrel that lends a framework of caramel sweetness to a bright, minty note that rides in focused balance to a grainy finish of rye spice.
Eight Oaks Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey 88 Proof, sale price $22.99 for 375 ml (PLCB Item #1407): Eight Oaks in New Tripoli is one of the few distillers anywhere that grows its own grain. And you get a good whiff of that cereal on the nose, with the fruity notes that also come from rye. For such a young whiskey, it shows an approachable balance between sweetness and spice. The half-size bottles also make it an affordable way to try something new.
New Liberty Fortunato’s Fate 95 Proof, $89.99 (available only at the distillery, Art in the Age, and Reading Terminal Market): This deep, dark, brooding whiskey — inspired by Fortunato from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” — is the most intense local rye I’ve tasted. It’s also the priciest, because the Kensington distillery ages it in prime oloroso barrels (thus the Poe connection) similar to ones used by the Macallan. It’s made from flavorful 100 percent local grain malted by Deer Creek, and the first-fill sherry barrels add a fruity, nutty, toffee complexity to a spirit that swaggers with spice and smoke. It’s a brawny beauty perfect for sipping the winter away.
Basil Hayden’s Two by Two Rye 80 Proof, $44.99 (PLCB Item #76201): Rye’s popularity is such that everyone is making it — even brands more renowned for bourbon. This product from a famous Kentucky name is actually a hybrid blend of two ryes and two bourbons. It’s not for purists, who may prefer one or the other. But I can clearly taste both streams on the palate here — a dry rye spice on top, bourbon’s corn sweetness lying low — and they’re blended into charming harmony.
Maker’s Mark Private Select 110.2 Proof, $69.99 (PLCB Item #19698): I’m a longtime fan of Maker’s smooth and sweet wheated bourbon style. This overproofed spirit essentially takes Maker’s cask-strength whiskey and adds a complex variety of different barrel stave finishes to give it more intensity and depth. Its deep hue delivers a rich amber caramel, but also notes of maraschino cherry, bright acidity, baking spice, raw sugar, and a finishing hint of coffee. For such a high-octane spirit, it doesn’t bite, so add water judiciously.
Wild Turkey Longbranch 86 Proof, $39.99 (PLCB Item #76195): I’m predisposed to distrust any spirit affiliated with a movie star, and the eye rolls went big for this overdesigned bottle from Matthew McConaughey. But then I pulled the cork and, yup, it’s all right, all right, all right! This is, in fact, Wild Turkey’s eight-year-old bourbon finished through two charcoal filters — one oak, the other mesquite. It’s on the lighter, sweeter, vanilla pastry side but then trots right up to the tip of my tongue with a subtle but smoky puff that evokes a tangy shade of mesquite’s signature savor. Think of a bantamweight Jack Daniel’s with a Texas twang.
Other American Whiskeys
Kinsey Maple Cask 80 Proof, $39.99 (available only at the distillery, Art in the Age, and Reading Terminal Market): This well-balanced blend of sourced whiskeys blended at Kensington’s New Liberty (created in homage to a historic Philadelphia brand) ages the spirit in barrels that previously held local Whiskey Hollow maple syrup. (The syrup, meanwhile, picked up its own boozy notes from barrels that once held New Liberty’s Bloody Butcher Bourbon.) Unlike other big-name versions of maple spirits that use flavorings, the result here is natural and integrated, letting the maple hang sweetly and darkly in background. If you do boozy pancake brunches, this is the whiskey for you.
Westland Distillery American Single Malt 92 Proof Core Collection of three 200 ml bottles, $43.79 (PLCB Item #1392): Seattle’s Westland is one of America’s best distillers of Scotch-style whiskeys made from malted barley. A limited supply of its sampler remains in State Stores, but it’s a smart way to taste the range, from the buttery American Oak standard to the deliciously nutty, tobaccoy, dried fruit and berry flavors of the sherry-finish, and a peated malt that evokes more BBQ smoke than Islay’s iodine tang. Larger bottles range from $69.99 (for the American, PLCB Item #36742) to $74.99 (for the peated, PLCB Item #76847). Sadly, the sherry is only available here in the sampler. Check the PLCB’s product locator for inventory.
Writers Tears Copper Pot Irish Whiskey 80 Proof, $38.99 (PLCB Item #1269): A friend gifted me this whiskey with a wink of sympathy. (I think.) But I’ve come to prize it as a fine affordable example of the lighter Irish style — super-smooth, pale straw in color, and sweet like lemon chiffon cake with honey and ground ginger in the mix. The finish has echoes of butterscotch, mocha, hay, and nuts, and so, thankfully, no tears were shed on my keyboard.
The Macallan Highland Single Malt Scotch whisky Edition No. 4 96.8 Proof, $99.99 (PLCB Item #76232): Scotch drinkers are among the most brand-loyal collectors, and the sherry-casked richness of the Macallan in Speyside is among the most coveted single-malts of all. This special “Edition No. 4” was created (with no age statement) to celebrate the 194-year-old company’s new distillery. The Macallan’s classic vanilla-toffee-dried-fruit notes are there, but with a notch more intensity and depth from a complex barrel blend that delivers fruity sweetness (candied apples?) along with honey, nutmeg, and butterscotch on a richly textured, coppery beam that lingers.
Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky 90 Proof, $69.99 (PLCB Item #75571): If you’ve visited some of Philly’s great izakayas, you know Japan produces some of the best Scotch-style whisky in the world, though with a decidedly Asian flair. Nikka, which dates to 1930, is one of the country’s distilling pioneers, and this malt whiskey, considerably more aromatic than Nikka’s less expensive “grain” whiskey, has so much going on with its aromatics, from sugared plums to sweet nuts that it gathers sandalwood spice and more exotic fruit flavors on the palate, like lychee, as it glides to a creamy vanilla finish.