I like a fine new Hanukkah or Christmas sweater as much as the next guy. But nothing piques my attention like a tall, cylindrical package all wrapped up in a bow. Does it slosh with about 750 ml's-worth of momentum when I give it a little shake? Did it previously live in a barrel? Does it begin with a "w" and end with a "y?" Oh, boy! I love the holidays! Especially when it brings the magic of malt.
Of course, whiskeys come in all sorts of styles, from smoky Islay Scotch to sweet Kentucky bourbon, spicy rye, and smooth Irish drams. Here are my six choices (currently available in Pennsylvania), representing the many corners of the whiskey world, and priced to suit a range of budgets.
West Cork Irish Whiskey 80 Proof, $25.99 (code 34538): Triple-distilled Irish whiskey tends to be exceptionally smooth, and the entry-level expression from West Cork — a 14-year-old company that is one of the few independent distilleries in Ireland — is no exception. This bourbon-barrel-aged spirit is full of caramel, honey, and dried fruit, and goes down easy. There are more profound whiskeys, but not many as well crafted at this price. An ideal low-risk, high-reward bottle.
Speyburn Single Malt Scotch 10 year 86 proof, $33.99 (34579): Single malts are always classy, but often pricey, too. You'll have difficulty finding a better value for a malt with an age statement, however, than this 10-year-old from Speyburn, a 120-year-old Highland neighbor of Glenrothes that uses water from a tributary called the Granty Burn. It's light, dry, and floral, with notes of orange, mint, and pitch pine that warm the finish of an otherwise smooth sipper.
FEW Rye Whiskey 93 Proof, $54.99 (code 49150): In the 1920s, Evanston, Ill., was home of the temperance movement. Now, it's the home of FEW, a rising craft distillery whose rye is one of America's best. Deeply ambered, but still edgy with youth, this rye is full of grainy spice tempered by a healthy dose of sweet corn, and has both balance and zing, with cinnamon edges that slide into dried apricots and a woody finish. Good for straight sipping or mixing into a deluxe Manhattan, this rye is high-end, but actually well-priced in Pennsylvania.
Ardbeg An Oa Islay Single Malt Scotch 93 Proof, $59.99 (code 49372): If Highland malts like Speyburn are typically smooth, this peaty smoke bomb from Islay's Ardbeg smolders at the other end of the spectrum. This malt tastes like a barbecue pit tucked inside a pouch of pipe tobacco aged inside a barrel that once held raisiny sweet PX sherry (blended then with Scotch from other oaky casks). That is to say it's bold and complex, but not harsh. It's smoky in a magnetic and savory way. And once your taste buds adjust to what's happening, they won't want to turn away.
Elijah Craig Small Batch Barrel Proof Bourbon 131 Proof, $64.99 (34597): At 131 proof straight from the barrel, most whiskeys will singe your nose hairs clean. But I wouldn't drink this powerful small-batch beauty from Elijah Craig any other way. It's like a Southern seduction, full-on with drama from a dozen years in caramelly oak, humming with bold notes of tobacco, dried cherries, and cocoa-dusted walnuts. It's not cheap. But it's a fair price for the spirit that Whiskey Advocate named its No. 1 top spirit of 2017.
Widow Jane Straight Bourbon 10 Year 91 Proof, $69.99 (49151): If 45.5 percent of this bourbon is alcohol, that means most of the other half is water. So it's no small thing that this deep amber spirit distilled in Kentucky gets blended with the limestone-rich sweet waters of the Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale, N.Y., which supplied stone to both the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty. I was tempted to dismiss it as yet another novelty overpriced with a "handcrafted in Brooklyn" pedigree. But it's simply luscious to drink, full of butterscotch, vanilla, citrus, prunes, toffee, and, yes, minerals, too.