It's not as if I need an excuse to buy a great bottle of brown liquor. But the holidays are an especially perfect time to indulge the gifting spirits. So here are a few fine choices - with an emphasis on rarities and unusual twists on the familiar - that should make any booze lover smile.
If you're smart (and, coincidentally, just happen to show up with a spare pair of snifters), you might also encourage an inaugural toast to friendship and "quality control."
Cask-strength Maker's Mark, $34.99 for 375ml (code 36930): Fans of the renowned wheated bourbon from Loretto, Ky., will need this limited-edition issue. The bottles are half-size. But the whiskey - essentially the standard spirit with less water added - packs a punch ranging from 108 to 114 proof. That's a shade lower than many other cask-strength labels, but the claim is that aging at lower alcohol levels allows for more complex flavors. As one of the rare wheated whiskies available at cask strength, it drinks like Maker's with the volume turned way up - tons of cherry sweetness, but with a nice barrel spice to keep it humming. About five cases should be landing at each premium store in the Philly market this week.
Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky, $62.99 (code 7491): I've been impressed with Japan's other Euro-style whiskies - Hibiki and Yamazaki - and this is another worthy ambassador to that country's growing tradition. Made from malted barley in a Scottish-style Coffey still (note: no "coffee" is used here), this 80-proof whiskey is lean, fresh, and polished, with vivid tropical notes and some vegetal accents as it pulls together for a long, refined honey-citrus finish.
Kirk and Sweeney, 12-Year-Old Dominican Rum, $30.99 on sale from $32.99 (code 7655): For less than $35, it's hard to beat the gorgeous packaging of this Caribbean offering from Sonoma's 35 Maple Street Spirits, a 12-year-old Dominican rum presented in a squat 18th-century-style onion bottle etched with nautical charts. The spirit inside, though, is almost as good as the packaging - the sugarcane brew deep amber from more than a decade in American oak, with good dried fruit and vanilla notes that make it smooth enough to drink simply. It's even better, though, mixed in cocktails.
Boulard Calvados X.O., $83.99 (code 30587), and V.S.O.P., $39.99 (code 6772), in Pennsylvania. V.S.O.P., $43.99, at Canal's Discount Liquor, 5360 Route 38, Pennsauken: With the French revival, Calvados has become a bigger player on the cocktail scene. But if you pony up for a bottle with old enough apple brandy, this is one of my favorites to drink neat. Boulard (est. 1825) uses 120 different apple varieties for its V.S.O.P., a blend of four-to-eight-year-old brandies, and an excellent fruit-forward intro to Calvados craft. The X.O., however, is a major step up in quality as well as price. Its blend of eight-to-15-year-old spirits positively glows a lustrous reddish-gold in the glass, fills your nose with orchard essence, and then unspools with a luxurious slowness of vanilla-scented, intense apple soul. At $84, this Calva is best given to someone you either deeply admire or live very close to.