The Best Gifts for Whiskey Drinkers, According to a Master Distiller
Kings Co. co-founder and distiller, Colin Spoelman, tells us the best gift ideas for whiskey lovers everywhere.
How do you buy a whiskey gift for someone who loves whiskey? I'm both a whiskey distiller and a whiskey lover (you can find me at Kings Co. Distillery), and have often been the happy recipient of whiskey gifts. I'll start with this: The main thing is that a whiskey drinker likes to get whiskey. Think of whiskey like pizza. Even when it's not exactly perfect, it still does the job.
But before we dive in, let's talk about what not to get: whiskey stones, etched glass tumblers, whiskey-barrel cufflinks (is anyone wearing cufflinks ever again?). I would go so far as to say decanters and flasks may miss the mark more than a solid bottle (decanters may marginally harm the whiskey through oxidation). Most bourbon drinkers like to show off their great taste and discernment by displaying the bottle, no matter how ugly. And for many, the library is more important than the single bottle.
Now the good stuff: bottles. There's a pretty big divide in whiskey, where bourbon rules North American-centered palates and Scotch whiskey represents a flavor that is common to most other world whiskeys. Usually someone is one or the other, so try to find out what genre they prefer and literally any whiskey in that category will be met with approval. But don't get an Irish whiskey for a Scotch drinker or vice versa. Irish whiskey is the 3rd rail of whiskey orneriness.
Most Americans are bourbon drinkers and my bottle list will be skewed toward that audience. Bourbon has exploded as a collective obsession in just the last decade. First it was Pappy Van Winkle, and then Weller and Willett—followed a cascade of fine bottles that were once readily available and well-priced—but have since been nearly impossible to find without a personal and determined relationship to the shop owner. As a gift-buyer, you probably will have a very hard time sourcing the rare and coveted. The good news is that many of these rare and sought-after bottles are hardly worth the obsession or the hunt. In fact, there are great bottles hiding in plain sight.
Here are a few:
George Dickel Bottled in Bond was last year's whiskey of the year from Whiskey Advocate and showcases an older style of whiskey that promotes transparency and the authorship of the distiller. General perception is that this year's blend, an 11-year, is even better than last.
For a solid, everyday bottle, Buffalo Trace is the flagship bourbon from the Buffalo Trace distillery that makes many of the coveted rare bottles, and for my money, this bottle is one of the best values in American whiskey hiding in plain sight.
Uncle Nearest, a sourced bourbon from Tennessee is a brand built on the story of Nathaniel Green, the former slave that became Jack Daniel's master distiller and lifelong collaborator. I don't usually favor buying brands on story, but this one is too good to pass up, and after visiting a new distillery last year, I can say this brand is headed to a bright future.
Another sourced whiskey I like is anything from Barrell Bourbon whose program is to small blends of well-sourced whiskey released at full proof. For a bourbon-lover, it's hard to go wrong with anything they make.
For Scotch-style whiskeys, I've always had a place in my heart for Bruichladdich, which is both a legacy distillery but arguably a "craft distillery" in Scotland known for creative single malts that focus on grain origins and process tweaks to create a range of whiskeys from the approachable Laddie 10 to the heavily peated Octomore.
Let's Talk About Craft Whiskey
While mainstream distillers will probably survive the pandemic, right now a lot of smaller distillers are struggling. Many don't realize that there were only a handful of mega-distillers like Jim Beam and Jack Daniel making nearly all of American whiskey until a little over a decade ago. Just as craft beer found footing in the 1980s, craft distillers have been popping up around the country, adding variety and creativity to American whiskey. One great challenge faced by the small distillers: whiskey takes years to age. So many of the small distillers were putting whiskey away, tying up a lot of capital, assuming the great whiskey boom of the last years would carry through. Just when many of us had a steady supply of decently aged whiskey: the pandemic.
The media has said alcohol consumption during quarantine and semi-quarantine is up, but not nearly enough to offset the social drinking that happened at bars, restaurants, and social gatherings. Alcohol depletions, which is alcohol leaving the factories, is down across the industry. No one has felt this more than the small distillers, who were more likely to promote their product in person than on a billboard. These were the distillers making hand-sanitizer for front-line workers when it couldn't be found anywhere. They need your support and a bottle of local whiskey can be infinitely more meaningful to both the recipient and the small business you support by embracing it.
Seelbachs is run by Blake Riber, whose site Bourbonr became a destination for bourbon fans to congregate and follow the latest from the larger, well-known distillers, particularly the rare bottles. But looking at where the future of the business was headed, Blake was drawn to some of the smaller, newer distillers that showed promise in the craft distilling space. All the products he features are from the best of the newer distillers. If there is a better portfolio of craft spirits in any one single location, I don't know about it.
Some great whiskeys that Blake carries are Wilderness Trail, a newer Kentucky distillery, but by no means a small one (they are one of the top 15 largest in the country), Spirits of French Lick, a small distillery in Indiana that uses pot stills for traditional whiskeys. High Wire Jimmy Red bourbon is made with a red varietal of corn that gives the bourbon a peppery, almost spicy note that is terrific, but absolutely unusual in the world of bourbon. And Coppersea, a NY distiller focused on rye, has the most "by-hand" process of any distiller working today.
Whiskey Club Membership
Let's say you can't decide or you don't know the taste of your whiskey lover. Flaviar is a membership club that will send 3 dram-sized samples of whiskeys that are designed for the recipient's taste profile either once or quarterly. For fans of blind tasting who want to experiment and try new things, this is a great program. Club members also get special access to bottles and the ability to pick one periodically as part of membership. This is really the gold standard of an online whiskey club.
Let's Talk About Whiskey Glassware & Blind Tastings
A serious whiskey fan will inevitably orchestrate a fair amount of blind tastings. Blind tasting is a way to train your own palate and to determine, outside the context of price and brand, what flavors and characteristics you may genuinely prefer.
There are an abundance of whiskey glasses on the market. Nearly all of them offer no particular benefit. The industry standard, however, is the glencairn. I have a slight preference for this glass, which has a stem and a shape that is a little more like a wine glass.
Another piece of glassware that is often a part of professional sensory evaluation is a watch glass, a shallow glass dish that is a way to limit evaporation and prevent dust from contaminating your sample. Bugs love alcohol too, so this ensures you don't consume a fruit fly with your fine and rare.
One of the geekiest things that can be useful for blind tastings is this sensory kit from Moonshine University, which hosts professional-level classes for aspiring distillers and blenders. The kit has chemical compounds familiar to whiskey blenders and we have found this kit useful both in our own processes and in teaching others. Still, for the cost, you might consider just getting a nice bottle since the utility of the kit is pretty specialized.
Some Excellent Whiskey Books
I feel that what separates the whiskey fan from the average drinker is curiosity. The desire to sit down and read about whiskey—completely independent of consuming it—marks a true whiskey aficionado.
The next best thing to drinking whiskey is reading about it. For American whiskey history, Bourbon Empire by Reid Mitenbuler is a great overview. For the historian who is also a lawyer who is also a bourbon lover, Brian Haara's Bourbon Justice tells a side of a familiar tale from a perspective that will be fascinating to any legal mind—or anyone who wanted some color outside the standard narrative which has been told many times in many books.
For general whiskey overviews, Robin Robinson's The Complete Whiskey Course (more comprehensive and definitive) or Lew Bryson's Whiskey Masterclass (lighter in tone and discusses more mainstream topics) are good places to start. And for anyone contemplating taking their hobby to the next level, there's the Guide to Urban Moonshining, a book I co-wrote about homebrewing whiskey, which is a great way to understand whiskey on little deeper level than history and tasting.
For a gift that keeps on giving, there are some great magazines that cover American whiskey, but Whisky Advocate probably has the broadest appeal and is the safest bet for a gift.
Still the drop dead most beautiful book I've read on whiskey over the last few years is By the Smoke and the Smell, a sort of travelogue to distilleries around the world, focused on distiller-oriented spirits like whiskey, mezcal, calvados and rum. It's a great read about alcohol, restlessness, adulthood, craft and artistry, and covers a lot of the territory that attracts whiskey lovers to this little niche within drinking.
Finally, Virtual Tastings & Events
Remember the small distilleries that could use your support? Beyond buying a bottle, you could even buy a virtual tasting, where the distiller will send a kit and then meet with you over zoom to walk through the tastings. And because of the complexities in state-to-state pandemic legality, it's a good idea to find a distiller in your local (home state). Ranger Creek in Texas makes fine craft whiskeys and offers a virtual tasting kit. Heaven Hill (mainstream bourbon & rye) also offers a tasting kit that is good for an American whiskey overview. There are also a number of whiskey clubs that have thrived on virtual events during the pandemic. Drammers Club and the ABV Network are some favorites.
As you can see, there are a lot of ideas beyond the unicorn bottles. And hopefully these suggestions have opened a few doors for you to think outside the box (and bottle). If you want even more suggestions, come check us out over at Kings Co. Distillery.