How to buy a nice bottle of scotch?
December 7, 2010 8:14 PM   Subscribe

I want to buy a nice bottle of scotch for a birthday gift. I am not a drinker and know nothing about this. Educate me, please! :)

I am going to Florida in two weeks for my stepfather's 70th birthday. He's a nice guy, but very hard to shop for. He has said he does not need any presents, but I want to get something to take with me so I am not showing up for his birthday empty-handed. A suggestion was made to me that if he enjoys a nice drink, a suitable gift might be a really nice bottle of something fancy, and my mother confirmed that he does enjoy a nice scotch when the mood strikes and would probably enjoy this gift.

I am not a drinker at all. I will have a vodka and cranberry juice as my standard drink in social situations sometimes, but that is the extent of it. I do not enjoy or appreciate wine, beer or anything like that (no moral issues, just don't care for the taste). I am literally a total newbie here whose net alcohol experience is vodka/cranberry juice and the occasional hard lemonade.

I will have a few hours to kill at duty-free on my way up there but would like to at least know what I am talking about enough that I don't get led astray by a sales clerk who either doesn't know their stuff or recognizes that I have no idea what I am talking about :) So...what should I ask for? Is there something that distinguishes 'good' scotch from bad scotch? Something that makes a bottle worth $100 and another bottle worth half that? A certain brand or vintage or whatever I should ask for?

In other words, assume that you are a person who really, truly would enjoy a nice bottle of scotch for your gift, and you are sending a total newbie who has absolutely no idea to the airport duty-free with a budget of $50-100. What would you tell them to get for you?
posted by JoannaC to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Do you know the recipient likes scotch? It can be an acquired taste. I personally like Laphroaig. But if I wasn't sure someone liked scotch, I would get them Glenlivet or Johnny Walker.
posted by twblalock at 8:23 PM on December 7, 2010

Mr. TrarNoir also mentioned Laphroaig, but with the caveat that it is peaty and not to all tastes. He suggests Oban, as it's a good in-between highland and islay with a little age.
posted by TrarNoir at 8:25 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

At that price point you want a single malt, and if you don't know his personal preferences, I'd go for something like a Highland Park, Balvenie, or Macallan. As long as you avoid the really strong smokey flavors (Lagavulin, etc.) you should be fine.

You might try searching the archives here, too, there have been several gift scotch threads with strong opinions.
posted by ldthomps at 8:26 PM on December 7, 2010

Seconding Oban! But Laphroaig is in the Lagavulin camp - only get it for someone you Know likes it!
posted by ldthomps at 8:28 PM on December 7, 2010

Can you find out what kind of scotch he normally drinks? Then we can offer better suggestions.
posted by Joh at 8:35 PM on December 7, 2010

Just parroting the above people.

The people who really like scotch really like Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Talisker, etc. They are risky, because they are very strongly flavored, but that is also what makes them popular. For a more casual scotch drinker, Macallan is probably the way to go, it's very smooth and lacks much of the distinctiveness of the more hardcore scotches.
posted by yeolcoatl at 8:35 PM on December 7, 2010

What distinguishes good from bad is part age, part flavour, part quality, but mostly supply and demand. The older stuff is usually smoother, the newer stuff is often a little rougher but that roughness has a flavour.

My two cents -- look for a 750ml of either Green Label or Gold Label (both Johnnie Walker).

Both are excellent. I prefer the (cheaper) green to the gold, as the flavour hasn't mellowed out quite as much. Watch out to not walk away with the larger 1.75l bottle that'll make an odd gift.

Also watch out for the depths of selection when it comes to single malts. If you're not giving one from personal experience and knowledge I think I would steer clear and get something with a name the recipient will recognize.
posted by devbrain at 8:36 PM on December 7, 2010

I enjoy my scotch whisky, but don't know all the ins and outs. Some basic points:

* Your two basic choices are single malt (made at one distillery) or blended (made at several). Single malts are generally more expensive.

* Scotches, like other colored liquors, are aged. Older is generally better (particularly within one brand). The minimum (by law) is 3 years.

* People like varying levels of peat flavor. Peat is basically decomposing bog material (yum!), and the flavor is unique to scotch. Amongst the various regions producing single malt scotches, some are generally peatier than others. Islay scotches are generally very peaty, for example.

I love my peat, and so I really love Laphroaig and Lagavuiln. Although Johnnie Walker Blue Label is more expensive, I tend to associate the brand with its cheaper bottles (e.g., Red Label) that are more commonly used to take shots with, so I probably wouldn't appreciate it as much.
posted by akprasad at 8:42 PM on December 7, 2010

I don't drink at all and I like (smelling) Laphroaig. It smells like campfires!
posted by phunniemee at 8:43 PM on December 7, 2010

If you like Laphroaig, you would like Ardbeg. It's even peatier, and it's in your price range.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 8:52 PM on December 7, 2010

Not to be a total cheapskate, but have you considered a bourbon (which is a particularly American type of whiskey vs. scotch from the isles)? Depending on what airport you're going to be in, you may or may not find a reputable scotch, but you'll surely find a decent bourbon. I am personally a fan of Woodford.

Do you know if he perhaps enjoys a cognac or a brandy? Those might also be on the lower end of your price range, and still a pretty good beverage for the casual sipper.

Whatever you get, make sure it goes in to checked luggage. You can't carry that much liquid around and not be accused of all sorts of havoc.
posted by Gilbert at 8:54 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

My scotch-drinking friends all love Laphroaig. It is, however, an acquired taste since as phunniemee notes above: It smells (and tastes!) like (fiery alcoholic!) campfires!
posted by hapax_legomenon at 8:55 PM on December 7, 2010

If you see it in duty free get the Johnny Walker Blue small bottle, I saw it at 105 a while back so it is probably the top of your price range. This is Johhny Walkers premium blend and it is well known as a brand. So it will be safe, suitably fancy and likely to be enjoyed and appreciated.
posted by humanfont at 9:03 PM on December 7, 2010

Yeah, don't give Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Talisker, or Caol Ila unless you already know the recipient likes smoky, peaty flavors (and/or "Islay" whisky specifically; this is the region that these most intensely flavored whiskies come from). If you don't know what the recipient likes already, stick with a Highland or Speyside single malt; these are, again, regions that cover many individual whiskies. I'd recommend against Macallan, too, just because it's a status-symbol brand whose price usually exceeds its relatively bland flavor. One of the nicer Johnnie Walker blends is an absolutely fine gift choice (Green, Gold, or Blue); and it's hard to go wrong with any of the blends from Compass Box, which probably seem like a more special gift (though they're also sometimes pricier). Past this, if the recipient is a regular scotch drinker, just stay away from the very most common ones (Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Glenmorangie, Dalmore) unless they're especially easy or cheap to buy, and almost anything else will seem special enough to be a great gift.
posted by RogerB at 9:19 PM on December 7, 2010

I find that Dalwhinnie is a nice mellow flavoured scotch that would appeal to most scotch drinkers. Laphroaig or Lagavulin are risky, because they have some very strong unusal flavours - I don't always enjoy them, and I dig scotch, but Dalwhinnie is a winner every time.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 9:28 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is a tough one without much else to go on. Does your dad drink with anyone else? Family, friends? Is there someone you can call and ask what kind of scotch he likes?

I personally like Aberlour (most of my drinking buddies know this).
posted by special-k at 9:32 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

First of all: scotch can be either blended or single-malt (meaning that it's from a single distillery). Johnnie Walker is the most famous blended Scotch and I'm sure it would be a very unobjectionable choice, but it's not going to be as distinctive as a single-malt.

Second: scotch gets more expensive as it gets older. Entry level tends to be at about 10-12 years and $45-60, and it just goes up from there. I mostly drink on the young side, since it fits my budget better, but when I've had the chance to compare, the older scotch has been more subtle and balanced than the younger scotch from the same distillery.

Single-malt scotch is categorized by region. Different regions do tend to have certain characteristics in common. You can read all about it (or better yet, find a bar with a few dozen scotches and work your way through the menu two at a time). However, I tend to think about scotch in two very general categories: (1) malty and (2) smoky.

1. Malty scotch tends to be lighter in color and more mildly flavored. These can be great, easy sipping whiskys. If you don't know your stepfather's tastes, this is probably a safer bet. Glenlivet, the single-malt that you're most likely to find at a bar, falls into this category -- as you might expect, it's so mild that it's a little boring. However, these Scotches can be quite tasty -- at best, they're sweet and smooth with subtle woody, floral, honey, vanilla, or even chocolatey flavors. Some of my favorites in this group: Springbank, Balvenie (I like the Doublewood at its price point), Cragganmore, and Macallan.

2. Smoky scotch has more extreme, distinctive flavors: peat and fire and salt and tar and leather and iodine. Acquired taste? Yes. Delicious? Yes. It can be outrageously smoky -- my first Scotch experience was with Laphroig, and I was sweating peat for days afterwards. I personally love this category -- it's extreme, but oh so fascinating! Of course, there is a range -- some of these are milder and some of them are stronger. On the milder side, Talisker, Caol Ila and Lagavulin; on the stronger side, Laphroig and Ardbeg.

Again, the best way for you to learn about scotch is to taste it! There's such a wild variety of flavors that it's definitely a fun and worthwhile experience, especially if you can find a bar that has a good offering list (and a bunch of friends to order different drams and pass them around).

If I were buying a gift for someone whose tastes I didn't know, I'd probably go with the Springbank (easy sipping, sweet and mild, with vanilla & honey & chocolate notes), the Macallan (old standby, the tiniest hint of smoke but super-smooth), or if I was feeling brave, the Talisker (peaty but also quite smooth, perhaps the mildest of the smoky group).

Good luck! Have fun! Do some tasting!
posted by ourobouros at 9:39 PM on December 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Macallan is likely to be loved by nearly anyone who loves a good Scotch - even if they like peaty flavors; it's smooth and lovely - and pricey!
Also - I have to disagree with the description given by akprasad of 'single malt'. Single malt means that all the barley used in the making of the beverage was malted; vs blended, which is a fermented from a blend of malted and unmalted barleys. The substance used to malt (or cook/heat) the barley is often responsible for the unique flavors inparted to single malts - as noted, Islays consist of barley malted over peats - and each type of peat has a unique flavor profile. Additionally, the water used in the making will also have an effect, especially if it has a particular mineral content (or not).
The difference between Scotch and Irish whiskeys (other than the spelling), is that Irish whiskey's barley is malted over odorless anthracite coal, and not the flavorful peat of the Scots. I like 'em both!
posted by dbmcd at 9:45 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think this is pretty risky without getting a little more information.

"Scotch" covers a lot of ground, and many scotch drinkers have pretty firm ideas about what they like to drink ... at 70, I rather suspect your stepfather probably has some preferences.

E.g., in my experience people who are single-malt snobs tend to not think very highly (putting it mildly) of blends, even if they're expensive ones like JW Blue. Many people who like really peaty highlands or islays find lowlands boring; people who like lowlands think islays taste like smoked feet; etc. There are places where you can get a pretty good holy war started over these things. It's an area with a huge amount of room for subjective taste. It's worse than NY versus Chicago pizza.

If you can find out what sort of scotch he normally drinks than it's pretty easy to find an 'upmarket' version of it that will be something special, but if you can't find that out I would probably think about something else. Or else, if you do just go for something on the basis of inoffensiveness, don't be too offended if he doesn't drink it because it's not to his taste; I'm sure it'll communicate that you care, so from that perspective it might be fine, but if it's important to you that this really be something that he'll use/enjoy, then you should try to find out a bit more about his preferences.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:48 PM on December 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'll add to the group agreement to stay away from Islay unless you know that's his thing.

And I'll second the Dalwhinnie suggestion--it's a lovely highland malt that I think any scotch drinker would appreciate, even if they're into peatier things. And while I'm primarily a single malt girl myself, I'll also second the Johnnie Walker Green, Gold or Blue (if you can afford the Blue, it's really quite lovely and the Gold's good enough that I gave it to my ex & his wife as part of their wedding present).

To throw another suggestion out there, how about a cask strength Maccallan? Slightly unusual, tasty (aged in sherry casks), but like it says on the label, a little more oomph than their standard.
posted by smirkette at 9:54 PM on December 7, 2010

2nding Kadin2048 on the blended vs. single-malt split. I am a single malt snob who likes trying different weird flavors and would not be very happy with Johnnie Walker - it's ok but I've had it enough for one lifetime. On the other hand, my in-laws, who also love scotch, don't know anything but the various Johnnie Walkers, and think the Gold is the best scotch in the world. If you got them a single malt they would think it's a Johnnie Walker knockoff.

You could try Tobermory 12 year. I did a blind scotch tasting with a mixed crowd of scotch neophytes and veterans and it was the winner. It's got a hint of smoke but it's not overpowering like Ardbeg et al.

Glenmorangie makes some interestingly casked scotches that are a bit more exotic than regular Macallan. I would assume almost every single malt drinker has had Macallan already.
posted by benzenedream at 10:49 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

A suggestion was made to me that if he enjoys a nice drink, a suitable gift might be a really nice bottle of something fancy, and my mother confirmed that he does enjoy a nice scotch when the mood strikes and would probably enjoy this gift.

If he really is a scotch appreciator, he will enjoy almost anything you get him, because us scotch guys like having lots of choice around to suit our moods. So don't worry, and get him the best deal you can find on top shelf stuff. He'll be thrilled no matter what: scotch is the perfect gift.

It's true that some don't appreciate the Islay singles (though they're my personal favorites). However, I can appreciate a lowland blend as well. If he truly enjoys relaxing with a nice scotch, he will be able to enjoy whatever you choose to buy him. Just make sure it's not in a plastic jug, and you'll be fine.
posted by trip and a half at 11:09 PM on December 7, 2010

General input for most western countries.

OK ... go to the bottle shop ... look at the cheap scotch. Take note of the price. It is X

Anything that is 2X will be OK

Anything that is 3X will be good

Anything that is 4X and over will be very good.

(although Johnny Walker black label ain't worth the price)

Any Isle of Islay single malt is good or better. You can't go wrong with them.
posted by jannw at 4:33 AM on December 8, 2010

If you were willing to spend a bit more then get some Johnnie Walker Blue at the duty free. That's usually how I pick up mine. It's pricey, often around $250 retail. But absolutely worth it. I've picked it up as low at $150 duty free. Even people who profess to not like Scotch like it.
posted by wkearney99 at 5:45 AM on December 8, 2010

A few follow-on comments based on the above:

Johnnie Walker Blue is a real delight. Continental duty free has the 750ml for $142. In the airport it's (depending on the airport) somewhere between a bit and a lot more. EWR Terminal C has it for $150. World of Whiskies (Heathrow T4) has it in a slightly larger (1L) bottle for approx $250.

You can call the airline ahead of time to ask about their duty free selections on the plane. This will almost always be cheaper than buying at the terminal, but your selection will be severely reduced.

You *CAN* carry the bottle into the cabin of the plane, but only if you purchase it behind the security barrier. Be aware that if you have a connecting flight you might need to leave and re-enter a different terminal at which point you would need to transfer it into checked baggage to go back through security.
posted by devbrain at 8:42 AM on December 8, 2010

I once received a Talisker Tasting Flight boxed set as a gift. Most liquor gift sets are cheesy, but this was nicely boxed and a sweet idea -- several smaller bottles of Talisker of different ages.

If you can find something like that, it might help with the "guesswork" -- it incorporates a range of flavors by its nature.

(In the end, though, I think that trying to dig more info out of your mom is a better idea.)
posted by endless_forms at 8:47 AM on December 8, 2010

Keep in mind that selection at a duty free is going to be more limited than at a proper liquor store.

On my recent trip through the states, I was at the Denver airport duty free (heading back to Canada) and picked up a 1L bottle of 10 year Tallisker for $54 or so. (a 750ml up here costs $75+). So that was a good deal for me, but they didn't have too much else that was terribly interesting to me.

To play it safe, and if you don't mind spending more, get a very old bottle from one of the Highlands suggested. While I don't drink the Glen's very often... an 18 year old bottle of one would be a very appreciated gift :)
posted by utsutsu at 9:23 AM on December 8, 2010

In the past, I've bought my husband Macallan 12 year (aged in Sherry casks) and most recently the Balvenie 12 year. They were both in the $50-$60 range, but it seems that the older you get, the more expensive they get. We've also really enjoyed the Macallan 18 year which would be closer to $100.

Also, wanted to point you in the direction of a few similar questions that have been asked on metafilter: 1, 2, 3, 4.
posted by echo0720 at 4:09 PM on December 8, 2010

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