Tuesday, 26 November 2013

How do you buy whisky as a gift? Part 1

A little while ago we had a post by the name of, how doyou select wine? in which I expressed my dismay at how hard it can be to choose what wine to buy from your local supermarket. I contended that there is just too much choice.

As a result of that, it occurred to me that while I can’t provide much advice to you on buying wine, I might be just the right person to help a novice select a nice bottle of whisky, and with Christmas approaching, there has never been a better time to cover this subject.

Many is the time that I’ve seen a lost soul perusing the whisky section at Tesco, obviously trying to buy a gift for a whisky-loving or whisky-curious loved one but sadly having no terms of reference or idea of where to start. They’re aware that there are good and bad selections, but they don’t know what they are and are reluctant to make a mistake. Well, I’m here to help you out. You may be one of the people I’ve seen at Tesco already, so if you do want to buy your relative or special friend a nice bottle of whisky, take a sip of coffee and sharpen your reading eyes, this is for you.

Obstacles

There are two major obstacles facing the novice who wants to buy a bottle of whisky: variety and price, and how much help you need depends on what you know already – both about whisky and about the person you’re buying for.

Let’s do a role play. For the purpose of the drama, imagine you’re a lady (if you’re not already), you’re in Tesco, and you’re looking to buy your husband a nice bottle of whisky. I’m stood nearby and I notice you looking lost, but I don’t want to impose. You might think I’m trying to pick you up, but I’m happily married and not looking for a female whisky drinking companion. You look at me and can tell that I’m not necessarily there to buy. I’m just looking to see what they’ve got, and whether there are any offers I can’t refuse. I must know something about this subject.

You: It’s so confusing, all these different bottles.
Me: Eh? Oh, yeah I know. Are you buying a present?
You: Yeah, for my husband. I don’t suppose you could help?
Me: Aye, probably.
Pay attention here. I’m about to ask the important questions.
Me again: Is it whisky in particular that you’re after?
That wasn’t one. Just wait.
You: Yes. What would be a good one?
Me: That depends. What kind of whisky does he like?
You: What do you mean?
Me: Scotch, Irish, bourbon…
You: Scotch?
Me: Blended or single malt?
You: I don’t know…

Here you might ask what the difference is. If you did, I would say, “single malt refers to when a bottle contains whisky that was all made at one distillery, while a blend can contain whiskies from any number of distilleries and  50-60% of the contents are usually made up of grain whisky. Grain whisky is cheaper than malt whisky, and that is why blends tend to be cheaper than single malts. Single malt is usually considered to be better, though there are a number of premium blends for which you could pay well in excess of £100.

Me: What does he normally drink?
You: I’m pretty sure he’s had the Glenfiddich before.
Me: Ok, well that’s a single malt. If you’d said Bells or Teachers, those would be blends. Did he like the Glenfiddich?
You: I think so.
Me: The standard 12 year old is halfway decent, so if he liked it, you might want to step up a class and get the 15 year old. It’s a bit more expensive, but it’s supposed to be better, though I haven’t tried it.
Here’s the next important question.
Me: What’s your budget, if you don’t mind me asking?
You: I was hoping to spend about thirty quid.

If you know how much he normally spends, it might be a good idea to spend a little bit more. That way you’re increasing the treat because you’re getting him something he wouldn’t normally allow himself to buy.

Me: All right. You can get something decent for that 30 quid. If you’re lucky, you can get a good single malt, but you’re more likely to if you go 35 quid and up – it just depends what they’ve got. Or you can get a very good blend. Some people are snooty about blends, but there’s no need to be because some are very good. So, first thing; the cheapest single malt they’ve got here is the Glen Moray Classic. See that? £18. Don’t get that. Now, you said you don’t know what kind of scotch he likes,  it would be easier if you did, but we’ll work around that. Does he like the strong flavours or the mellow ones?
You: I’m not sure.
Me: All right. You could just get the Glenfiddich 12. It’s decent and it’s cheap, but I think you ought to be a bit more adventurous. For future reference, the Glenfiddich 12 is still a good scotch for a novice to buy as a present. If it was me though, looking to buy a bottle of whisky as a present, I would be getting the Highland Park 12. It’s single malt, it’s always on offer, even at full price it’s a bargain, it comes in a funky bottle, it tastes great and it’s known for being a quality product.
You: Oh right. That’s under budget.
Me: You can get yourself something nice with the change.
You: Thanks.
Me: No worries.
 
Highland Park 12... a great gift
That’s one way the scenario could play out. Let’s look at some other eventualities though:

What if they haven’t got the Highland Park, or it’s not on offer?

I’d always recommend going with an Islay malt. They’re among the most interesting and you can usually get a decent one in the under £35 price range – the Laphroiag 10, the Caol Ila 12, Bruichladdich… I even got the Lagavulin 16 for £35 once. If it says Islay on it, it’s probably going to be good. The only drawback is that some people really don’t like the Islay malts, but I think it’s worth the risk.

As I say, you can always fall back on the Glennfiddich 12. Some like the Glenlivet 12 or the Aberlour 10 – they’re classy enough, but a little generic for me.

Can you give me some general things to look for?

It’s a gift, so generally look for a single malt unless you know your target doesn’t like single malt. If you don’t know, go for it.

Always go for one with an age statement, and make sure it’s at least 10 years. Some younger whiskies are excellent, but you don’t know enough to take the risk. Some without an age statement are good, but ages are impressive – it’s psychological.

If it comes in a box, that also suggests quality. That’s not necessarily the case but again, this is a gift, so boxes are good. Something that comes in an interesting bottle is also good. Again, it doesn’t say anything about the quality, but with gifts half the battle is presentation.

What should I avoid?

Definitely avoid the Glen Moray Classic. That’s just from personal experience. Horrible. When I see people buying that, I want to ask “Have you had that before? Cos if you haven’t, don’t”. My personal feeling is to avoid anything that is too pale in colour – there are exceptions to that, but we’re talking generalities. Also avoid Jura – it’s always on offer, so a very popular gift, but in my opinion it’s not so good.

Now, just because I say ‘avoid the Glen Moray Classic’ that doesn’t mean all Glen Morays are bad. Similarly, you can pick up a no age statement Ledaig from some supermarkets that isn’t good. I consider the 10 year old to be very good though.

Don’t get Jack Daniels – unless you’re buying for a very young adult. That’s not to say it’s bad (I actually like it – very nice mouthfeel), but many scotch drinkers are a bit snooty about it, possibly because it is so commonly mixed with coke.

Definitely don’t get Southern Comfort. This is not whisky – and I’m not being facetious here; it literally isn’t whisky. It’s a peach liqueur with whisky flavouring. It’s surprising how many people don’t know that.

If you know your target is a seasoned whisky drinker, your task might be more difficult because their standards can be quite exacting, but don’t worry; I’ll be offering some advice for buying whisky for the more discerning drinker next week. Remember, when someone receives a gift though, they want to be pleasantly surprised, not slightly disappointed. For this reason I’d avoid brands that are a bit too obvious (and that the novice might have heard of or seen on average drinks menus in restaurants) – for me, the Glenlivet 10, Balvenie Double Wood, Glenfiddich 12 and the basic Glenmorangie are a bit too obvious, but you could definitely do worse.

What if your budget is more modest?

I would aim to set your budget around £30-35 because you can definitely do the job for that. Anyone who likes whisky is going to know you spent £30-35, and they’re going to be all the more grateful for it. I understand though, that if you’re buying a gift for a friend, £30 might seem a little steep. You might have been thinking £20. If you were, don’t panic, just don’t be thinking about getting a single malt – unless you want to buy a 35cl bottle. That’s perfectly acceptable. The recipient will still appreciate the effort – and of course, it means you can get something even more special.

However, don’t be scared of going for a blend. A lot of basic blends are good, but if you can just go up one step to the next level, you’re going to be more likely to get one that your target hasn’t tried, or that is a little more interesting. Grants, Whyte and MacKay, Ballantine’s and Dewar’s all make decent, reasonably priced blends, and there are many more obscure ones that are worth a pop. Even a whisky aficionado can find a use for a basic blend. I always keep one for the times when I just don’t feel like getting the special stuff out, or as a precursor earlier in the evening. If you can chance across one that they haven’t tried before, you will have done very well because at least that’s one they can tick off their mental list. But don’t get the Johnnie Walker Red, Bells, Teachers, Famous Grouse or anything that says “bottled for [insert supermarket]” on the label. Not that there’s necessarily anything particularly bad about any of those, but you are buying a gift.

Conclusion

That at least, would be my advice. People all like different things, and there are no right and wrong opinions when it comes to whisky. Personally though, I think some whiskies exist just because people don’t know what to buy, so they all make sales to some degree. I don’t know – would a business be able to survive on that principal? Surely you have to rely on repeat customers. As I get more into whisky though, I find I seldom buy any bottle more than once because there’s always more to try. Caol Ila does well out of me, because I’ve bought four of their expressions so far, and I always recommend it to friends. In fact, usually when I like a whisky, I remember it as one to possibly buy as a gift for a friend, rather than one to buy again for me.

Perhaps one day I will have tried nearly everything (in my price range), and will just want to buy something I like with my money. There was a time when I bought different beer every time I bought a pint or some cans. Now I just buy what I like – though I have gotten into trying IPAs recently. I’m a long way off reaching that point with whisky, so we’ll just have to see how and when things pan out.

So, now if you find yourself at Tesco, and if you can remember any of this, you’re going to do all right. You could also have a look at the Whisky Exchange for specific brands but remember; you’re not going to be able to find most of those in your local supermarket. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask if another customer looks like they know what they’re doing. It might be me, and even if it’s not, anyone who is enthusiastic about whisky is going to be delighted to be able to share a bit of the knowledge.

Good luck, and don’t forget to come back next week when I’ll be considering how you can buy with confidence for the whisky enthusiast in your family.

Postscript
Last Sunday my whisky advice fantasy almost came true. It was shopping day in the Cake household and, feeling a bit down, I thought adding a trip to Tesco to the regular Aldi shop in order to pick up a cut price Grant’s Sherry Cask Edition that I’d seen on offer the day before might cheer me up. A quick preparatory glance through my wallet and on the fridge revealed that we had £7 in vouchers – though we had to spend at least £40 to recoup one of them. Also in my favour was that I’d stashed £10 away in my booze budget, and then found a farewell fiver in the back pocket of my favourite jeans. I say “farewell fiver” because it was during that shopping trip that they developed a split in the back and threatened to show more and more bum cleavage every time I had to reach down to a low shelf…

Well, as you know, Christmas is approaching and Mrs Cake thought maybe she could get some whisky for her dad and brother… that sounds bad; they aren’t the same person. Yes, I would be delighted to help with that.

Mrs Cake isn’t really one for taking advice. She has her own mind you see, so it wasn’t as simple as me offering a suggestion and her taking it, but in the end she did follow my recommendations despite battling me all the way.

The Highland Park 12 was on offer, and I persuaded her that that would be a good choice for her dad, because it’s “excellent”. He doesn’t like peaty whiskies, and of the ones available in this price range, this was definitely the best choice in my opinion. He had said previously that he likes a 16 year old Glenmorangie, but they didn’t have that (it doesn’t seem to exist), and I doubt the price would have been anywhere near comparable (if it did exist).


Buying for the brother was a little trickier since I remembered he had wanted to drink the Crown Royal Black I took to his house a couple of years ago… with coke. So I maintained that we should get him something he can mix, and that meant a blend. Mrs Cake wanted to get something they wouldn’t be able to get in Canada, but in Tesco there isn’t really anything you couldn’t get in Canada. I advised her to go for the Grant’s Ale Cask Edition as that was on offer too. I don’t actually know what that one is like yet, but it is a step up (price-wise) from the standard Family Reserve and therefore makes a slightly better present than a standard cheap blend. I don’t think Brian is all that knowledgeable about scotch anyway, so we didn’t need to stress to much about it… though I suppose that remains to be seen. Perhaps I’ll follow up this post after Christmas and let you know how we did. To be fair, I probably won’t know how we did for the father-in-law until next year when he sends the bottle back hoping we won’t notice it’s the one we bought him. And if that happened… I would be delighted...

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