Four bottles of whisky that deserve to be under the tree this Christmas
'Tis the season for giving, so best give some thought to the whisky you’re going to buy that certain someone, writes Dram The Man
There are stories we all know, yet few love. They lurk around corners, waiting to lock eyes and lure you in … before hammering home a plot line with an all-too-common conclusion: buy me.
These tales are not found in books or heard in conversation — Instead they sit on every shelf of every aisle in every shop at all the malls. They are broadcast from posters, packaging, displays, dump bins, shelf talkers, end caps and endless eye-assaulting apparatus that the Dark Lords of Marketing use to spread their wreckful words. Come Christmas — with its claustrophobic cacophony of tinselly tropes and vapid virtue — and you’re longing for lockdown.
Apologies, that was a bit of a “Bah, humbug!” — not the best start to a festive missive. I should be making friendly suggestions to help you — an undoubtedly noble heart — find a special whisky for that certain someone. Noted. And from here we’ll proceed with a joyful heart but maintain a mindful brain. Because, yeah, we all know the origin story, but Christmas circa now is mostly about getting. So let’s get it right, and get a dram that deserves to be under the tree.
Always, it’s good to start close to home. Here, amidst the clamour and clutter, you’ll find an unsung hero, in an understated state, telling a tasteful tale. The whisky is Bain’s, a South African star that has won countless awards at blind tastings around the world.
It’s a grain whisky. Unusual. But what’s unique is its double maturation in first-fill casks, something that has given its gifting a twist over the years. As Rowan Ellappen, South Africa brand manager for Bain’s, puts it: “We celebrate wood.”
And to capture that this Christmas, the box that usually houses the bottle is no longer. “It’s a wooden tray,” explains Ellappen. “Instead of it being part of the packaging, it is the packaging.”
It’s a superbly subtle touch: less litter for landfills and a light look that pays homage to the whisky’s bourbon casks, as well as the Cape mountains and fynbos that are synonymous with the brand.
Yearly yuletide releases are a big thing and Hector McBeth, owner of importers McBeth On Whisky, knows all about them. Two of the products he distributes release Christmas editions, but that’s where the similarity ends. Paul John will sing you a carol. Big Peat leaves coal in your stocking. Both are fantastic.
The former is an Indian whisky winning big on the global stage, even picking up Whisky Trophy at our local 2019 Michelangelo International Wine and Spirits Awards. Its Christmas Edition differs from year to year but is always dripping in festive flavours. “2018 was a typical northern-hemisphere Christmas,” explains McBeth. “2019 is more South African. It’s mince pies but with better weather, so you get more tropical notes coming through.” The only expression that combines all three of the distillery’s styles — peated, unpeated and cask-finished — this distinct release is worth the annual wait.
I’m a year-round fan of Big Peat, not just because my face is on the 2019 Fèis Ìle tin, but, damn, it’s such a bloody candid dram. This bearded, blustering, bellyacher comes off as a bit of a shouter, but beyond the gale-force winds you’ll pick up whispers of an upfront, complex blend. Available since 2010, and at cask strength from the subsequent year, the Christmas edition contains malts from every distillery on the mythical Isle of Islay, including newcomer Kilchoman and the legendary, closed-for-now, Port Ellen.
So, which do you choose? It all depends whom it’s for. “The Paul John will please more palates,” suggests McBeth. But if you like brash and bold then go Big.
Or you could have your cake and drink it. That’s exactly what Glenmorangie wants you to do with its latest anecdotal expression, A Tale of Cake.
From the mad mind of maverick Dr Bill Lumsden, the distillery’s director of whisky creation, it targets the sweet tooth, cajoling it with promises of lush, multi-layered delights.
The question is: could one actually mistake it for cake? It’s more of an “ode to” than a “tastes like”, so don’t expect a slice of dessert, but it’ll pair beautifully with a range of Christmas treats.
Plus, it’s packaged so elegantly that you could save yourself the trouble of wrapping and just gift it as is.
And with that, this story comes to an abrupt end. If it hasn’t warmed your heart, I sincerely hope your choice of whisky warms someone else’s. Scrooge out.
• This article is adapted from one originally published in The Edit Man #9, a lifestyle magazine published by the Sunday Times.