Christmas 2015 gift ideas: 5 great whiskies under $100

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I have lost count of how many times I have, while perusing the whisky section of Dan Murphy’s (Australia’s leading liquor store), been asked by a perfect stranger something along the lines of “excuse me, could you help me choose a whiskey for a gift?”. My adoring eyes (or salivating mouth) as I admire all the lovely liquid gold must be a dead give-away! All this practice at choosing gifts for other people has led me to write a post about Christmas gift ideas for the whisky lover. In this post, I recommend ten whiskies that should tick all the boxes this Christmas depending on a gift recipient’s taste; and whether he or she has been naughty or nice.

Most true whisky lovers look beyond marketing and fancy bottles. For us, it is all about the whisky. We dare not put a whisky on display to collect dust and never be opened; that would be a waste of a spirit that has taken many years of maturation in oak casks to come into existence. These five whiskies therefore satisfy a few simple criteria: (1) they are delicious; (2) they are good value; (3) they have an interesting story that makes them a great Christmas gift. The whiskies that have made this list are readily available in leading retail chains and easily accessible. While some other whiskies certainly deserved to make this list, as they are hard to find outside certain countries, they are not mentioned here. 

# 1: Johnnie Walker Green Label 15 year old

JW Green

Price: AU$69.95 

Type: Blended malt whisky 

Age: 15 years 

Why does this whisky make a great Christmas gift?: Johnnie Walker Green Label 15 year old is a malt blend, which means that it is made up only of malt whisky and not a single drop of grain whisky. It is rare to find 15 year old malt whisky for such a great price, not least the increasingly rare Johnnie Walker Green Label. Green Label has been discontinued by Johnnie Walker, making it highly sought-after by Johnnie Walker fans including those annoying folk who collect whisky because it looks nice in display cabinets. This, in turn, has meant that the price of this whisky sky rocketed on the grey market and on eBay. However, Johnnie Walker have recently released a limited edition Johnnie Walker Green Label 15 year old. I have seen it here and there, in Port Melbourne and Melbourne city, selling like hot cakes. The good news is that it is available online via Dan Murphy’s, at a limit of 2 per customer. 

# 2: Glen Orrin 30 year old

gLEN oRRIN 30

Price: AU$99.99

Type: Blended scotch whisky

Age: 30 years 

Why does this whisky make a great Christmas gift?: Ever feel like trying a 30 year old whisky guilt free; that is, without feeling like every sip costs $50? With 30 year old blended whisky starting at around $400-$500 per bottle in the most competitive retail shops, it may be easy to feel that old whisky is simply beyond most budgets. Fear not, Aldi is here to save the day. Glen Orrin 30 year old blended Scotch whisky includes malt and grain whiskies that have matured in sherry casks for at least 30 long years in cold Scotland. It is a fine tasting whisky, and at under AU$100 it is an absolute bargain! So, get out the cut crystal glasses and savour this three decades old Scotch whisky beside the fireplace (or barbie and flies if you are in Australia). 

# 3: Glenlivet 12 year old

GLENLIVET 12

Price: AU$56

Type: Single malt 

Age: 12 years

Why does this whisky make a great Christmas gift?: The Glenlivet 12 year old is such a delight to smell and sip; truly a beautiful Speysider with notes of honey, wisps of smoke, and sweet tropical fruit. It is, however, being replaced with the no age statement Glenlivet Founders Reserve. Get a bottle, or 17, while you can. I am certainly stocking up the bunker with this fine single malt. 

# 4: New Zealand Whisky Co South Island 21 year old

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Price: AU$99

Type: Single malt

Age: 21 years

Why does this whisky make a great Christmas gift?: On a trip to Wellington, New Zealand, I learned that New Zealand has the best craft beer; and it pains me to say it, better than Australia. The New Zealand whisky scene, however, has not shared the same heights as Australian whisky. Then NZ Whisky Co decided to release some old stock of whisky which had been aging for 21 years in ex-American oak barrels in the picturesque south island of New Zealand; better known as Middle Earth. This delightful whisky has depth and maturity that holds its own against some of the very best whiskies I have tasted, and yet it offers a unique flavour profile that I found thoroughly pleasing – and all for under $100. So I am torn, as an Aussie, in admitting that not only does New Zealand have the best beer  but it also has some pretty stellar stocks of whisky aging away. I suppose all I am left with is the pavlova debate. I won’t even mention the rugby. Seriously though, I am delighted to see whisky of such quality and great value coming out of New Zealand.

#5 Bruichladdich Islay Barley 

ISLAY BARLEY

Price: AU$99

Type: Single malt

Why does this whisky make a great Christmas gift?: Now this is a whisky with a fascinating story! Take a single grain of barley which has grown on Islay on a single field, make it into a beer and then distill the beer and put the distillate to mature in American oak barrels in Bruichladdich’s coldest warehouse. The result is spectacular. This is an interesting demonstration of the importance of “terrior” in single malt whisky; something that wine lovers would associate with the flavour which the earth in which grapes are grown imparts to the grapes which then carries through into the wine. A similar principle applies here; only prepare to taste Islay.

 

Spirit of Hven Sankt Claus (Cask 11-222)

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Rating: ★★★★

Origin: Sweden

Type: Single malt

ABV: 53.2%

On a piping hot 42°summer day in Melbourne, a brown paper package arrived at my desk. It was torn and half opened, clear evidence of a long trip. The package was marked with Swedish writing and peeking outside its tears was a deep ruby red whisky, Spirit of Hven’s Sankt Claus. What a contrast, from ice cold Sweden to sun burnt Australia. 

Spirit of Hven Sankt Claus, as the name suggests, pays homage to Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of a number of groups including sailors, fishermen and, perhaps most appropriately, brewers. He also had a reputation for secret gift giving by leaving coins in the shoes of people, and he therefore became the inspiration for the big bellied white bearded jolly man we call Santa Claus.  Spirit of Hven Sankt Claus is intended to “”bring the most joy and (de)light to the winter darkness”, but having just enjoyed some of it on a few bright and very hot Australian days the whisky also inadvertently brings this festive cheer to snow-less lands as well.  Even ones that reach 42°C over the holiday period, such as my home city in Australia.   

Sank Claus is made from Pale Ale malt and peated malt (48ppm) and fermented for 120 hours, during which the Cerevisiae and Bayanus yeast converted the sugars in the wort into alcohol. Once the wort was fermented, the wash was distilled and a generous heart was collected from the spirits run which it can be assumed included a bit of tails to give the whisky some tasty congeners. Once distilled, the spirit was matured in air dried French Allier oak which had previously contained Merlot.   

Nose:

Stewed berry fruits are first noticeable, with rhubarb, strawberry yogurt and panetone. Undertones of sourdough and olive bread sit beneath the fruit with balsamic, star anise and cinnamon.  

Palate:

On the palate the whisky is potent, warming and drying.  The barley is rigid and bold, and the flavours of the whisky are integrated and balanced – find raw sourdough, heavy red wine notes, sweet red candy, red berries (especially cranberry), cinnamon, dark chocolate, sweet vinegar,, ginger bread and crushed nuts. 

Finish:

The finish offers mild creaminess, with notes of nutmeg, cinnamon, cooked berries, balsamic glazed beetroot, pepper and wisps of smoke. It is somewhat drying and vapourous, again expressing red wine astringency combined with barley.  

Bottom line:

Buy it, if tis’ the season to be jolly. Find a plethora of all things as red as Rudolph’s nose in the whisky – red fruits, red wine, red candy, red berries, and even a dash of eggnog (an eggy nutmeg note, if you pay close attention). Granted, the nose does present with some aromas that indicate the whisky would have benefited from more time in oak but the Christmas flavours really come through on the palate such that any more time in oak may have altered the festive theme in this dram. This is a potent, rich, drying yet sweet whisky that is absolutely perfect to drink during the festive season. The maturation of this whisky in Merlot barrels certainly gives it a unique flavour profile, and the people at Spirit of Hven have done a superb job selecting this cask of their “Sankt Claus” expression (which is intended to have a Christmas theme). With each sip, I can hear the jingle bells a’ ringing.