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The world of whiskey still holds surprises

By Jason Wilson
Sunday, November 22, 2009

Whiskey season has officially begun. You can tell because it is marked by a series of related festivals across the country, including major WhiskyFests in San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Now in their 12th year, the events are sponsored by Malt Advocate magazine, the Wine Spectator of the whiskey world. This year, I joined the more than 2,000 people who descended on the Marriott Marquis in Times Square on Nov. 10 to taste the 200 or so whiskeys on offer.

By people, I mean mostly men. The Marriott ballroom was a little like a pirate ship. Not that I'm in the market, but a WhiskyFest might be one of the worst places in the world to meet women.

In fact, when my friend Vanessa strolled up to the Bunnahabhain table to try the exquisite 25-year-old Scotch, the guy pouring assumed she had come for the sweet Drumgray Highland Cream Liqueur. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," she said. "Are you kidding? I know more about whiskey than half the guys in this room."

We had lined up outside the ballroom in the minutes before it was opened just for the VIPs. Packs of young men in suits and middle-aged men with golf logos on their shirts huddled alongside us. Some groups were planning their evening's drinking with the precision of a military operation: "Okay, so first thing we'll do is hit Bruichladdich. Then Laphroaig. Then we'll double back over to Ardbeg at Table 7. Okay, let's synchronize our watches."

One hedge-fund-manager-looking fellow boasted that his first stop would be at the Duncan Taylor booth to taste the 42-year-old Lonach Glendarroch. "I'm 42 years old, and so is this whisky," he said. "So I'm going to drink this and call it my daddy." Another bellowed about his favorite: "They rated this 97 points in the Malt Advocate, for God's sake! 97 points!"

Inside, I tasted some of my favorites: the Bunnahabhain 18-year-old single malt Scotch; the Eagle Rare 17-year-old bourbon; the Bushmills 1608 400th anniversary Irish whiskey, and Michter's 10-year-old, single-barrel rye, all four of which retail generally between $90 and $100. Then, of course, there were the usual pricey showstoppers: Johnny Walker Blue ($150); Pappy Van Winkle's 23-year-old bourbon ($200); Highland Park 30-year-old ($350), and Laphroaig 25-year-old ($500) single-malt Scotches.

But I was hoping to find surprises in addition to the splurge-worthy whiskeys people often ask me to recommend as holiday gifts. And as for surprises, there were plenty. Perhaps they weren't of the magnitude of the 100-year-old bottles of Scotch from Ernest Shackleton's expedition, soon to be recovered from the Antarctic ice, but they were significant.

Have you ever heard of a single-malt whiskey from India? Well, neither had I until WhiskyFest, where I tasted several made by Amrut. This spirit is made with barley grown "in the shadows of the Himalayas," according to the "shelf talker" marketing material. Amrut's starter single malt is aged only three to four years but drinks much older; the hot weather in Bangalore apparently speeds the aging process. At $40 for a single malt, it's a nice everyday whiskey that will be available in the United States in January.

How about whiskey from Japan? At the very least you may remember Bill Murray's character in the 2003 film "Lost in Translation," shilling for Suntory. If you haven't tried it, do yourself a favor and seek out Suntory's Yamazaki 18-year-old single malt ($100), already a classic. I was also interested in the company's newly released Hibiki 12-year blended whiskey ($55), which I can see as a softer, rounded starter quaff for someone who is not yet into a smoky, peaty product.

What about rye whiskey from Park City, Utah? I was truly impressed with Rendezvous rye from High West Distillery, a spicy, herbaceous blend of 16- and six-year-old ryes with just enough caramel and vanilla to tame it. At $45, it will convince newbies of rye's great appeal.

For special gift recommendations, I found excellent whiskeys that offered good value for their hefty price tags. Some were easy to pick: Ardbeg Corryvreckan single malt ($85), for instance, is one of the finest whiskeys in the world at any price. Ditto Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon ($80) or the complex 27-year-old Parker's Heritage Collection "Golden Anniversary" bourbon ($150).

Too often, people stick with the expensive tried-and-true. Just remember: Greater age and higher price don't always mean better whiskey. For instance, Pappy Van Winkle's 23-year-old is the showpiece of its Kentucky distillery at $200. However, the Pappy Van Winkle's 15-year Family Reserve is the finer bourbon, at a much more affordable price of $50.

Plenty of people give expensive bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue during the holidays, but for a blended Scotch that's (relatively) easier on the wallet at $80, I would consider the Dewar's Founder's Reserve 18-year-old, available in the United States for the first time. Another alternative for a Johnnie Walker person might be Crown Royal Cask No. 16 ($100), a smooth Canadian whiskey finished in cognac barrels.

As for top single-malt Scotches, there's no way around paying more. But you don't have to spend $300 to $500 for something noteworthy. At around $100, I really like the Bruichladdich 16-year-old finished in Chateau Lafite wine barrels. Its fruit and tannins bring amazing complexity and mouth feel to the salty, lightly peated Scotch.

I'm also a fan of the Balvenie Scotch; each year the distillery releases a 17-year-old single malt that has been aged in an interesting type of barrel (last year it was a rum cask, before that a port cask). This year, it has been finished in a Madeira cask, and the result is flavorful dried-fruit-and-spice Scotch with a long, long finish. At $120, it's truly unique and drinkable.

If all that sounds out of reach, you can pick up my favorite bargain in the world: Buffalo Trace bourbon, at under $25. It's a gift that would impress any whiskey aficionado -- or aficionada, as the case may be.

Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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