From Under Pressure, Montgomery County, Md.: My very knowledgeable wine-drinking friend turns 40 this week. I would like to get something special but feel a lot of pressure about making a good selection for someone who has worked at vineyards, traveled through Bordeaux and loves to collect French reds. Any advice on selections that can be found in Montgomery County? Thanks.

In this gift-giving season, I suspect that plenty of readers find themselves in predicaments similar to the one aired by this participant in one of my recent chats on If you've got a friend or relative on your gift list who loves wine and is a bit ahead of you in terms of knowledge and experience, how do you select something just right for them?

My advice (proffered after several lines of spleen venting regarding the government monopoly on alcoholic beverages in Montgomery County) was pretty simple: Don't buy wine for this person. Buy a really nice bottle of Cognac or Scotch or Eau-de-Vie.

Here's my rationale: A really great gift is lasting, surprising and not already possessed in abundance by the recipient, and wine given to a wine lover is very unlikely to fit this bill in all three respects. If your friend doesn't have a wine cellar, your gift can't be a lasting one, since the bottle shouldn't be held for long and ought to be drained the night it is opened. If the recipient does have a cellar, your gift of wine could be lasting, but then it would be just one more bottle added to a pile, and probably not much of a surprise. What are the odds that you'll be the first to give wine to someone known to everybody as a wine nut?

By contrast, high-end spirits make terrific gifts for wine lovers. I can't recall meeting one who didn't appreciate excellent brandies and whiskeys. Yet wine lovers tend to accumulate wine and often don't have more than a bottle or two of premium spirits in their home. Your gift should also prove lasting, since fine spirits are consumed a few sips at a time and can be recorked indefinitely. Finally, your present will come as a surprise, since wine lovers assume that a bottle-shaped package contains wine just as surely as fathers on Father's Day assume that thin boxes hold ties.

The catch is that this whole idea works only if your budget will permit you to buy something special -- meaning pretty expensive and relatively rare. A $20 Scotch poured at every corner bar will just look like a bottle of booze bought on the fly by someone who didn't want to deal with the complexities of wine buying. Moreover, wine lovers are usually put off by the volatile alcohol of tavern-grade spirits, so you should go high-end or go back to square one.

One last idea: A perfect stocking-stuffer accompaniment is a leak-proof plastic travel bottle. An 8-ounce screw-top bottle made by Nalgene sells for $1.99 at The Container Store. You can't prevent your friends from getting gouged if they buy wine or spirits in Montgomery County, but at least they'll never again be ripped off by a hotel room mini-bar.

Some wine hounds go for gin, vodka, bourbon or tequila, but your best bets fall in the following categories:


Since we're keeping an eye on the element of surprise, you might want to exploit the fact that most people assume that all excellent Scotch is "single malt," meaning the product of a single distillery. It isn't. Blended Scotches can be excellent, and at least two are truly sublime (if shockingly pricey). Chivas Brothers Royal Salute 21 Year Old ($200) is magnificently expressive from start to finish, with innumerable complexities and remarkable delicacy. Just as fine is Johnny Walker Blue Label ($180), which seems even older and softer, with subtle notes of candied fruit, smoke and exotic spices. Less obscenely expensive but also wonderful is Johnny Walker Gold Label 18 Year Old ($70).

Of the single malts I've tasted recently, the very best include Bowmore 25 Year Old ($160), featuring gorgeous notes of fruit, nuts, smoke and peat, with an exceptionally rounded texture. Also playing in this elite league are Dalwhinnie and Cragganmore Rare Edition Cask Strength 29 Year Old, both priced at, gulp, $300. You'll need to add a splash of spring water to these to unlock their complexities, which are legion. My vote goes -- by a nose -- to the briny, peaty Cragganmore.

Very nearly as good and more easily afforded are The Glenlivet Archive 21 Year Old ($100), which is more youthful than one would guess without knowing its age but phenomenally nuanced in both aroma and flavor. Dalmore 21 Year Old ($90) starts with a wonderfully smoky aroma and finishes with extraordinary smoothness.

Finally, I highly recommend the Scotches from Murray McDavid, an independent bottling outfit that buys exceptional casks from distilleries and bottles the whiskies without blending, coloring or chill filtering at a uniform strength of 92 proof. My current favorites are Mortlach 1989 ($60), which sports an ultra-complex bouquet led by sherry notes and intense, slightly sweet flavors, and Rosebank 1992 ($60), which is very delicate and soft but finishes with a surprising burst of intensity.


Sometimes called Eau-de-Vie, brandies distilled from or flavored with fruit often strike me as the ultimate digestif on account of their uniquely refreshing aromas and flavors. The two most widely known types are made from apples and Williams (aka Bartlett) pears. The most famous of apple brandies is Calvados from Normandy, and three exemplary renditions are made by Lecompte: Originel ($20), which is fresh and overtly appley; 5 Year Old ($29), which is richer, denser, softer and more subtle; and 12 Year Old ($58), which has beautiful amber color and lovely notes of dried fruit, smoke, spices and toasted wood. It is on a qualitative par with XO-grade Cognacs for about half the price.

Poire Williams Eau-de-Vie is closely associated with Alsace, and the great vintners at Trimbach release a very fine one ($35 for 375 milliliters). Just as fine is Massenez ($60 for 750 milliliters), which has superior novelty value thanks to the seeming miracle of a pear in a bottle with a neck way too narrow to accommodate its passage. I won't spoil the fun by explaining how they accomplish this. Best of all, however, is Clear Creek Williams Pear ($16 for 375 milliliters; $25 for 750 milliliters; $85 for 750 milliliters with a pear in the bottle). Made entirely from crushed, fermented whole pears (28 pounds for each large bottle), this is peerlessly true to the original fruit.


Cognac requires no introduction, though it can require a second mortgage, as in the case of Hennessy "Richard Henessey" ($1,500), which is impossibly nuanced and delicate but also impossible. A sane alternative (if only in relative terms) is Hennessy "Paradis" ($250), which is immensely satisfying and actually richer, weightier and deeper in flavor than the Richard Hennessy. Martel "Cordon Bleu" ($95) offers a fascinating combination of mature notes and youthful elements, with generous flavors that run through the persistent finish. Best-buy honors go to Remy Martin "Accord Royal 1738" ($45), which has deep color, very rich flavor, and attractive packaging.

Armagnac is often more distinctive and flavorful than Cognac, and a current favorite is Domaine de Saint-Lannes Armagnac 1981 ($60), which is smoky and intense with lots of spicy oak on both the nose and palate. Finally, for a different twist, try South Africa's Imoya Cape Alambic Brandy VSOP ($30 with two snifters), which is no threat to ultra-premium Cognacs in terms of complexity, but is clearly competitive in terms of texture and softness.

Michael Franz will answer questions live from Burgundy today at noon on