Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Top Tips - Buying whisky as a Christmas gift

Cyber Monday, the busiest online shopping day of the year, has been and gone for another year and we are now in to the peak festive retailing period.  The decorations have gone up and while many people have already purchased their gift for friends and family, many others are just starting to consider (or panic!) about what they are going to buy.

Whisky is a traditionally popular choice and is now even more so given the increased interest and sales of it around the world.  Christmas is a time when people buy whisky either to enjoy themselves over the festive period or to give as a gift. For many shoppers or consumers, it may be the only time in the year that they purchase a bottle of whisky and it can be a daunting experience. The ultimate question is - which one of the vast array of bottles on the shelves is the right one to go for?

We are here to try and help with a few tips and things to think about when purchasing whisky as a present.  Naturally, the points can be used at any time of the year and not just at Christmas!  

1 - Think of what the recipient likes
It is a common misconception that you as a shopper need to know lots about whisky in order to buy something other than the big popular brands. This is not true.  How much you know about whisky is actually not important at all - what has to be considered is what you think you the gift's recipient would like or prefer. If you are not sure, then think what other things and flavours that the person receiving the gift usually enjoys. This can be other spirits, wine, food etc - do they enjoy strong, rich flavours or something lighter and fresher? Do they drink white spirits like gin and vodka or sweeter, heavier ones like dark rum or Cognac? This will give you some clues.  Also have in your mind that whisky falls in to three general categories - light & fresh, rich & sweet and smoky & peaty.

2 - Go for something unusual
This is a good tip when buying for the 'whisky connoisseur' in your life.  It may be that you know a whisky that they like and you can ask for help in selecting something similar, especially in specialist retailers (see below). You can also think about if you want a famous brand/distillery or something a bit less well known.  The lesser known options are not as hard to find as you think and offer some excellent whiskies that are 'hidden gems' or 'off the radar'.  It will also demonstrate that you have not just gone to the supermarket and picked a brand off the shelf, plus showing that you may have 'done some research' and really thought about what the person likes.

3 - Set a budget 
Your budget is an important consideration. Set an upper limit - any salesman worth their salt will try and get you to spend more but stick to it! Single malt whiskies start around £25 for a 70cl bottle and most will be under or around £50. Blended whiskies can start for as little as £10. There are whiskies that can fit any budget, from the cheap and cheerful to those costing hundreds and even thousands of pounds. Many will be discounted in the supermarkets over the festive period and some good bargains can be snaffled.

If you only have a small budget or are buying a 'Secret Santa' gift, then you could go for a half sized bottle or a pack of miniatures - many of the companies release special gift packs at Christmas time. You can even buy a single miniature if you just need a stocking filler.  

4 - Where to buy
There are a few options where you can purchase your whisky gift and each have their pros and cons.

Specialist retailers - offer a wider range of whiskies and have knowledgeable staff that can explain the differences and advise you to make the correct decision. These shops can be daunting but if you go in having considered the three points above, then they will be able to recommend you some great choices. They will also generally have some bottles of whisky open that you can sample and this can help you make a better decision.

Supermarkets - are different in that they sell the products but staff may not know a great deal about them, especially as many have cut back on specialist wine and spirit staff in the last couple of years. The distilleries marketing departments help you here, as many of them now print basic tasting notes on their packaging and this will give you an idea if you like the sound of it or not. The range will be tighter, although many chains will expand their ranges as whisky grows in popularity.

Liquor stores - can vary from the very knowledgeable to those that stock whisky but don't know much about it. Knowledgeable stores can be up there with the specialist retailers but the others can still offer some real hidden gems and great bargains, as they may not know what they have (ie - a rare whisky marked at low prices). The trick is to pop in for cheaper beer or wine and have a nose around, then do a little research on the bottles you have spied.

The internet - thas many places to buy whisky these days - some are online specialists, while others are websites of the specialist whisky retailers or supermarkets - and many of these print helpful tasting notes on each page, with some giving more information, customer reviews and distillery facts to help you make your choice.  Don't forget that every site will have a deadline date that guarantees pre-Xmas delivery, so check this and don't get caught out!

5 - Don't fall for fancy packaging
This tip is especially good if you are buying for someone who 'knows their whiskies'.  This category of person is notoriously difficult and intimidating to buy for, especially if you yourself know little or nothing about whisky.  The easy option is to go for something in a wonderfully designed bottle or box, and there are some fine examples out there. Importantly, some of the brands and distilleries have woken from the slumber of years of 'traditional' packaging, moving away from the stereotyped tartan or water colour paintings of stags/Scottish landscapes. 

Some packaging, even at the entry level price points, has a 'wow factor' that will impress most that receive it and the whiskies will generally also impress. However, the 'know their whiskies' category will probably be more interested in what is physically in the bottle rather than how it or the box looks.  This is when a little research about the liquid or seeking help from a specialist retailer will help.