Buying a bottle of liquor for someone when you don’t know much about that particular alcohol ranks just slightly below public speaking on the pressure scale. Liquor is a combination of history, chemistry, and culture, and the result is a baffling array of choices in any category. It’s so baffling that you can’t even rely on the trick of simply spending a lot of money because even an expensive bottle of the wrong stuff would be a fail.
So, given how complex the world of liquor can be, how can you ensure you’re selecting a “good” bottle to give as a gift? Just follow this guide and you’ll be fine.
Start by doing your due diligence
There are three things you should try to learn about your gift recipient: Their liquor of choice, their go-to bottle (hint: look at their bar area; it will not be covered in dust and three-quarters full), and how they take it (cocktails, rocks, neat with a twist, delivered exclusively via body shot while everyone in the bar chants their name). Some of this can be deduced from their usual drink order at the bar.
Concerning your budget, you might sweat buying a bottle for someone who knows their liquor, assuming you have to really splash out — but that’s not true. According to Esquire, you can get some seriously good liquor for as little as $20, so spending just a little more will make a difference. Worry more about getting near your giftee’s tastes than impressing them with a bottle you had to endure a credit check to purchase.
Armed with whatever info you managed to glean, here’s how to figure it out what to buy, based on their liquor of choice.
Taste in whiskey is complex. If you’ve ever watched a TV show and a character walks into a bar and orders “a Scotch,” that show is trash. One thing to know right away: Don’t assume there’s any inherent superiority to “single malt” whiskey over blends. Blends are often exactingly formulated for a specific taste profile while singles tend to have more narrow appeal, so it’s really more about preferences than some fundamental rule of quality.
Sipping: If your target likes to enjoy their whiskey straight, look for a smooth whiskey that straddles some flavours. A great example is the Balvenie Doublewood, which is a smooth Scotch that’s aged in bourbon barrels. If you’ve got some money to spend, Johnnie Walker Blue Label is so smooth you could skate on it (though it tends to be pricey, in the $200/bottle range). If they like bourbon over Scotch, a nice bottle of Woodford Reserve Double Oaked will hit a wide range of targets.
Cocktails: If your person is a cocktail drinker, there are many blended whiskies designed specifically for mixing. Monkey Shoulder is a blended Scotch intended for cocktails, as is Johnnie Walker Red Label. And Four Roses Small Batch bourbon is a classic that will work in just about every cocktail you can imagine.
Going in blind: If you failed to get any intel on your target, look for a versatile whiskey whose flavour profile isn’t overwhelming so it works for both cocktails and sipping. A few versatile examples would be Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon, the aforementioned Monkey Shoulder (which is quite sippable), and Old Overholt Rye, which may be the most versatile whiskey of all time.
The world is divided into two types of people: Those who think rum is something you mix with cola, and those who understand that it’s one of the most complex and oldest liquors in the world. The good news for gift-givers is that most rum enthusiasts like to have a lot of different bottles on hand, which improves your odds.
One overall note is to ignore age statements on bottles. Rum producers have a wide range of policies for those, and most rums are blends of different ages anyway. What might sound impressive on a bottle of Scotch doesn’t mean much for rum.
Sipping: First, see if you can find out what kind of rum your giftee likes — French, English, or Spanish. Most of your sipping rums will be “dark” (i.e., brown) because they were aged in charred barrels, so it’s best to stick to that side of the aisle. For an English rum, try Doorly’s out of Barbados. For French, Clèment select barrel is an excellent choice, and for the Spanish-lovers, Ron Zacapa is a good selection.
Cocktails: Rum is very popular in cocktails, and most recipes will call for “white” or clear rum, which is typically aged in stainless steel barrels — but not always. For example, Barcadi Reserva 8 Year is a dark rum that a lot of bartenders use in specific recipes. Two excellent cocktail rums are Havana Club Anejo Blanco and Wray & Nephew White Overproof rum — but be warned the latter has quite the alcoholic kick because it’s “overproof.”
Going in blind: Rum is already a pretty versatile liquor, so it’s hard to go wrong. But if you’re totally uncertain what your giftee will like, two of the most versatile rums on the market are Mount Gay Black Barrel and Ten-to-One (which comes in both white and dark varieties). These rums can be enjoyed on their own but also mix well.
The most democratic of all liquors, you can make vodka out of almost anything, from potatoes to beets to dirty socks (probably). Vodka has a pretty neutral flavour profile and mixes with literally anything — though you should see if you can find out if your giftee prefers flavored vodkas, which add in fruit or other flavourings to give it a little more personality.
Sipping: If your target likes to sip their vodka like a civilized human being instead of slamming shot glasses on the bar and shouting “Another!” (or drowning it in fruit juice), you’ll want to find a vodka that has been distilled more than once and filtered to remove impurities. An excellent choice is Reyka, an Icelandic vodka that’s pretty affordable. And you can’t go wrong with what is probably the most popular vodka in America: Tito’s, which you will find in every single bar in the world. It’s actually a highly sippable vodka that any vodka lover will appreciate, even if it is a bit basic.
Cocktails: You can use just about any vodka in a cocktail. Ketel One or Belvedere are safe choices — they will always be appreciated, and will work in cocktails where other flavours are meant to be the focus, as well as simpler concoctions like a martini where the vodka itself is forward-facing.
Going in blind: Not sure where your giftee lands on the vodka spectrum? Nikka Coffey Vodka (which has nothing to do with coffee) is a wonderfully smooth offering from the Japanese distillery. It’s versatile and a little unusual, making it the perfect blind gift.
Admit it: Right now the song “Tequila” by The Champs is playing in your head (and you might be doing the Pee Wee Herman dance). Tequila, distilled from the agave plant, has a reputation as the classic college bro, woo-girl shot, but it’s actually a lot more complicated than you might think. There are blanco or silver tequilas, which are not aged, or only aged for a short time in stainless steel barrels, and there are reposado and añejo tequilas that are aged, often in whiskey barrels, which give them a more complex flavour profile. And there are gold tequilas (also known as joven, or “young”) that are blends with caramel colouring — so just because a tequila is brown doesn’t mean it’s aged.
Finally, there’s a monstrosity called “mixto” tequila that is just 51% agave, with the rest being made from other liquors. If you stagger up to the bar and demand tequila shots without specifying, you’ll likely get a mixto. Don’t gift mixtos to anyone — look for “100% agave” on the label.
Sipping: While no one will throw you out of the house if you bring them a bottle of Patrón, if you want to wow your tequila fan try either the silver (and delicious) Tequila Casa Dragones Blanco or anything from El Tesoro, especially its extra añejo (and pricey) Paradiso offering.
Cocktails: Tequila has a very wide range of flavour profiles. Blanco tequilas are great for margaritas and can even replace other white liquors in cocktails, so something like El Tesoro Blanco is a great choice. For other cocktails, an añejo tequila like Patrón Roca is an excellent choice.
Going in blind: If you’re not sure whether your giftee likes to sip their tequila or mix it, default to an añejo tequila, which will generally be your most versatile. Casa Noble is a good choice, as it’s totally sippable but its flavour profile is subtle enough to mix into many different cocktails.
Gin is possibly the most misunderstood liquor. Originally developed as a medicine, it continues to cure a wide range of off-book ailments to this day. Although distilled mainly from grains like corn or rye, that famous “piney” flavour comes from juniper berries augmented by herbal and citrus additions, making every gin unique. There are actually several distinct kinds of gin — London Dry, Plymouth, Old Tom, Navy Strength (which is strong stuff — typically close to 120 proof), New American, and Genever. Each of these gins has a different basic flavour, and thus are good for different things.
Cocktails: A little specific information will help you tremendously here. If your gin drinker likes a Tom Collins, then an Old Tom gin like Barr Hill Reserve is your best bet. Gin and tonic? A London Dry like Beefeater is just the ticket. Something fruit-forward like a Negroni? A New American gin like Aviation Gin is a terrific choice (just make sure your recipient doesn’t hate Ryan Reynolds, first). For extra credit, you could pick up a bottle of Navy Strength gin like Leopold’s American Gin, which can be used to add a shot of boozy power to any gin-based cocktail. Just have an Uber on call if you do.
Going in blind: If you don’t know where in the gin world your recipient lands, London Dry is probably the best choice. Bulldog Gin is a versatile London Dry with a very mild flavour, which means it works well in most cocktails but can be sipped with a bit of lemon, as well.
If you’re shopping for a gift of brandy, we know one thing about the person you’re shopping for: They are fancy. Brandy is basically distilled wine. Although just like wine it can be (and is) made from a variety of fermented fruits, also just like wine, most brandy is made from grapes.
There are a lot of types of brandy, defined by the region they hail from and the local varieties of grapes (or other fruit) used to make them. Cognac, for example, is a type of brandy made in the Cognac region of France. There’s also Armagnac, Spanish Brandy, Pisco, American Brandy, and Grappa — if you know your giftee likes one of these specific types of brandy, half your work is done.
Brandy is usually meant to be enjoyed neat, so just about any brandy you buy will be great for sipping or mixing into cocktails that call for it. Many brandies have age statements: V.S., a minimum age of two years; V.S.O.P., a minimum of four years; X.O., a minimum age of six years. Generally speaking, it’s best to go for an XO brandy, as it will be nicely aged and delicious.
For Cognac lovers, Hennessy XO is always a terrific choice. If they prefer Armagnac, Jollite is an excellent choice. For Spanish Brandy lovers, Cardenal Mendoza is a great choice. For Pisco people, Capurro Premium Pisco is a good starting point. Copper & Kings American Craft Brandy is a delicious, unusual American Brandy most brandy-lovers will love, and if your giftee is into Italian brandy, the Nardini Grappa Bianca 40 is excellent for most palates.
Going in blind: Have no idea? Go for a classic Henessy, but skip the XO and get a VS instead. That bottle will be perfect for mixing but still be a lovely brandy to enjoy on its own.
Giving a good bottle of liquor to someone who really appreciates it is one of the most powerful things you can do for a fellow citizen. As long as you’re thoughtful about it, you can’t go wrong — worst-case scenario, you introduce your recipient to something new.