Some whiskies are divisive, so be careful whenever buying a bottle for somebody else’s bar.
‘Why would anybody have such strong opinions about whiskey?’ you ask. Like politics, religion, or cilantro, many people have uncompromising opinions of their brown water.
There is no evidence that price alone drives this polarization. Consider Jefferson’s Small Batch, Ancient Age, Bulleit Rye, OF 1897, or Willet Pot Still Reserve. These bottles range in price. None will bust your budget, but each has a wide dispersion of critical reviews.
There are highly priced, rare bottles with relatively high standard deviation of their meta-critic scores as well. Be careful. These bottles are an expensive mistake if you don’t like the juice inside, so it may prove wise to order a pour at your local bar before you commit to the whole bottle. Elijah Craig 18yo, Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23yo, Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13yo, Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea, or almost anything in the Orphan Barrel line from Diagio are examples of whiskies with about as many critics as admirers. **Some of these are quite rare (Pappy 23 being the quintessential rare whiskey), so it’s understandable if you experience some FOMO when seeing one in the wild.**
On the other end of the spectrum there some premium bottles that are sure bets. As an expensive gift, in particular, you can’t go wrong with High West Midwinter Night’s Dram Rye, Colonel EH Taylor Barrel Proof, Thomas H. Handy Sazerac, Van Winkle Special Reserve 12yo Lot B, or Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15yo. I wish you good luck finding any of them. They are all on the allocated distribution lists, and for good reason, but you’ll have no buyer’s remorse buying any of them at reasonable price.
Among the more commonly available options, look for Stagg Jr, Old Forester 1920, Booker’s Small Batch, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, or Whistlepig 10yo. Some store’s offer private barrel selections which can add a bit of risk to your purchase, since they’re often selecting off flavor profile examples. A good store owner should offer you a taste if you’re seriously considering a purchase (where legally allowed).
Tread lightly when asking for suggestions at your liquor store. This is common practice, but a store owner can be more of a generalist than a specialist, or worse yet, they could have less than your best interest in mind.