That's the Spirits!

Holiday shoppers find greater variety of premium liquors on store shelves this season.

December 13, 2000|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Pick up that handblown bottle of tequila and hold it up to the light. Look at the detail in the cactus sculpture extending up from the base. This is not your father's holiday spirit.

Whether you're stocking up for holiday parties or choosing gifts, if you're in a premium liquor store this month, you'll find yourself gazing at shelves of new high-end liquors that promise to be smoother, more complex and more flavorful than the old standards.

"I think people are drinking less, but they're drinking better," says Al Schudel, co-owner of Pinehurst Wine Shoppe, which sells fine wines and spirits at the corner of Bellona and Gittings avenues in North Baltimore. "When we first started out 15 years ago, I think we had two single-malt scotches on the shelves. Now, we have 70."

In the past, you might have thought of giving the old classics - popular blended whiskeys such as Chivas Regal dressed up for the holidays in a blue pouch.

If your intended recipient is a man in his 60s or older, loyal to a particular blend of scotch, that's still fine. He might not like to find a surprise in his tumbler.

But sales of the old standard brands have declined in recent years. "This part of the business is going pfft," says Michael Hyatt, president of Wells Discount Liquors, 6310 York Road, as he motioned to the rows of brown bottles of Seagrams - many of them plastic - and other whiskeys.

Young, affluent and adventurous customers are ignoring these Canadian and American standards in favor of single-malt scotches - as distinctive and different from each other as are fine wines. They don't mind paying anywhere from $30 to $385 for a 750-milliliter bottle. Or they're shelling out $30 to $500 for a high-end tequila or $25 and up for triple-filtered vodkas and gins flavored with more complex botanicals.

While these premium liquors still make up a tiny percentage of the national market in the United States, they're growing fast, says Tom Valdes, president of Todhunter Imports of West Palm Beach, Fla., which imports Porfidio tequilas and Cruzan rums.

"I think if you look at what's happening in all walks of life, people are looking for something very personal," Valdes says. "The consumer is looking for a lot more flavor."

Witness what happened with beer in the last 20 years, with the influx of imports and microbrews. The same has happened with single-malt scotch and tequila in the last 10 years. There are more to choose from, each with a distinctive character and an association with a particular place.

At Wells Discount Liquors, many customers are familiar with these high-end liquors because they've had them in bars and restaurants, says Hyatt. He recommends Birds of a Feather in Fells Point as a place to try a selection of single-malt scotches.

If you're buying scotch as a gift, do some homework on the recipient, Hyatt says. "Scotch is very personal," he adds.

There are essentially two types of scotch drinkers, he says: One kind is brand-loyal to a blended scotch such as Dewar's, which has a consistent flavor blended by the maker from a recipe of different malts from several distilleries.

The other kind is the single-malt aficionado. Although some people are loyal to a particular single malt, many will want to try several, Hyatt says. With a single malt, the distillery bottles only its own malt, without blending it with anything else. It will have a distinctive flavor resulting from the water and geography of the place where it was made.

Some have a heavy peat flavor; others have flavors of seaweed and iodine. Some taste downright medicinal. Glenkinchie and Macallan have universally appealing flavors that would provide a good introduction to single-malt scotch, Hyatt says. Lagavulin, Hyatt's personal favorite, is a bit more complex with a smoky, velvety finish. Laphroiag is only for the brave - even Hyatt doesn't care for it.

"It has a burnt-peat-moss-and-iodine flavor," says Bob Ferris, an editor who lives in Towson, during a recent trip to Wells. He happens to like Laphroiag, but he wouldn't recommend it as a gift. "That one, there's no mistaking it. Most bars don't carry it."

Florida businessman Alan Shayne founded the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America in 1993. The organization has grown to 4,500 members who pay a $25-a-year fee for the privilege of paying around $200 for a bottle taken straight from the barrel of various distilleries in Scotland.

His membership is about 85 percent men, many of them over 40, professional and high-income. A lot of FBI agents and Secret Service agents belong, and so do a few celebrities he won't name, although one is a Scottish actor known for his spy movies, he says. The organization's Web site is www.smwsa.com. Each year, about 500 memberships are sold as gifts, Shayne says, usually at Christmas and Father's Day.

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