In a season of giving, there's a lot to be said for something that asks only to be unwrapped, sipped and savored. For a gift that can bring pleasure without requiring long-term storage, a fine bottle can provide a lot of cheer.
Local wine and liquor stores have a wide range of choices, often in attractive gift packaging and sometimes even carrying an extra holiday bonus.
John Coleman of Sutton Place Gourmet says most bottlers are producing their holiday gift boxes at no extra charge. Some are even offering glasses, for those who don't mind brandishing an ad on their glass.
For some good-looking gift presentations he suggests a bottle of Drambuie packaged with two coffee mugs, which sells for around $27, a Bacardi Limon rum with two martini glasses for $25 or a bottle of Vox vodka with an oversize martini glass for $25.
Seasonal beers are big sellers this time of year. Coleman says that among the best-looking of these offerings are gift packs from Flying Fish Brewing Co., an award-winning microbrewery based in Cherry Hill, N.J., and a gift pack of Chimay beers from Belguim.
The Flying Fish Gift Pack contains four different beers and a "Best Wishes for the Holidays 2002- 2003" pint glass. It sells for about $13. The Chimay features an assortment of three beers as well as a collector glass and sells for $13.99.
Stan Bliden of Midway Discount Liquors in Joppa is not a tequila drinker - the last time he imbibed that beverage (in college days), "They took movies of me in the bathtub" - but should he ever give that drink another try, it might be from a bottle of Espolon, made from 100 percent blue agave and aged in oak.
The quality of tequila available in this country, along with the discerning tastes of tequila aficionados, has risen considerably in the past few years, and this small-company tequila is evidence of that improvement. It offers the Espolon packaged in an attractive gift box with a raised metallic label for about $50.
For adventurous gin drinkers, Bliden suggests a bottle of Hendrick's, a small-batch gin distilled and bottled in Scotland. In addition to juniper, coriander and citrus peel, this gin also has cucumber and rose petals.
"I've had people love this stuff," he says, but cautions that those who prefer a more traditional gin will want to take note of the company's motto: "It's not for everyone." A bottle of Hendrick's sells for about $26.
For fans of good rye whiskey, Bliden recommends a beautifully packaged bottle of Saze- rac 18, an 18-year-old, 90- proof rye whiskey, retailing for around $38.
Alfred Schudel of Pinehurst Wine Shoppe is partial to a good single-malt scotch, of which there are many good gift choices. One suggestion is a $51 bottle of Highland Park, an 18-year-old Orkney Island whisky that comes in an attractive round canister and includes a holiday bonus of "Michael Jackson's Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch." (That's a guide by the scotch expert, not the singer.)
Another good choice: Balvenie PortWood, aged 17 years in Ozark oak, then another four years in old port barrels, which lend just enough sweetness for Schudel to dub this "my dessert single malt." An exceptionally smooth sip, a bottle of Balvenie PortWood sells for $69.
For fans of the Macallan, an 18-year-old bottle of this single malt is attractively packaged in a gift box for $88. Some stores are carrying a 12-year-old Macallan with two matching glasses, selling for about $35.
If a port aficionado is high on your gift list, Schudel has two suggestions: a 40-year-old tawny port from Taylor Fladgate for $150 or, for $185, a truly memorable bottle of Taylor Fladgate Vintage 1977. That year was known as one of the greatest-ever port vintages, Schudel says. Now, a quarter of a century later, it is at the peak of its maturity.
Whether your budget is $12 or $1,200, there are good gift choices in the sips category, and in many stores, well-trained staff are ready to point you toward a good choice.
A word of advice for those on the receiving end: Don't be like the man who carefully packed up his spirits upon moving to a retirement home, filling one box with unopened bottles labeled "whiskey too good to drink."