TORONTO— For many, nothing rings in the festive season like a smooth single-malt whisky or a warming glass of your favourite red wine enjoyed in the company of good friends.
But with so many social obligations over December, entertaining with and gifting such potent potables can add up, says Adam McDowell, author of Drinks: A User’s Guide.
To keep your budget within reason, McDowell recommends embracing the spirit of Scrooge when it comes to sleuthing out a great bargain.
“I’m the last person to say you need to spend a lot of money to get delicious wine, and if you’re hosting you maybe want to be a little bit of a cheapskate,” he says.
Craft beer is another affordable option in which there’s a diverse range of unique seasonal products, adds Crystal Luxmore, a certified beer sommelier in Toronto.
Here’s some tips for buying — and imbibing — in moderation.
Best wines under $15
If you’re stocking up for a celebration, McDowell counsels steering clear of high-end wines.
“It’s not like your friends are going to be able to appreciate the good stuff later into the night,” he says. “So a party is a good occasion to find that $10 or $15 gem and get a whole bunch of that.”
His favourite inexpensive go-tos come from Mediterranean countries like France, Greece and Italy.
“In these countries where people drink wine more or less every day, it creates a situation where affordability happens at the same point as quality,” he says. “What you get in Canada is a lot of $15 wine from those regions that are spectacular.”
When it comes to reds some of McDowell’s favourites are Gamay Noirs from France or virtually anything from Spain.
As for whites, he’s a big fan of products that come from the Douro region of Portugal.
Not your average beer run
For those who don’t consider beer a particularly festive drink, Luxmore says there’s a number of specialty brews available called “winter warmers” that might change your mind. Think spiced or fruity ales with Christmas flavours, she says, “almost fruitcake in a glass.”
Bourbon barrel-aged beers are another seasonal pick that may appeal to the whisky lover on your Christmas list, she adds.
“At this time of year we get these big boozy bottles that have been sitting in used barrels for 12 months, so they soak up all of that oak and vanilla and toasted character,” she says.
For such specialty beers —many of which can be enjoyed now or are perfect for aging—expect to pay up to $10 or $15 for a 500 ml or 750 ml bottle.
But if that sounds expensive, Luxmore says, keep in mind that’s basically top-shelf product. “So not only are you not cheaping out, you’re getting the high-end stuff,” she says.
Other beers sure to impress over the holidays are Belgian tripels or saisons, Luxmore says. These golden beers have a cork, “so they’ll pop just like champagne.”
Buying the bottom shelf
If you’re planning a party the same rules apply to spirits as they do with wine, says McDowell. In other words, “don’t spend more than you have to.”
Whether you’re buying vodka, bourbon or scotch, he says, “almost anything you can grab for $25 is great stuff for mix.”
Generally, he adds, any brand of gin or Canadian whisky will be of high quality regardless of the sticker price. When it comes to those types of spirits, he says, “the only thing we have in Canada are premium brands.”
But if you’re not much for liquor, McDowell says, don’t bother stocking up your home bar. Instead, create a single signature cocktail.
“Make a big pitcher of something that’s not too boozy, which is great if you want to keep your guests upright and cheerful,” he says. “Plus, it’s also not as expensive.”