The Third Rail: The Gift of Holiday Near-Cheer


Few people — deranged, generous aberrations mostly — find gift giving easy. I haven’t given someone a pet rock (yet), but like my ability to enjoy flavored vodka, my holiday spirit is definitely impaired. So I shouldn’t criticize others when their gifts evoke some head scratching.

But I do.

This Christmas I received a package of Jack Daniel’s flavored coffee from a family friend.* I like coffee, I like bourbon, and I even like them combined. But why would you mix the flavors and remove the essential part? (I mean the alcohol; God help me if it was decaf as well.) What message are you sending with a non-alcoholic whiskey gift?

The closest approximation to a gift with the name of a whiskey on it — but none of said whiskey in the gift — is the phenomenon of the multitude of available Playboy ephemera currently on the market. Hats, keychains, t-shirts — if you want the Playboy logo on your person, the world’s best-loved nudie mag can make it happen.

It’s unlikely that you’ll ever unwrap a gift magazine subscription to Playboy from a family member (and if it is likely, I believe Jerry Springer is waiting for your call). But it is entirely possible that some feckless relative will give you the gag-gift of a Playboy Bunny t-shirt. Or, if they were really aiming high, the Chihuahua-sized Hugh Hefner Smoking Jacket for Dogs.

Whether Playboy or Jack Daniel’s, these gifts have one message from the sender: I find this particular vice risqué but am not actually going to support it. (Fun “fact”: The term “vice” wasn’t applied to alcohol until the lexicographers’ hangovers set in.) And strangely, though perhaps not surprisingly, these types of liquor “accessories: mostly show up in American distilleries. You can’t buy a monthly calendar from Scotland’s Glenlivet, but you can from Yankee Jack.

European-based liquor companies just don’t offer the same sort of logo-covered ephemera. Stoli offers no gifts, just cocktail recipes and a website about alcohol awareness with such Beckettian questions as “Who do you think you are?” and “Can you get home?” that only would appear on a European Alcohol Awareness website. Absolut vodka’s gift list consists of only a sequin-coated bottle of vodka.

I wouldn’t chalk up the difference to just an “American vs. European” dialectic (because I am thankfully not in grad school), but I have to say that given the choice I would prefer a discoball-bottle of vodka over a drink that smells like Irish coffee but packs none of the punch. So be warned: if you’re ever on the verge of buying a Jack Daniel’s Cribbage Board for a loved one, just go all-in and buy them a bottle of the original spirit.

Unless they’re underage. In that case, just get them a subscription to Playboy.

* This benefactor also gave me a bottle of Tanqueray Rangpur, for which I honestly have to thank them. I’ve been curious about Tanqueray’s new citrus-heavy gin but would have bothered to buy it myself, which defines the best gifts. If you receive a bottle at a Yankee Swap, try it in a Gin and Tonic or Gimlet. With the sweet, strong lime flavor, it’s a rare gateway gin.