SO WHAT do you get the man who, if he doesn't have everything, then at least doesn't care that he doesn't? The question crops up twice a year, when it comes to buying our fathers' birthday and Christmas presents and, if they don't have a peculiar hobby or a boyish obsession with hi- tech gadgetry, then dads are singularly difficult to buy anything for.

They've been left behind by the conglomerate-fuelled "need" for DVD, MiniDisc and digital TV, and are all the better for it. Designer threads and Paul Smith cuff-links are wasted on them and, although they will look pleased when unwrapping that bottle of Chanel Egoiste, six months later you'll spot it on top of their bathroom cabinet, barely used, next to a near-empty bottle of Old Spice.

Something which is almost guaranteed to have had an impression made upon it is a bottle of malt whiskey. For my dad's 60th birthday, I bought him 60 years worth of the stuff, after a mind-opening introduction to the vast range at my local Oddbins.

Yesterday, I rang my father to ask him to remind me what I' d eventually settled on only to discover that he' d not only guzzled the lot, but also recycled their containers. "It was nine months ago," he said, surprised that I'd even expected him to have any remnants lurking at the bottom of bottles, let alone ones still unopened.

He couldn't remember the Oban, one of the few West Highland whiskies in existence, and chosen in memory of a family trip to the nearby Isle Of Mull. Neither could he remember the 12-year-old Lagavulin from Islay, or the Talisker from further north on Skye. One, though, had made a distinct impression on him: Loch Dhu, a malt with a distinct peaty flavour and the pouring consistency of "diluted creosote". The fact my mother thought it tasted like wood preservative may have been an additional reason for his appreciation of the dark liquid. More likely, though, it was because the whisky's near black colouration was guaranteed to impress his guests when the time came to brush the cobwebs from the drinks' cabinet.

My dad reckoned the whisky owed its colour to a charcoal filtration process, but according to Jim Murray in his Complete Book Of Whisky (essential reading for any prospective whisky buff and published by Carlton at pounds 25), United Distillers have remained cannily unforthcoming on the precise nature of its derivation.

These whiskies though, fine as they are, are at the tradesman's end of the connoisseur shelf. For those wishing to emphasise their income as much as their nose for a fine malt, vintage bottles are produced at reassuringly expensive prices and limited quantities. If 1966 means only World Cup victory to you, for instance, then you are obviously coming from the wrong side of Hadrian's Wall, since it's also the year of Balvenie's Vintage Cask. The 200 or so bottles that make up this limited run are pounds 199 a bottle, from a specialist spirit stockist near you. For those prepared to look further afield, a quick flip through the latest edition of the American whisky periodical, Malt Advocate, provides details of a 52-year-old Macallan (pictured left), a reminder of World War II whisky production, "when coal was rationed and peat more heavily used". The 300 bottles are selling for pounds 1,575 a piece.

This is only the tip, though, of an iceberg that rattles around in the tumbler of the thousand-dollar tippler. The real big spenders can be found in the auction room. Martin Green, Christie's whisky buff, says collectable whisky - i.e. a specially selected, limited bottled single malt of a particular year - can be bought in the high street for as little as pounds 40, and from around pounds 80 in auction, but prices can jump to 150 times as much. If spending over two grand for an early 20th century Tomatin seems a tad rich for your pocket, then best quit while you' re behind. A 60-year- old Macallan (distilled in 1926) went under the hammer at Christie's in 1996 for pounds 12,500 (plus pounds 1,000 commission).

At prices like these, it must be tempting to opt for the more miserly English optics when it comes to measuring out your guests drinks. With the current 25ml measure, you get around 28 shots out of a bottle: which still works out at pounds 482 for a single stiff drink. However much the whisky you buy costs though, remember one thing - good whisky is nothing without good conversation, which can't be bought at any price.

Shaun Phillips is deputy editor of `ZM' magazine

Famous Whiskies

Whisky Galore! - comedy about islanders hiding a ship-wrecked whisky cargo. Bottles from the SS Politician, on which the tale was based, fetched up to pounds 1,000 in 1993.

Whisky In The Jar - Thin Lizzy's pop interpretation of the traditional Irish song.

Show Me The Way To The Next Whisky Bar - Whiskey A Go-Go regular Jim Morrison, hammered.