A Beginner’s Guide to Whiskey


Real men drink whiskey, unfortunately getting into the world of whiskey can be more than a little daunting to the uninitiated.

With so many different brands, varieties, terms, ways to drink and strong opinions in the mix any beginner whiskey drinker will benefit from a helpful starter guide. Below you’ll find everything you need to know to fool even the most devout whiskey enthusiast.

Whiskey, Bourbon, Rye and Scotch

Types of Whiskey

Whiskey is the generic term given to distilled spirits made from grain mash. Bourbon, Rye and Scotch are all types of whiskey; as such they are all similar in taste and appearance. The difference between the types of whiskey depend on the types of grain used, the location in which it was distilled, the length of ageing and the type of casks used in the process.

Each type of whiskey has its own rules and regulations governing the type: for example you cannot make scotch outside of Scotland.

If you would like to know the specifics of each type of whiskey, head to my article Know your Whiskey: The Difference Between Bourbon, Scotch, Rye, Irish.

Where to Get Started

get-started

The first question a new whiskey drinker asks is which type of whiskey to try first. The best answer to this is to start with the whiskey with the best selection where you live. If you’re American you’re going to want to get into bourbon, if you’re Canadian you’ll want to look into scotch.

The reason for this is economic: the more selection you have of a specific type of whiskey, the more likely you are to find quality bottles at lower prices.

Regardless of which style of whiskey you’re trying first try to talk to someone who knows a thing or two about the selection at hand. You will want to start with a good beginner whiskey, something light and easy on the palate. If your first foray into whiskey is with an Islay scotch, you may derail yourself before you ever get started.

Suggestions

Bourbon: Start with some American classics: Maker’s Mark or Wild Turkey.

Scotch: Get a reasonably priced highland malt: Aberlour 10 or a Glenmorangie 12

Single Malt, Single Cask or Blended

whiskey-casks

There are three subtypes of whiskey. Single malt whiskey is made from mixing whiskey all distilled at the same distillery, the age being the age of the youngest whiskey added. This is the most common type of whiskey you will encounter. Single cask whiskey is bottled entirely from a single cask. This whiskey is typically only found from smaller distilleries or as novelty/high-end lines from some of the major ones.

Blended whiskey is made by blending together whiskey of the same main type (it’s exceptionally rare for people to mix types, such as scotch with bourbon).

You will run into people who will act as though blended whiskey is a joke, which isn’t entirely true. Some companies, such as Johnnie Walker, only make blended whisky. They don’t distill any of their own spirits, instead choosing whisky from other distilleries with specific traits to mix and blend into a new drink.

Some blended whiskey can be very good, but as a beginner it’s best to stick to single malts. This way you can begin to learn what you truly like and do not like in a whiskey, as to have an opinion before you try to decide if Johnnie Walker Blue Label is worth the price tag.

How to Drink Whiskey

on-the-rocks

Now that you bought yourself a bottle of golden fire, you need to figure out how to drink it. There are four ways to drink whiskey:

Neat

Whiskey neat (just room temperature whiskey in a glass) is considered by many to be the only “pure” way to drink a good whiskey. The concept is to taste the spirit as it was distilled, rather than diluting it as the distiller hadn’t intended.

While the logic behind this is solid, this is typically a very poor way to drink a fine whiskey.

With Water

The best way to drink good whiskey is with some water. While people will claim adding water will open up the bouquet and a bunch of other random things, the real reason is more functional.

First, take a tiny sip of your whiskey neat. Chances are, especially if it’s cask strength, you will feel your taste buds buzzing as the liquid hits your tongue. This is the alcohol anesthetizing your taste buds. If you continue to drink the whiskey neat, you will eventually lose the ability to truly taste the drink; your tongue will grow numb.

You should add just a capful of water (only ever use clear distilled or spring water. Chlorine will ruin you drink). If after another small taste you still feel that “buzzing” add another capful. Repeat this until you have the minimum amount of water possible, without melting your tongue. Now you can enjoy the entire glass, tasting it truly through the last drop.

On the Rocks

Many whiskey drinkers like their spirit on the rocks. The argument against this is two-fold:

  1. Ice is typically made from tap water, meaning it’s full of chlorine.
  2. As the ice melts it will water down your drink, well past the point of simply adding some water.

If you like to drink ice-cold whiskey you can get around these issues by making your own ice from high-quality water and by keeping a dish and a small spoon next to your glass so you can remove the ice once the whiskey is watered to your liking.

Cocktail

Finally you can mix whiskey into a cocktail or mixed drink. If you’re doing this please do not use high-end whiskey. While one should never drink the cheapest/worst whiskey you can buy, use middle-ground spirits for your cocktails. You always want to be drinking quality whiskey, but mixing $300 bourbon into a whiskey bourbon sour is a stupid, wasteful, act.

Suggestion: Bulleit bourbon. It’s not too expensive, but it’s a terrific drink to have on its own or in a whiskey cocktail.

It’s all About You

To be perfectly honest there is no wrong way to drink whiskey. Aside from mixing something tremendous with coke (just don’t do it) there is no wrong way to enjoy your drink. However you enjoy your drink is the best way to drink it. If you want to let your ice melt entirely, let your ice melt entirely.

If someone tries to tell you otherwise, just smile and know they’re just being a snob.

Real men enjoy their whiskey, how you enjoy it is up to you.



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Written by Sean Lind

My time is divided between writing, women, whiskey, and pinball. I give lots of advice, and coach men on how to reach their potential. As for whiskey, I am a descendant of Johnnie Walker himself, you could say it's always been in my blood.


Comments (55 comments)

  • March 16, 2015 at 1:21 am

    Crown Royal Deluxe (a blended whisky) used to be my go-to whisky. I’ve been drinking it for years. But I recently came across a gem I’d like to share with you : Canadian Club – Chairman’s Select – 100% Rye.

    A beautiful whisky that goes down smooth. Tastes great!

    I’m by no means a “whisky snob”. Whether a person drinks their whisky neat, with water or on the rocks is their own business. Life’s too short to be a whisky snob. Buy your drink….Enjoy your drink! :)

  • chris
    March 12, 2015 at 9:24 am

    A good article! All I want to say is that you got the meaning of single malt slightly wrong. Single malt means Whisky that is fermented, distilled and matured by one distillery alone. Therefore the contents of a bottle of Oban 14yo may contain some whisky matured for 20 years or 17 and the youngest whisky in it will be 14. Also personally I dont agree with encouraging begonners to buy single malts first….I would recommend starting on decent blends. For instance you can buy one bottle each of Johnnie Walker Black (a 12yo blend) and a Ballantynes 12yo for less than a Highland Park 12yo. Two bottles that are smooth and well rounded to try before committing to an expensive bottle that has more distinct love/hate flavours. First find what you like in a good affordable blend…then buy a singe malt wih that knowledge, a single malt with that flavour profile you know you like and enjoy! For example if you like your $14 bottle of Grants, chances are you’ll LOVE the $40 bottle of glenfiddich 12… but if you didnt know that you mightve blown all $54 on a bottle of Talisker that you could never drink!

    • Sean Lind
      March 12, 2015 at 10:04 am

      Great comment, 100% accurate and good advice. Thank you!

  • Imani
    March 6, 2015 at 7:51 pm

    Comment: This is a great site. Thanks so much. Now Question: I’m really not much of a drinker but when I was introduced to alcoholic beverages beyond the cute “girlie” cosmos and appletinis, I was encouraged to have a “Jack and Coke”. They were okay and thus have become my go-to/fall back position when ordering a drink. In this post you said don’t mix something tremendous with Coke.

    Are you saying just don’t mix high-end brands with Coke or are you saying don’t mix whiskey and Coke at all, ever, under any circumstances? If it’s the former, what brand/type of whiskey do you suggest to go with my Coke (bearing in mind that as a non-drinker I prefer my drinks on the sweet side)? If it’s the latter, what do you suggest I make my whiskey/scotch/bourbon drink of choice instead of Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola? Thanks again!

    • Sean Lind
      March 6, 2015 at 7:56 pm

      Mixing whiskey and coke is just fine, it’s just a waste to mix high end whiskey, as the coke will dominate the flavour.

      Since you like sweeter drinks, I would actually suggest spiced dark rum with your coke, but for whiskey I would suggest crown Royal for you. But jack is always good.

  • nick
    March 6, 2015 at 11:18 am

    I’ve been drinking whiskey for year, tried some really top shelf bourbon’s and still prefer the taste of regular old Jack Daniels over that twice mellowed or single barrel crap.

  • Emerson
    March 5, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    What a great site. I have enjoyed good wines for years and rarely experimented with other forms of alcohol. A few years ago, I was persuaded by a good friend to try whiskey (Makers). All I can say now is… thank god for good friends.

  • Tadej
    February 26, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    Hey, great syuff. I relly enjoyed the article.

    I only tried whiskey once and i really didn’t like the taste. I tried balentines finest but as i hear that is not a good blend…

    But i’m giving whiskey another try with a differend brand. I would really like to hear your experience with balentines finest.

    Do you think I will ejoy better brands or do they all taste similar

    Thanks allot and be jentle on me :)

    • Sean Lind
      February 26, 2015 at 2:57 pm

      All brands taste different, but they all taste like whiskey. Go grab a bottle of Maker’s Mark, or Four Roses, or Aberlour 10, and you will see what it’s all about (without spending too much).

  • Kristian
    February 22, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    Hello,
    I am a beginner and when I say that, I really have no clue where to start. I have been reading a lot of articles and I want to start drinking Whiskey.
    I am from the philippines and the selection here is quite few.
    I was wondering with what brand I should start with? I dont want to go ahead and buy a bottle then get turned off by it’s strength.
    I really want to learn how to drink whiskey. It’s perfect when I am just staring blankly, alone with my thoughts.

    • Sean Lind
      February 22, 2015 at 8:02 pm

      Well, that’s a tough one. You might as well start with something cheaper, but good, and classic. I would say grab a bottle of Maker’s Mark. Just get on in to it, and see how you like it best.

      • Kristian
        February 24, 2015 at 8:40 pm

        I would try and look for that brand. But if I could not find it, could you give me another brand? something a bit famous? so there is a higher chance of me finding it. Thanks :D

      • Sean Lind
        February 25, 2015 at 9:54 am

        Makers Mark is one of the most famous bourbon’s available. If you have a better selection of scotch grab an Aberlour 10, or basically any Glenmorangie.

      • Kristian
        February 25, 2015 at 8:12 pm

        I found a bottle of Maker’s Mark! Im actually excited to try it. Anyways I also found a bran called Jim Beam. It about half the price of Maker’s Mark. Should I try it? Is it any good? Or should I just go with Maker’s Mark as my first drink?

      • Sean Lind
        February 26, 2015 at 2:56 pm

        Jim Beam is what comes on special for happy hour. While I’m not going to say it’s bad (I’ve drank a lot of it myself), it’s not something you will ever see on my bar, for any reason. There are better Bourbons of similar price for cocktails, and many better for sipping a little more.

      • Kristian
        February 26, 2015 at 8:30 pm

        Ill just go with the Maker’s Mark then. Will update on how it goes :D Hopefully i can get my hands on a Glenmorangie so I could differentiate the tastes. They are a bit expensive here. Oh well, in time I guess.
        Anyway thanks a lot man. Great article.

  • Yousaf
    February 16, 2015 at 6:55 am

    I want to ask 1 question i am beginner so i want to know what time is best for whiskey after dinner or before explain me with reason! Plz thanks

    • Sean Lind
      February 16, 2015 at 4:42 pm

      Both. It’s always the best time for whiskey.

  • taj1994
    February 14, 2015 at 3:01 am

    What would you say about Crown Royal? I don’t have a bottle that I can look at right now, but I believe it’s a rye whisky that is a blend of seven(?) Canadian whiskies. If someone likes Crown, what other (preferably Canadian) whiskies would you recommend?

    • Sean Lind
      February 14, 2015 at 1:33 pm

      Yeah, crown is a decent Canadian whiskey (don’t call it rye… silly Canada), but it’s a little too sweet for most. To be honest, I have never loved it. Apparently you can get some single-barrel crown only in Texas. If you’re looking for other Canadian whisky, I would try to find a bottle of Alberta Springs 10 year. It’s cheap and fantastic. The new Canada Club 100% rye is great for cocktails, but I believe it’s available only in Canada.

  • JJ
    January 26, 2015 at 4:31 pm

    I am limited to a “drink” a month due to medical reasons so, I prefer to have a shot of good whiskey (and occasionally tequila). I tend to take a small sip first, let it lay on my tongue until eventually pushing my tongue against the top of my mouth, squishing the whiskey throughout my mouth and palette. After a few sips and savoring the intense flavors, I will toss it back and taste the bulk of the flavor. When I toss it back, it will bring out other flavors that sipping does not give. I have tried several whiskey’s and most have all been satisfactory.

  • Miguel
    January 20, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    I am looking for a economical scotch for a party at the house. I’ve been having a hard time make a choice between Dewars white label vs Johnny walker red label. Can you advice which would be the best choice, and if you have any other recommendations?

    • Sean Lind
      January 20, 2015 at 3:52 pm

      If you want Walker, get Black. Red is not something I, or almost anyone, enjoys drinking. But I actually really like black, so it’s a decent choice for the cheap stuff.

  • Anthony McDermott
    January 17, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    Good day Sean. Would you recommend adding water to Michters 10 year 1753 single barrel. I love the burn but will it improve the experience. It was a gift and I’m new to the scene. Thank you very much.

    • Sean Lind
      January 17, 2015 at 3:56 pm

      I would absolutely try a glass with a splash of spring water in it. After a few sips you can decide if you like it more or less that way. I add water to almost all the whiskey I drink, while others never do. So you will just have to try and see what works best for you.

      • Anthony McDermott
        January 17, 2015 at 8:50 pm

        Thanks very much for the response. I did what you suggested and will continue to experiment. Any thoughts on Angels Envy. I purchased a bottle today. Love the site and will recommend it to my friends.

  • Michelle G
    January 16, 2015 at 11:25 am

    Thank you! I have always enjoyed whiskey in mixed drinks or shots but as I have gotten I have realized it’s the only liquor I like. So I thought to start a quest for ‘my’ whiskey. I started with Islay Storm which I now see was not my best plan! Thanks for putting this together. It gives me hope to keep going!

  • January 12, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    […] As you would expect with a plus 100 proof, water is needed to enjoy your entire glass. I have spoken about why you add water to whiskey before (and how much), so to find out more head to Whisky for Beginners. […]

  • Meg
    January 8, 2015 at 4:41 pm

    Marry me, Sean Lind?

    • Sean Lind
      January 8, 2015 at 6:05 pm

      This is the first marriage proposal I have gotten from this site. Consider me thoroughly flattered.

    • Sarah
      January 10, 2015 at 4:04 pm

      No, take me. And we will toast at our wedding with bourbon instead of champagne.

  • KC
    December 7, 2014 at 9:02 am

    Another question any of the stone or glass freezing type items work well to chill?

    • Sean Lind
      December 10, 2014 at 10:51 am

      Whiskey stones do chill your drink as advertised. I’m not a huge fan of them myself, I kind of like melting ice in my drink *ducks*. But they work well enough.

  • KC
    December 7, 2014 at 9:01 am

    I would like to buy my husband a good smooth bottle of whiskey for Christmas. I only know the name of one he has enjoyed, Magellan I believe is the correct spelling. I am in the US.
    Any other suggestions for a new try?
    Thank you!

    • Sean Lind
      December 10, 2014 at 10:54 am

      Hmm, I am not familiar with that brand. When I read that I instantly think Macallan, perhaps that’s what it was? I would grab him a bottle of Auchentoshan Three Wood. It’s one of my all time favorites.

  • stephen
    November 25, 2014 at 7:59 am

    Hi great article, I live in Spain and have a limited selection, mostly brand name blended whiskies JD, JB, JW, Jameson’s etc any suggestions?

    • Sean Lind
      November 25, 2014 at 9:18 am

      While some people like to avoid blends, there is nothing wrong with Johnnie Walker, just avoid red. Gold is my favourite of the bunch.

  • Kevin
    November 11, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    Nice article, but some whisk(e)ys may still taste better neat. It is a matter of the whisky and the preference of the drinker. Also, single malt scotches can come from different mashes, even years. They often are a blend of casks, but all from the same distillery. The age on the bottle is the minimum age of the youngest cask.

  • JFox
    October 16, 2014 at 4:54 pm

    Coming from a lady working in a predominantly man’s world I’ve had the pleasure of discovering the balancing act between keeping my heels high and maintaining speed with the gentelmen. This post was quite informative so I can drink with the best of ‘em.

  • Edix
    July 16, 2014 at 7:32 pm

    What’s your take on adding a stone (as in a rock)? I’ve heard that it adds a mineral taste that compliments a whiskey. I can see that but I have not tried it. I originally heard it from an old German lady I think.
    I live in California so if it’s any good I’m sure some ass will be selling Whiskey Rocks for $10. OMG that’s a good idea. Maybe I’ll be that ass.

  • Chris
    April 21, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    I have well water, that’s like a spring right?

    • Sean Lind
      April 21, 2014 at 5:04 pm

      As long as you have a clear well, absolutely.

    • Jacob
      December 6, 2014 at 12:55 pm

      your well might be clean and safe to drink but also have flavor. if you add sulfur to the whiskey you are ruining it IMO

      • Sean Lind
        December 10, 2014 at 10:57 am

        I used to keep a tray of spring water ice cubes in my freezer, just for whiskey. But I’m not so picky anymore. Call me a heathen, I won’t mind.

  • Brian Cook
    February 15, 2014 at 8:50 am

    Excellent article. Between this one and “Know Your Whiskey”, I feel ready to make a somewhat informed purchase!

    (Eventually I want to model what my Dad used to drink, Johnnie Walker Black label with a couple of ice cubes. Now that I’m in my 50’s its time to branch out from beer and wine!)

  • Derek
    January 24, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    This was a great article. My tongue is tingling right now so I am planning to have my next drink with some spring water, thanks! Also planning to try the maker mark. Drinking gentleman jack right now. It is ok but expensive.

  • Daniel
    December 10, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    what’s the next way to order this at a bar?
    if you ask it with water what do bartenders usually do?

  • December 7, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    Thanks for the read!

    Been enjoying a few of your articles in an attempt to become a real man myself…

    Would anyone have any suggestions for a Canadian?

    • Sean Lind
      December 7, 2013 at 5:00 pm

      In Canada I find it’s best to stick to scotch. Try a bowmore 12 and a glenfarclas 12.

    • Brian McLaughlin
      September 28, 2014 at 6:04 am

      For a good economical Canadian whisky I’d suggest Alberta Springs 10 y.o.
      For a outstanding 100% rye whisky try Lot 40.

  • Morgan Burn
    November 24, 2013 at 10:42 am

    Sean, thanks for putting this all together. Two things I’ve learned from my whisky nights and distillery tours are: that single malt is a new idea, and how to taste with water.
    Until around a hundred years ago, all whisky and whiskeys were blended. Single malt was a gimmick used to sell Scotch in the USA. A tip to find the best single malts, is to find the different scotch used in the making of the best blends. Its hard to find out what scotch goes in to Chivas from Chivas, but lots of distillers will advertise that they are part of the Chivas blend.

    Also, when drinking whisky with water, I learned to only add single drops to the glass before taking a sip. If you order a glass of fine whisky, you should also be served with a small glass or pitcher of water (unless you ask for it neat). Pour in a single drop, enough so you can see the water plume in the liquor. Do this before each sip. This is how you open the bouquet without watering down the whisky. And yes it makes it more palatable.

  • Sean LeSuer
    May 12, 2013 at 11:20 pm

    Bookmarked this website immediately. This is an amazing guide and I can’t wait to try something new. I’m so used to just drinking Jameson and knowing nothing about it or what other options are what. (Not that Jameson is bad choice) I also would have never known to add a bit of water to any of these drinks. So much to try now.
    Thanks for some great info!

  • February 25, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    I was looking for some more information in publishing a whiskey article and found this gem. I just got into the whole whiskey scene around 2 years ago and really enjoy it. My current favorite is Glengoyne 21. You should check it out. Thanks for the good read.

    • Sean Lind
      February 25, 2013 at 9:50 pm

      Glad you liked it. I will be sure to grab me a glass or bottle.

  • matt
    February 21, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    Another solution to having whiskey “on the rocks” is to buy whiskey rocks which you freeze. They cool the drink down without watering it down. ~$10 on amazon.

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