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 time from the same mash, one single malt. 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 Johnny 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 Johnny 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, pinball and playing my guitar. I give lots of advice, and like to think most of it has turned out well. As for whiskey, I am a descendant of Johnny Walker himself, you could say it's always been in my blood. Get at me with any questions or comments, I love to hear back from friends and enemies alike.


Comments (13 comments)

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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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