Men drink whiskey. Women drink whiskey. However, getting into the world of whiskey can be daunting and confusing if it’s your first time dealing with this brown liquid, or as others call it “Water of Life”.
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.
Whiskey is the common term given to distilled spirits made from grain mash. Scotch, Rye, Bourbon, Blended Whiskey, Japanese Whiskey are all types of whiskey, sometimes also spelled without the e (mostly when referring to the non-American brands). 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.
Before we go into that type of whisky to try first, let’s go over the basic groups:
Peated: Peat is thousands of years’ worth of decaying vegetation, animals and moss which have evolved into layers; a bog if you will. Barley grain, or damp malt, is exposed to the smoke of a peat fire in order to arrest germination; a crucial part of Whisky production. Peat smoke produces chemicals called phenols and these are absorbed by malted barley.
Nonpeated: Non-peated is basically whisky that was not smoked by the Peat.
Cask Finish: the spirit is matured in a cask of a particular origin and then spends time in a cask of different origin. As an example its common for whisky to be finished in Ex-Bourbon or Sherry Casks, giving it a nice sweetness or caramel vanilla flavors.
Cask Strength: Cask strength (also known as barrel proof) is a term used in whisky-making to describe the level of alcohol-by-volume (abv) strength that is used for a whisky during its storage in a cask for maturation. Cask Strength means that the alcohol has not been watered down to the standard abv between 40-45%.
Now that we have the general terms above down, we can start with the first question a new whisky drinker might ask “What whisky do I try first?”
There really is no best answer for this question, however, if you’ve never had whiskey before you should always start with something a bit lighter. Now when I say never had whisky, I do not refer to drinking shots of Johnny Walker Black or Jameson and not even tasting any hint of flavor.
Whisky is meant to be enjoyed, like a nice cigar for reference. Whisky has so many flavor profiles, that every time you take a sip, the flavors change. Also there are many outside factors that affect the way the whisky tastes.
Back to our question. What whisky should I try first?
I had this question when I first got into whisky about a year ago. I like you, too, was just a noobie looking to get into this wonderful world of mystery whisky. Before becoming a connoisseur of whisky, I would do cocktails and shots of vodka. Yes, it’s awful I know. But we all start somewhere.
My first experience was pretty terrible and I still remember it to this day. It was my second date with my girlfriend (who was a big fan of whisky, Oban 14 was her go to dram). We went to a very famous place in NYC called the Flatiron Room, which is known for quite a whisky collection, too much too count really. But there is a count, its somewhere over 1,000 if I am not mistaken. Anyways, when asking the bartender for a recommendation, he suggested I try the Ardbeg Uigeadail Scotch Whisky. The first sip, my mind was like WOW, what is this horrible liquid I am drinking to impress this girl. It was downright awful. As it should have been.
When first getting into whiskey, you want to stay away from anything peaty. The Smokey salty flavors of these drams are just too much for any beginner to handle. Trust me, take my word for it. After that, any dram I tried, was just more and more awful. At that moment I thought to myself, I gave up sweet and fruity cocktails for this ? Why?! It’s so disgusting!
Our third date we ended up at another Whisky Bar in Brooklyn, closer to where we live. The bar owner (who is now our good friend), asked me what my dram of choice should be. I asked for a recommendation. He suggested the Yamazaki 12. Japanese I exclaimed? He followed with, yes Japanese. Its light and fruity and you will LOVE it! I agreed. Can’t be any worse than Ardbeg, could it? and there it was. Love at first sip. It was light and slightly fruity and velvety and just so pleasant. Although at that time I was still not a seasoned drinker, I could see why people drink whisky. The flavors in my mouth played a tiny fiddle. And the song was very familiar, and boy was it tasty. That was it, the Yamazaki 12 set me on the path of whisky righteousness, as I am sure it would do the same for you.
Point of the story is, when you are just starting out, try some lightweight whisky. Start with Scotch or Irish, and go for light and fruity ones. Yamazaki 12, Redbreast 12, YellowSpot (personal favorite and affordable), Dalwhinnie 15, Aberlour 16. These are the classics, and they should start you on a great journey into whisky.
Bourbon: Start with some American classics: Maker’s Mark or Wild Turkey. These are classics and light enough to really sink your teeth in.
The next common question asked, is how do I drink whisky?
There are a few ways to drink whisky. Neat, on the rocks, or with drops of water.
Neat – When you order whisky neat, it means it will just come as the pour of alcohol. It will not be inhibited by ice or water, so it will not have any outside forces changing the flavor on you.
On the Rocks – When whisky is ordered on the rocks, it means it will be poured over an ice cube, sometimes morel, depending on the location to you go. This does two things:
1) It cools the beverage down to a colder temperature
2) Over time it dilutes the actual strength of the alcohol
Drops of Water – You order the whisky neat, but then gradually you add, a drop of water, then another and another, and so forth. This technique is really great for whisky of cask strength, as it might be too hot or too spicy, with a high ABV to drink. The drop of water (really it usually takes only 1 or 2), brings the alcohol to a more comfortable dram. It’s not as hot or spicy and ends up being mellowed out.
Neat with drops of water is my favorite way to drink whisky. This technique allows me to taste exactly what the master distiller had in mind when coming up with the recipe for the whisky mash, but at the same time I can control the flavors by adding a tiny drop of water. This also dilutes the alcohol giving way to some of the softer flavors on your palate to shine through, that were once being overpowered by the strong OAK flavors.
Long story short, it’s all about you. This is just a basic guide by someone whose been there, hated the whisky, thought it was god awful, and now LOVE it to death. There really is no wrong or right way to drink whisky.