I’ve had a few friends recently ask me what whisky they should buy, as a complete novice. Not knowing anything about whisky is daunting, and the stuff is expensive. It could be you hate smoky whisky and you buy a Laphroaig 18 for £65 as your first bottle of single malt, like some idiot (yep, that was me. Luckily, I saved it for the right time and I love smoky whisky).
I remember what it was like. Being a hugely excitable student, knowing next to nothing about whisky. I had a summer when my girlfriend (now wife) was in Canada. My 21st was coming up and I didn’t want a fancy pen or a watch, I wanted an awesome whisky from my birth year. But I wanted to get a great one, and more importantly wanted to be able to appreciate this awesome whisky. I needed to know more about it.
The second purchase was Singleton of Dufftown 12. The third: Talisker 10. I think the Talisker was when it really clicked. These two whiskies were SO different. But they were both Scotch single malts. Not only that but the complexity the Talisker had was like nothing I’d ever tasted. It was like a bonfire on the beach in a glass of whisky. Truly great whisky does that. It takes you somewhere. It’s transportitive. It stirs memories.
Soon after I tried Ballentine’s 17, Highland Park 12 and Old Pulteney 12 and from there I needed to know everything about everything about the world of whisky.
So, enough of my personal history. Here’s my tips for getting the most out of your whisky as a beginner and some places to start:
Tip 1: Take your time.
Take your time with the whisky. And also realise its not all going to come to you in one day. It takes time to build up your sense of smell and taste, your knowledge of the whiskies to appreciate them fully. For many people, even just to get over the taste of the ethanol alcohol will take time.
Don’t force yourself to try and like something, but be open to trying new things. It might be that you don’t like Laphroaig but that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t like peated whiskies.
Tip 2: Watch videos
YouTube was a big part of my whiskyhood. Learning from Ralfy (of Ralfy.com) and then Horst (of whisky.com) really accelerated my learning and I found it so, so useful to taste the same whisky as they were and see if I could get the same notes.
Tip 3: Add water or ice
I used to add ice to my whisky. There I said it. I said a shameful thing but that’s the reality. It helps you get used to the alcohol but you’ll be getting less of the actual flavour. Better is to add a small teaspoon of water, then maybe another. Try and slowly reduce the amount of ice or water as you go on and gain experience. Eventually you’ll find 40% whiskies will feel thin and you’ll be craving the monster 60% cask strength stuff!
Tip 4: Small sips
Another useful tidbit is to take a smaller sip to give you less of the alcohol and more of the flavour. Something my wife does is to lift the glass to her mouth, coat her lips with the whisky and lick it off (no jokes please, c’mon guys!) which is perhaps extreme but useful in getting the flavour but very little alcohol.
Tip 5: Get the right glass
This is crucial! I would recommend a Glencairn glass to anyone, although there are plenty of others now on the market. Don’t go for something gimmicky as your first glass, go for something practical. These nosing glasses have a distinct advantage over tumblers (the traditional whisky glass) in that tumblers are normally straight sided, or even worse flared outwards, allowing the aromas to spill out everywhere. A nosing glass can concentrate these aromas to get a much better sense of the smell of the whisky.
Tip 6: Start small but dive in
Something that I believe in is waiting for the right whisky at the right time. My purchase of Laphroaig 18 as my first single malt was a bad decision but waiting until I was ready and able to appreciate it made it a great purchase. Equally, don’t be afraid of more expensive whiskies. Don’t fall into the trap of never feeling ready either. Dive in. The best way to gain experience with whisky is to taste them, be that older whisky or expensive whisky or rare whisky.
Tip 7: Make notes
A double edged sword but making notes can really help you to remember which whiskies you liked and why, and importantly, which whiskies you didn’t like and why. Even just writing down the whiskies you’ve tasted or a list of purchases can help. Equally, don’t let making notes detract from your enjoyment of the whisky (although for me, it only enhances it). Keep notes practical and your own, and don't worry if you aren't getting a million things straight away or that hint of used wetsuit off that Caol Ila.
Tip 8: Get a group/friends
Not only is whisky is best tasted together with good friends, but it can also really help you in your journey to share drams with each other, learn off each other and bounce ideas/notes off each other. You’re going to learn more about whisky quicker and you’ll have more motivation if there’s a good group of you tasting together. If you don’t have a whisky group locally, start your own! Or join one of the many great forums online (Reddit, Malt Maniacs Facebook, Whiskybase.com, etc.).
Tip 9: Get to a good bar
Trying whisky is the key to learning about whisky. Buying individual bottles is an expensive and an, eventually, space consuming activity, while buying whiskies at a bar is maybe a bit easier. This also lets you compare some whiskies together, which helps to bring out the notes a lot more and will help you try more whiskies faster. Alternatively, get to a whisky festival and spend the whole day trying whiskies.
Tip 10: Don’t let anyone tell you what to think
That includes tasting notes on whisky boxes and official websites, Jim Murray and anyone else (including me). Trust your own palate. If you aren’t getting the flavour of blue cheese off that Tobermory that’s fine, move on. Official tasting notes are usually written by the marketing departments to try and make the whiskies sound great and hook you in, while many whisky reviewers use terms that make no sense to beginners (this whisky’s plethora of aromas conjures the image of a burnt down flower museum… yep, that’s one of mine. Sorry).
Tip 11: Keep it fun!
Never lose sight of this. Have fun and enjoy the whiskies you try. Share them with awesome people, and, very VERY importantly, avoid alcohol abuse and misuse.
Some whiskies I’d recommend:
To start out:
Highland Park 12 (£25)
The all-rounder. Some age, some Sherry, some smoke, some oak, some heather, honey and spices. The whisky I’ve been recommending as the place to start.
Old Pulteney 12 (£24)
A great starting point. Light and delicate, but with enough there to keep you searching. A salty touch of the sea, fresh fruit and light citrus.
A nice introduction to sweeter Speyside whisky. Finished in Sherry casks but retaining a lot of freshness, with a great strawberry hit to it.
Laphroaig 10 (£28)
The classic love it or hate it whisky. Full on peat smoke, medicinal TCP, wet dog, burning hospital and/or farm, it’s all there.
Lagavulin 16 (£50)
The gentleman of Islay. After 16 years the smoke has toned down a lot and revealed a real depth and complexity. Aristocratic with cigar, leather and Lapsang Souchong.
Talisker 10 (£32)
Another smoky one but with a great deal of complex bonfire, salty sea air and black pepper. A classic and a favourite of mine.
Aberlour A’Bunadh (£40)
A proper cask strength Sherry monster. Worth hunting down, as I’ve heard it might be being discontinued, with huge cherry and a chewy texture for days.
Ledaig 10 (£40)
A DWR favourite! Ledaig is making some cracking whisky at the moment and this is another great example. Salty, smoky and funky, this is something quite different and therefore for the adventurous.
Springbank 10 (£40)
Another classic. A little more expensive than other whiskies, Springbank is the true whisky enthusiast’s whisky with every part of the process done traditionally at the distillery. This is another funky one, but with a truly great balance of sweetness, dryness, smoke and oils.
Ardbeg 10 (£40)
A very smoky intense whisky but Ardbeg use purifiers that give the whisky a lifting citrus note. Lime juice, creamy smoke and an amazing oily texture, this is another one with a great balance to it.
Ardbeg Uigeadail (£50)
Perhaps the best whisky I can recommend. For £50 this is an absolute steal. Many whiskies at £200 don’t have the same complexity, balance or power of the famous Oog. This has a degree of Sherry casks to the batch (about 10%) giving it a meaty BBQ smoke note to go with the huge peat. Earthy, bacon, oily, lime. Seriously sexy whisky.
Clynelish 14 (£40)
Another favourite of the true connoisseurs. Clynelish has a great history, and this 14 has everything you’d want from this distillery. Big wax notes, apple, spice, oak, citrus and a very small ash note that pops up now and again.
Eagle Rare 10 (£32)
My go to when recommending Bourbon. Big caramel, toffee, mint and vanilla ice cream.
4 Roses Single Barrel (£38)
Another great Bourbon with more floral oak notes and a lighter profile than the Eagle Rare.
My recommendation for Irish whiskey, this is a Single Pot Still Whiskey. Creamy mouthfeel with cinnamon, raisin and sugar cystals.
Some whiskies to avoid:
Cheap blended shite
There are some great blends but generally I really believe that taking a step from £15 to £20 is going to get you a LOT more for your money than the step from £50 to £100, so I’d always go with a cheaper malt than a really cheap blend.
Jim Beam White really put me off Bourbon for a long time. Again, stick with stuff of a reasonable quality and it’ll repay you.
Supermarket Own Brands
These can be great value for money but I’d would avoid them as a novice because you’ll learn about whisky much faster by tasting and learning about the character of the distilleries. Supermarket own brands do not reveal the distillery they are from, only the region normally, so aren’t perhaps the best place to start. Also, do you really want the whisky the distillery didn’t want to use itself?
The original malt whisky. I recommend you try this to try it. I wouldn’t buy it. Glenfiddich make some amazing whisky but I’m not a fan of what they do and this 12 is about as boring a whisky as you can find.
As with the Glenfiddich, I recommend you try it but again I find it to be from the same vein as the Glenfiddich. A tad more floral but very dull.
Anything from Cardhu
Its no secret Cardhu is my least favourite Scotch distillery. Its often on deal but don’t fall for it, this stuff is the most incredibly uninteresting whisky you’ll find.
Overpriced. Way overpriced for what you’re getting. Great distilleries that have big reputations for a reason but unless you spend four figures you ain’t getting the good stuff.
The famous David Beckham whisky! This stuff is a single grain, matured for 3 years. Making it one the cheapest, most mass produced whisky’s in the world. So don’t fall for the huge marketing campaign.
Some things to keep in mind:
Colour: Colour tells you next to nothing about whisky but have a look anyway. Many companies add artificial colouring anyway, so it can't always be trusted.
Nose: The smell and aroma of the whisky is a big part of appreciating it. Take your time to smell the whisky from different angles and distances.
Taste: Again take your time, take a small sip and move it to different parts of the mouth and tongue, letting the whisky cover your mouth. Try to let the whisky have its whole effect before swallowing.
Finish: How long the flavours last in your mouth after swallowing and what flavours are leftover.
So there you have it. Enjoy the journey friends!
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