The most common questions I get asked about whisky are:
- How do I get into whisky?
- Where do I start?
- Can you recommend a good bottle for a non-whisky drinker?
All of which boil down to the same thing; if you’re new to whisky where should you start?
On the face of it, it seems like a simple enough question. And I could easily recommend a few tamer, more palatable whiskies. But, everyone’s taste is different. What’s smooth and easy to drink for me, might be like rocket fuel to the next person.
Let’s start with a little jargon buster:
Peaty or smokey whiskies.
This is where the grain (usually barley) has been smoked as it dries. The fuel used to stoke the fires is peat (dry, rotten vegetation) and it gives the whisky a very distinctive smokey smell, like a bonfire. Peaty whiskies are my personal favourite, but they’re unlikely to be the best starting place if you’re new to whisky.
Smooth is used to describe a whisky that is potentially easier to drink. You can expect an even sensation throughout. From the initial sip, all the way back across the tongue and down your throat. It’s the perfect balance of sweetness and fire. Smooth is, however, very subjective – so take it with a pinch of salt (not literally!)
Whisky or Whiskey?
Both are correct, sort of. Whiskey is how the Irish and Americans spell it, Whisky is how the Scots spell it. So it depends on what you’re drinking.
What is Bourbon?
Speaking of which, Bourbon is typically found in America – it’s generally a bit sweeter than scotch. These really are a great place to start; in fact for a lot of people Jack Daniels on the rocks (ice) is a classic first sipping whiskey.
What is Scotch?
Scotch is distilled in Scotland, for a minimum of 3 years and 1 day in oak casks. Nothing else is allowed to be called Scotch.
Single Malt Whisky vs Blended Whisky
Single malt whisky is produced from a single type of malted barley, distilled in copper stills and made at one distillery. Unless the bottle specifies ‘Single Cask’ then a master blender will have mixed multiple casks together to achieve the smell and taste they’re after. This is not the same as blending.
Lots of whisky connoisseurs turn their noses up at blends, but why? Well simply put, a blend is where an expert blender brings together whiskies from multiple distilleries and cask types and blends them together to create something completely different. Blends are generally very smooth to drink, but often lack some of the more complex or distinctive flavours of a single malt. That being said, they’re often cheaper and very consistent from bottle to bottle.
Choosing your first Whisky
My first bit of advice is to not go too cheap. Don’t go buying a supermarket’s own brand, there are some ok options out there, but some will put you off for life! Still, you shouldn’t need to spend more than £15 – £25. That being said, you don’t need to go to a specialist whisky shop.They tend to be more expensive and often don’t stock the more run of the mill bottles you’ll be after. Sainsburys and Waitrose both have pretty decent selections.
Next, stay open minded. It may be that you like Bourbon, but not Scotch or vice versa. So you might want to try a few different ones to see what you like. In which case, you can always buy a few mini bottles, or go to a bar to keep the cost down!
With that in mind, here are some favourites of mine that you can easily get your hands on:
- Auchentoshan American Oak (Mellow and smooth) (£20 at the time of writing)
- Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve (Somewhere in the middle) (£24 at the time of writing)
- Laphroaig Select (Peated but made for a mainstream market) (£25 at the time of writing)
- Jack Daniels (A classic) (£16 at the time of writing)
- Bulleit Frontier Bourbon (Has a little more bite than Jack) (£22 at the time of writing)
- Monkey Shoulder (The best blend I’ve ever had by a mile) (£22.50 at the time of writing)
Should I have ice in my whisky?
This is an age-old debate. You can have it ‘neat’ (with nothing added), ‘on the rocks’ (with ice) or with a dash of room temperature water. The answer is to try it a few different ways and see how you like it. Water can take the edge off a little, whilst ice will reduce the flavour further still.
Some people will tell you “never ice!” (I wouldn’t have ice in my whisky) but the truth is, you need to have it how you like it. Some stronger whiskies really benefit from a dash of water to help bring out the flavour and reduce the alcohol content.
Finally, bear in mind that whisky is a drink that should be enjoyed slowly. Probably not on a hot summer’s day. Maybe in front of a log burning stove with some good company and some decent chocolate to enjoy it with!
Happy (responsible) drinking!