How to Get Into Whisky Without Looking Like a Total Wanker
To most people, whiskey is simply a brown liquor best mixed with cola, thrown back as a shot, or added to some sort of cocktail. For others, it’s a vast world of different flavors, strains, and arguments about how best to enjoy them. Tell someone on the other end of the spectrum that your favorite whiskey is Jack Daniel’s on the rocks and there’s a good chance they’ll wrinkle their nose in disgust.
And that’s the thing about getting into whiskey – the snobbery that goes with it is both repulsive and dismissive. How can I get into something when the people who are already in it are laughing at me? Or worse, how can I engage in it without looking like a presumptuous jerk to everyone else? Well, luckily for you, it’s entirely possible.
Here are a few things I wish I knew before I started researching whiskey that will keep the snobs away from you and everyone at the bar from thinking you’re a little asshole.
Learn some of the basic terminology
There is a lot of jargon in the whiskey world and if you really want to understand the spirit there is no getting around it. Luckily, it’s not that hard to grasp once you get the basics down, and it saves you from looking like an idiot ordering in a bar.
There are entire articles on this one point so I won’t go into specifics and make this much longer than necessary, but I will absolutely point you in the right direction.
The video below is from a channel called Modern Rogue. It features Daniel Whittington, co-founder of the Whiskey Marketing School, explaining many of the basic concepts to the hosts, from the difference between single malt and blended malt (the world famous Johnnie Walker is the latter) to why there is an ‘e’ in the word whiskey. (Note: I alternate between these spellings according to the style of whiskey I’m talking about. Americans and Irish use the “e”, most others don’t.)
Believe it or not, YouTube is actually a great place to learn a lot of the basics, so don’t be afraid to dive into the related videos after watching this one.
Learn what you like
Just as understanding the lingo helps you guide the conversation, understanding how the main categories of whiskey differ from one another will help you figure out what you like and don’t like. Dipping blindly into a heavily peated Scotch unless you’re into a smoky slap in the face is going to be a bad time for your mouth.
Of course, the best way to find out what you like is to taste a wide range of whiskeys, and the best way to really understand how they differ from one another is to taste them side by side. A visit to a whiskey bar is a great option, but having a few bottles on hand to return to helps too.
Here are a few entry options that I would recommend looking at some of the main whiskey categories.
The occasional whiskey drinker probably has the most experience with it. It is an American whiskey made from at least 51% corn and is usually sweet with notes of caramel and vanilla. Maker’s Mark or Buffalo Trace are great spots that won’t break the bank either.
Scotch is one of the largest whiskey categories and contains a number of sub-categories, all with different characteristics that are common to those regions. By law, whiskey can only be called Scotch if it is made entirely in Scotland. We will cover two notable regions.
Speyside Scotch — The region with the highest density of distilleries. Known for Scotches with lots of fruity notes, many aged in sherry casks. In terms of an easily accessible, approachable and affordable Speyside single malt, I would suggest Glenfiddich 12.
Isley Scotch — Islay is a group of islands off the coast of mainland Scotland. Scotches from this region are usually (but not exclusively) heavily peated, giving them a smoky, almost medicinal quality on the nose and palate. It’s not for everyone, but those who like it tend to Really I like. In my opinion, Lagavulin 16 is the best Islay Scotch I’ve tasted and a slightly friendlier entry into the category compared to something like Laphroaig 10, albeit quite a bit more expensive.
As the name suggests, Irish whiskey is made in Ireland and is often characterized by notes such as shortbread, vanilla and caramel. My favorite whiskey is Irish – Redbreast 12 – and I can tell you it’s a fantastic shot. If you’re looking for something cheaper, Teeling’s Single Grain is a great entry point into the category.
With roots in Scotch whiskey, Japanese whiskey has earned a reputation for being incredibly balanced and nuanced in its flavors. It can get pricey very quickly, but Suntory’s The Chita is a great quality, well-priced bottle.
Learn how to drink it
Snobs will tell you that the best way is neat (in a glass alone), but honestly there are no rules. If you’re new to whiskey and find the alcohol burns a little too much, then start on the rocks (with ice) and work your way up from there.
What I do want to say, though, is that you’re mixing nothing more valuable than a bottle of Jack Daniel’s with Coke (or any other soft drink for that matter). Look, I’m not your dad or anything, and I don’t want to tell you how to live your life, but mixers spoil the taste of whiskey so much that you’re really just wasting money for no good reason beyond that price point .
That being said, I think you’ll get the most out of whiskey if you drink it neat. That doesn’t mean taking shots, it means sipping and actually experiencing the flavors.
This video is one that I highly recommend and will walk you through this video How Drinking whiskey neat, among other things. The most useful advice I received at the beginning was to take the first sip as if you were drinking a really hot coffee.
Save the nerdy stuff for home
When you start really getting into whiskey, there’s a temptation to really poke fun at it. All I’m saying here is that you don’t have to freak out about it in public. Nobody wants to see someone energetically sniffing a sip of whiskey at the bar and screaming flavor notes into the ether.
don’t be weird Save it for home.
Just… don’t be a jerk
Finally, don’t be a presumptuous idiot. Say hello to newcomers. Teach them instead of laughing at them. One of the things I enjoy most about whiskey is showing people how good it can actually be beyond a shot glass or mixed with a cola.
As Daniel Whittington said in one of those videos, “The best whiskey is the whiskey you love to drink, the way you love to drink it.” Remember that and you’ll be fine.