How To Choose And Enjoy A Good Whisky

Choosing a good whisky can be a challenging task — particularly if you don’t have much experience drinking it.  Even pronouncing the names of some of the Scotch whiskies like Bruichladdich and Allt-a-bhainne can be difficult for many casual whisky drinkers!

You will find dozens of different whisky brands to choose from at local liquor stores and many more if you go to a bar that specialises in whisky.  Each whisky will use a different combination of raw materials, fermentation techniques, distillation, and ageing processes to achieve a unique flavour.

To make this process simpler, we’ve gathered a few tips for choosing a good whisky.  These tips will make it much easier to find a dram worth drinking!

Decide which “type” of whisky you like

Whiskey is a generic term used to describe spirits made from grain mash.  They will vary in taste, aroma and colour based on the type of grain used and how they have been distilled.

Each type of whiskey has a certain set of rules for how it should be made.  For example, Scotch Whisky must be made in Scotland.  Typically, it will be made using malted barely with other grains in a copper pot still, with the finished product being matured for at least 3 years.  Scotch whisky will allow the barley to sprout before it is dried with peat moss smoke — giving it a stronger flavour.

Irish Whiskey (note the different spelling of “whisky”) typically uses unmalted barley which is not dried with peat moss smoke.  This gives it a neutral flavour compared to Scotch Whisky, which is one of the reasons why Irish whiskey is often used as a mixer in cocktails.  Irish Whiskey is usually distilled three times, while Scotch Whisky is usually distilled twice, which makes Irish Whiskey smoother to drink.

Whiskey (with an “e”) is now produced in many countries around the world, with Australia, Japan, and the United States making some particularly good Whiskies.  You may discover that you have a preference for a whiskey from a certain part of the world. This makes choosing a good whisky easier as you can continue buying from the distilleries which make whiskey in that particular style.

Learn the difference between single malts and blends

One of the most significant factors that influence the taste of different whiskies is how they are blended.  All whiskies are either single malt or blended.

A single malt whisky is made from water and malted barley in a pot still.  It will come from a single distillery but may contain whisky from multiple barrels or batches.  The goal of single malt whisky makers is to create a drink with very distinctive flavours that exemplify the style of a single distillery.

A blended whisky contains two or more single malt whiskies produced at different distilleries.  They are blended to create a new flavour profile. The manufacturer’s goal is to create a smooth and versatile whisky.

Some people like the distinctive flavours of a single malt, while others like a more subtle and smooth blended whisky.  Once you have tried a few whiskies, you might develop a preference. This makes choosing a good whisky easier as you can continue drinking single malt or blended whiskies.

Choose an older whisky

Whisky generally improves with age, which is why most distilleries will place their whisky into a timber barrel for at least 3 years.   During this time, the whisky will seep into the pores of the wood, absorbing some of its flavour. After some time in the barrel, the alcohol will begin to evaporate, which leads to the whisky having a mellower flavour.  Whiskies that are older tend to be more enjoyable and have a more nuanced flavour profile. Always opt for the older whisky if you can afford it.

Understand the effect of different barrels on whisky

The type of wood used to make the barrels that the whisky ages in will dramatically affect the flavour of the whisky.  You can use this knowledge to choose a whisky that you will enjoy. For example:

  • European oak
    The whiskey will usually develop hints of sherry, dried fruits (raisins, sultanas), spices (cinnamon, wood, nutmeg, orange).
  • American oak
    The whiskey will usually develop hints of vanilla, honey, nuts (almond, hazelnut), butterscotch, and ginger.
  • Japanese oak
    The whiskey will usually develop hints of vanilla, honey, floral aromas, fresh fruit (apples and pears), and spices (nutmeg and cloves)

Whisky barrels are usually seasoned by having sherry or bourbon placed in them for a few years before being used for whisky.  This will help to impart more flavour into the whisky. Many producers will also char their barrels (burn them) to change the character of the wood.  Charred wood helps to purify the whiskey and gives it a darker or smokey flavour.

Learn about regions within Scotland

If you are drinking Scotch Whisky, it’s important to understand the differences between distilleries in each region of the country.  The knowledge will help you choose a whisky you find enjoyable. The regions are as follows:

  • Highland
    This is the largest whisky-producing region in Scotland — known for full-bodied, spicy whiskies with a deep smokey flavour.
  • Lowland
    There are three distilleries in the Lowland — Glenkinchie, Bladnoch, Auchentoshan.  They tend to be light-bodied, malty, and gentle compared to Highland whiskies.
  • Speyside
    Whiskies produced in this region tend to be softer, fruity, and mellow.
  • Campbeltown
    Campbeltown whiskies are usually medium-bodied, peaty, and salty.
  • Islay
    Whiskies from this region are usually heavily peated and strong in flavour.
  • Island
    Whiskies produced in the islands of Scotland tend to be similar to the one from the Islay region, but somewhat milder.

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Choose an all-natural whisky

Whisky’s dark colour is a by-product of it spending a lot of time in timber barrels.  Unfortunately, some manufacturers will add colourants to their products to ensure they are a uniform colour.  This can taint the flavour of the whisky. Check the label to see if any artificial ingredients have been added.

Read reviews online

There are many excellent whisky review websites online that make it easy to choose a good whisky, our personal favourite is as they review things in an easy to understand way.  They often feature in-depth whisky reviews performed by professional tasters and often feature communities to discuss specific whiskies.  You can join one of these communities to ask for whisky suggestions based on your palate and the other whiskies you already enjoy. These websites make choosing a whisky simple.

Drink it correctly

It is difficult to accurately taste and assess a whisky unless you are drinking it in the correct manner.  The best way to taste and assess a new whisky is:

Step 1: Pour it
Pour a small amount into a whisky snifter or Glencairn whisky glass.  They are tulip-shaped glasses that traps and concentrates the aroma of the whisky.

Step 2: Swirl it
Swirl the whisky around the glass so it thinly coats the sides of the glass.  This gives the spirit to breathe. Look at the colour of the whisky as it moves around.

Step 3: Dilute it (optional)
Many whisky drinkers like to add a small amount of water to their whisky.  This reduces the alcohol volume in the glass, which prevents the alcohol from overriding other flavours and aromas.  If you intend to dilute your whisky, continue to add small amounts until smelling the whisky does not cause a burning sensation in your nose.  This optional step is particularly useful for people without much experience with whisky as it makes the drink much more palatable.

If you are drinking very old whisky, you may not need to dilute it because the time in the barrel will have reduced the alcohol content and mellowed the flavour.

Step 4: Let it sit or chill it (optional)
If you have decided to add water to your whisky to obtain a mellower flavour, you might also want to let it sit for 10 minutes.  This will give the water time to interact with the whisky, mellowing the flavour even more.

If you are new to whisky, you might also like to chill the whisky slightly.  Ideally, this should be done with whisky stones or in a refrigerator so it does not dilute the whisky.

Step 5: Nose it
Bring the glass up to you nose and give it a good sniff.  The first time you smell it, you will mostly notice alcohol.  Take a breath of fresh air then smell it again. This time, you will notice the aromas present in the whisky.  Repeat this process a few more times and attempt to identify the many smells and flavours the whisky contains. Some characteristics you may notice:

  • Woodiness
    This is one of the easiest aromas to identify.  You will probably notice the smell of oak.
  • Fruitiness
    Most whiskies will have hints of different kinds of fruit.  This often includes cherry, dried apples, or apricots.
  • Smokiness
    Malted barley usually adds a hint of smokiness to whisky.
  • Sweetness
    Most whiskies will be quite sweet, with hints of vanilla, toffee, honey, or caramel.  Adding water to a whisky and bringing out these incredible flavours is one of the most enjoyable parts of finding a good whisky.

Step 6: Drink it!

Finally, we get to taste it!  Take a small sip of the whisky and let it coat your tongue.  Notice how it feels in your mouth. Pick out as many flavours as you can.  If it is still too bitter or strong, add a few more drops of water and taste it again.