Everyone’s got to start somewhere, so when I had the chance to ambush the whiskey buyer for my local liquor store, whiskey for beginners was on my mind. Frankly walking down the aisles with hundreds of choices felt pretty overwhelming, but Steve Brown from Canal’s Liquor Store in Mt. Ephraim, NJ came to the rescue.
Exposed to countless customers looking for “a good whiskey,” Steve’s observations have forced me to reconsider how I’m approaching my education. Setting all the marketing hype aside, it focuses on simplicity and the application of a little common sense.
In this post I’m going to share some of his advice on how to find a good beginner’s whiskey that you’ll enjoy.
Get Some Whiskey Basics
Before diving into the “active research” phase, you’ll want to start off by assembling a few whiskey basics. This includes some background on whiskey styles, their taste profiles as well as a few steps on how to taste whiskey. Your research doesn’t need to be exhaustive, but it’ll help you ask good questions and make wise decisions.
A couple of my favorite resources include:
Keep it (Almost) Neat
No matter if you’re looking for the best whiskey for a classic Old Fashioned cocktail or something to be enjoyed on the rocks, you’ll want to taste it with a splash of water. Neat by definition means tasting the unadulterated spirit at room temperature, but that can deaden the taste buds of any newbie pretty quickly. A little splash of water opens up the aroma and makes it easier to taste the whiskey.
This is the single most impactful thing I learned at the whiskey class I attended at The Philly Wine School .
Stay on Budget
Finding a good whiskey for beginners does not need to be expensive and Steve suggests sampling several at your local bar or cocktail lounge. Ordering a flight of different whiskeys with friends can be a great way to compare and contrast the different flavors without committing to a full bottle of anything. Alternatively, keep an eye out for specials that offer the opportunity to sample a whiskey that you may not have encountered before.
Newbie Tip: Photograph the bottle of anything you like.
Alternatively, if you’re a bit of a homebody or the bars in your area suck there are plenty of affordable starter whiskeys. While I won’t saddle your palate with my preferred brands, my experience suggests that you should be able to find some solid choices in the $25 – $30 per bottle range.
Find a Whiskey Buddy
Few things can be more helpful than finding a knowledgeable wingman when it comes to exploring whiskey. If you’re lucky enough to have a close friend with some knowledge then you’re all set, but most of us don’t have that luxury. So a knowledgeable bartender or liquor store salesperson should be able to guide you to a good beginner’s whiskey. As it turns out, that’s how I met Steve.
Once you’ve found a whiskey Sherpa, apply a little common sense to get the most from your chat:
- Know What You Like – Be able to describe the types and brands of whiskey you like and dislike.
- Respect Their Time – Expecting your bartender wingman to explain the nuances of bourbon during a Friday happy hour is probably a bit unrealistic… and stupid.
- Ask Good Questions – Have a few good questions ready so you don’t walk away with just a good buzz.
Drink What You Like
There are countless whiskey styles, variations and marketing campaigns ready to confuse you, but at the end of the day drink what you like. I’ve always encountered the mystique surrounding Scotch, but after trying a few I simply haven’t found one that I enjoy (yet). I’m sure I will someday, but until then I’ve really enjoyed learning more about my preferred styles of Rye and Bourbon.
Needless to say, a lot can go into finding a good whiskey for beginners. Thankfully it really doesn’t need to be that complicated and Steve’s advice has proven to be incredibly helpful to me; hopefully it’ll help you too.