Everyone has that friend who’s a whiskey connoisseur. They love a good dram, but there’s a lot to know to get to their level. Here’s a bluffer’s guide to whiskey: how to buy whiskey for beginners, and what you should know when starting a potential collection.
We spoke to the whiskey geniuses at Bushmills about how to get started with whiskey. The folks over there have been doing whiskey for about 400 years, so it’s fair to say they know what they’re talking about.
One of the top whiskey brains at Bushmills is Spirits Whiskey Specialist, Andrew Ratcliff. He brings 400 years of institutional knowledge to bear for a chat with Redaktor. His take?
Age, blend and category aren’t something to be snobby about.
Whiskey for beginners: What’s the first thing someone with no knowledge should know about whiskey?
Not all whiskey is the same.
The spirit itself is made in many different countries, and there exist different rules and regulations around production and aging within each country.
I suggest you begin with an idea of what category you’re after before you go into the store. Are you buying a big smoky Scotch whisky? Something delicate and floral from Ireland? Perhaps a sweet Bourbon from Kentucky?
Whiskey for beginners: What should someone look for when buying whiskey for another person?
Don’t assume that a particular spirit with an age statement is going to be better than a young or blended whiskey.
There are some amazing non-age statement whiskies out there! If all else fails, maybe just ask what flavours they most lean towards.
Whiskey for beginners: What are some important terms to look for when buying or researching whiskey?
There are a few! Like I said, it’s not necessary but do check the bottle for an age statement. This will give you an idea of how long it’s been sitting in casks for and how much flavour that cask will impart upon the whiskey. If it’s a bourbon cask, such as Bushmills 10YO, it’s going to have some lovely vanilla notes. Combination casks are where the richness lies, for example, the Bushmills 21YO has been aged in oloroso sherry and bourbon casks for 19 years and then finished in Madeira wine barrels for an additional two years. It’s an absolute banger on the palate!
It’s helpful to note that there are different categories of whiskey. For example, in Irish whiskey there is Single Malt, Single Grain, Pure Pot and Blended whiskey.
“Non-Chill filtered” is another common term. Some people say this process makes it a fuller flavoured whiskey, opinions differ, but it’s highly unlikely anyone other than a distiller could tell the difference.
Whiskey for beginners: Does age matter?
Absolutely not! I could show you some Non-age statement whiskies that will blow your mind! Hot tip: If you’re looking online these can sometimes be referred to as NAS whiskies.
Whiskey for beginners: What whiskies do you recommend for the aspiring whiskey drinker, as well as the seasoned?
If you’re new you have to try our Bushmills 10YO. It’s aged in a bourbon cask for 10 years then finished in ex-sherry casks. It’s a testament to the earliest whiskey makers on earth and tastes like summer apple orchards on the palate.
For the seasoned drinkers I’d try our Bushmills 21YO. This one isn’t cheap but it’s well worth the investment. Two 19YO old whiskies (one ex-bourbon, one ex sherry) married for a further two years in Madeira wine casks – this one is the ultimate Christmas, birthday or Father’s Day gift!
Whiskey for beginners: Are there certain things buyers should avoid?
It tastes and smells like nothing…
Just last month, Bushmills has announced the limited-edition release of 2006 Marsala Cask. A rare and innovative spirit never seen or sipped before outside the walls of the world’s oldest licensed distillery. With notes of vanilla, spice and wood, this is one premium, aged, single malt to get your hands on, but here’s the catch: it’s available only to members of The Whisky Club, Australia.
Now that you know about whiskies, here’s how to drink like an adult.