The Ultimate Whisky Buying Guide

The Ultimate Whisky Buying Guide

Whisky has been all the rage over the past few decades, thanks to globalization, evolving tastes, and growing markets. It's pretty cool to know a bit about it since it can make drinking even more enjoyable, help you chat with others about it, and even guide you when buying, investing, or pairing it with food. Learning to recognize and buy flavours like fruity, floral, or smoky can really up your whisky game, and you can enjoy it neat, on the rocks, or mixed in a cocktail.

Understanding Whisky

Whisky, or whiskey if you prefer, is this awesome distilled spirit made from grains like barley, rye, corn, or wheat. The kind of grain used is what makes each type of whisky unique. Making it involves several steps like malting, mashing, fermenting, distilling, and then aging the good stuff in wooden barrels.

The whole process is like a magical transformation from grain to liquid gold.

Differences between whisky, bourbon, and scotch

Whisky, bourbon, and scotch are all these amazing distilled spirits made from fermented grains, but they've got their own unique vibes in terms of ingredients, how they're made, and how they taste. Whisky-making usually involves malting grains, mashing 'em, fermenting with yeast, distilling to up the alcohol, and aging in wooden barrels. You'll find whisky from all over the world, like Scotland, Ireland, the US, Canada, and Japan.

Bourbon is this American whisky that's got at least 51% corn in the mix. It's made kinda like other whiskies, but it's aged in brand-new, charred oak barrels and has to be made in the US. It has this sweet and spicy blend going on, with flavours like caramel and vanilla.

Scotch, on the other hand, is made in Scotland and uses malted barley as the star grain. The process for making scotch is pretty similar, but it's aged in used oak barrels that might've held sherry or wine before. Scotch is famous for its smoky, peaty flavours, and it's got an array of tastes like fruit, spice, and earthiness.

Variations of whisky based on country of origin

Whisky's beginnings showed up in Ireland and Scotland around the 15th century. Nowadays, you can find whisky from all around the world like the US, Canada, Ireland, Japan, and India, each with its own unique flair.

Scotch whisky is made from malted barley and aged in oak barrels for at least three years. It comes from different regions including Speyside, Islay, and Highland. Each region has a different way of distilling that results in diverse flavours.

Irish whisky is a blend of malted and unmalted barley, giving it a smooth, light flavour, and it's distilled three times.

American whisky has a few varieties, like bourbon, rye, and malt whisky, with bourbon being 51% corn and aged in new charred oak barrels, offering diverse taste profiles with notes of caramel and vanilla.

Canadian whisky is a smooth blend of grains like corn, rye, wheat, and barley. Aged with a minimum of 3 years in wooden barrels of 700 liters or less, its ABV should be at least 40%.

And Japanese whisky is all about delicate, complex flavours, using a mix of grains and aging for at least 3 years in different wooden casks.

Types of Whisky

There are three main whisky types you should know about - single malt, blended, and grain.

Single malt whisky is all about using malted barley and comes from just one distillery. Some countries have legal requirements for producing single malts. In Scotland, using pot stills for distillation is a must while in the US, matured oak casks of not more than 700 liters must be used.

Blended whisky is a mix of different whiskies from multiple distilleries. It can include single malt, grain whisky, and even some neutral spirits. The goal with blended whisky is to get a consistent flavour from one batch to another.

Grain whisky is made from other grains besides malted barley, like corn, wheat, or rye. It's distilled in a continuous still, which creates a high-proof spirit with a lighter flavour than single malt. It's often used in blended whiskies, but you can enjoy it on its own too.

Factors to Consider When Buying Whisky

When you're on the hunt for whisky, there are a few things you should think about to make the best choice. Here's what to keep in mind:

Age: The whisky's age can really change its flavour and value. Younger ones might taste more vibrant and lighter, while older ones are usually smoother, darker, and more complex. Just remember, older whiskies might be pricier.

Region: Different regions make unique types of whisky with their own flavours. Like, Islay Scotch is usually smokier and peatier than Speyside Scotch.

ABV (alcohol by volume): The ABV can affect the flavour and overall experience of the whisky. Higher ABV whiskies pack a stronger punch and might have a more intense flavour, but they could also cost more.

Flavour profile: Think about the flavours you're into when it comes to whisky. Are you all about smoky and peaty, or more into sweet and mellow vibes? Check out tasting notes from the distillery or other reviews to find the perfect whisky for you.

Price: Whisky prices can be all over the place, so think about your budget and what you're cool with spending. Just keep in mind that older or rarer whiskies will noticeably be more expensive.

How to Taste Whisky

Flavour notes to look for in each sip

When you're tasting whisky, keep an eye out for a range of flavour notes in each sip. You might catch fruity vibes like apple or pear, spicy hints of cinnamon or clove, or sweet notes like vanilla and caramel. Some whiskies even have smoky or peaty flavours. The barrel used for aging can add tastes like oak, char, or wood smoke. Other flavour notes to look for include nutty hints of almond or hazelnut, floral touches like honey or lavender, and herbal notes like mint, fennel, or anise. Pay attention to these flavours to be able to appreciate the complexity and richness of the whisky taste.

What Impacts the Taste of Whisky?

There are factors that contribute to the taste of whisky during the production process. Here’s a rundown for you.

  1. Malting: For some whiskies, barley is soaked, germinated, and then dried. This releases enzymes that convert starch into sugars. Peat smoke can be used during drying, adding that smoky taste to some whiskies.
  2. Mashing: The malted barley (or other grains) gets ground up into a powder called grist. It's then mixed with hot water, and the enzymes work their magic, turning starches into fermentable sugars. This sweet liquid is called wort.
  3. Fermentation: The wort is cooled and yeast is added. The yeast feasts on the sugars, creating alcohol and other flavour compounds. This boozy mix is called wash.
  4. Distillation: Wash gets heated in a still (pot or column). Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water, so it rises and gets collected. Pot stills are used for a richer flavour, while column stills make a lighter spirit. Some whiskies are distilled two or even three times, each time refining the spirit and affecting the taste.
  5. Aging: The distilled spirit is aged in oak barrels, which can be new or used, charred, or toasted. The wood adds flavours like vanilla, caramel, and spice, while the previous contents of used barrels can impart more character. The climate and location of the warehouse also play a part in the aging process.
  6. Bottling: Before bottling, whisky might be diluted with water, which can affect the flavour. Sometimes it's also chill-filtered to remove some compounds that can cause cloudiness, but this can slightly change the taste too.

Overview of the proper glassware and technique to use when tasting whisky

Properly tasting whisky includes using a tapered glass like a Glencairn or tulip-shaped glass, to coax the aroma to your waiting nose. Pour a small amount of whisky and swirl it gently to release the aromas. Take a look at the colour before sniffing the goodness coming from the glass. Bring it close to your nose and slowly inhale to identify the different scents (inhaling too quickly and deeply might shock your senses as some whisky can smell so strong). Take a small sip and let it lather your tongue before swallowing to note the flavours and sensations. Pay attention to the trail it leaves after you taste it, and consider adding a small amount of water which opens the whisky and releases more flavours and aromas.

Best Whiskies for Beginners

A wide range of whiskies are available in the market, each catering to different palates, moods, and occasions. Lucky for us, there is whisky for everyone including beginners. The spirits for beginners are usually gentle to the taste and nose. In fact, there are several recommendations for it. Here are some of the most popular ones and the recommended food pairings:

Glenlivet 12 Year: a classic Scottish single malt with a smooth, balanced flavour of fruit, honey, and vanilla. Pair it with some smoked salmon or sushi to complement the light, delicate flavours, or try it with roasted chicken or pork to bring out the sweetness and savory notes.

Jameson Irish Whisky: a classic Irish whisky that's smooth and easy to drink, with a light, fruity flavour and a hint of spice. The sweetness of the whisky complements the saltiness of the cheese and the savory flavours of the stew. Or, if you're feeling fancy, try making a whisky cocktail with Jameson for a fun and delicious drink.

Maker's Mark Bourbon: a smooth, sweet Kentucky bourbon with notes of vanilla, caramel, and oak, and a hint of spice at the end. Sip it neat or use it in cocktails like an Old Fashioned or Whisky Sour. Pair it with BBQ or grilled meat to complement the sweetness with smoky flavours, or indulge in some chocolate for a decadent dessert. The sweetness of the bourbon pairs perfectly with the richness of chocolate.

Canadian Club: a smooth and easy-to-drink Canadian whisky with notes of vanilla, caramel, and spice. It's great in cocktails like a Canadian Club and ginger ale or a Manhattan. Try it with BBQ or grilled meat to complement the smoky flavours, or with seafood like shrimp cocktail or smoked salmon for a lighter option.

Starward TwoFold: Aussie whisky with fruity flavours of raisins, plums, and apricots, as well as vanilla, caramel, and oak, and a bit of spice and pepper at the end. It's great with meat dishes like roast beef, lamb, or pork, as well as hearty stews and curries. And if you're craving something sweet, it goes well with fruit pies or chocolate cake.

Nikka Coffey Malt: a Japanese whisky that's smooth and mellow, with a sweet and fruity flavour that has notes of honey, pear, and vanilla. You might even pick up a bit of chocolate or coffee too. It goes great with seafood dishes like sushi or sashimi, as well as grilled or roasted meats like steak or lamb, and some nuts or cheese on the side.

These whiskies are a great starting point for the newbies, with their friendly flavours and easy drinkability. Trust me, they won't make you cough but can make you ask for more. When pairing whisky with food, choose dishes that complement rather than overpower the flavours of the spirit.

Best Whiskies for Experts

If the whiskies for beginners are welcoming, whiskies for experts are those with complex and sophisticated flavours that challenge even the most seasoned connoisseur. These whiskies are identifiable in stores just by looking at the description and ABV, best to read the bottle label first before or ask the store clerk if still unsure before buying. Below are some of the most popular whiskies for experts with recommended food pairings:

Lagavulin 16 Year: a Scottish single malt known for its intense, smoky flavour with notes of peat, smoke, and sea salt, and a hint of sweetness. It's not for the faint of heart, but if you love bold, intense flavours, give it a try. Pair it with smoked or grilled meat like steak or ribs to complement the smokiness, or get adventurous with some blue cheese as the intensity of the whisky goes perfectly with it.

Highland Park 18 Year: a complex and well-balanced Scottish single malt whisky with notes of fruit, smoke, and oak. The subtle smokiness of the whisky pairs well with the savory flavours of the meat. Or, if you're in the mood for something sweet, try pairing it with some dark chocolate that complements the subtle sweetness of the whisky.

Laphroaig 10 Year: a famous Scottish single malt for its intense, smoky flavour with notes of peat, seaweed, and iodine. The intensity of the whisky goes well with the pungent, earthy flavours of the strong, salty cheeses like blue cheese or aged cheddar. You can pair it with some roasted or grilled meat like steak or lamb which complements the smoky, peaty flavours of the whisky.

Booker's Bourbon: a small-batch bourbon from Kentucky, known for its rich, complex flavour with notes of vanilla, oak, and caramel, and has a high alcohol content. The smoky flavours of some BBQ or grilled meat like pork ribs or brisket go really well with the rich, complex flavours of the bourbon. The caramel notes of the whisky pair nicely with pecan pie or chocolate cake.

Talisker 18 Year: a rich and complex Scottish single malt, with notes of fruit, smoke, and sea salt. It pairs well with seafood dishes such as smoked salmon or grilled shrimp, or with rich, savory dishes such as roasted duck or venison.

Sullivan's Cove Double Cask: a uniquely flavoured Australian whisky with hints of honey, vanilla, and fruit. It's the perfect match for spicy food, like a good curry or chili.

Chichibu The Peated: a Japanese whisky with a smoky flavour and hints of fruit and spice. It's perfect for those who like bold, intense flavours. Try sipping it with BBQ or grilled meat to complement the smokiness, or pair it with spicy Asian cuisine for a real flavour explosion.

Tyrconnell 16-Year-Old Oloroso & Moscatel Cask Finish: an Irish whisky with a rich, fruity flavour with notes of honey, raisins, and spices. As for pairing it with food, enjoy it with some cheese and crackers or a nice charcuterie board. The sweetness of the whisky pairs well with the salty and savory flavours of the cheese and meat.

Kilchoman Sanaig: a single malt whisky from Scotland that has a rich, smoky flavour with hints of dark fruit and spices. The smokiness of the whisky pairs well with the rich, savory flavours of meat and stews.

Teeling Brabazon Series 2: a complex flavoured Irish whisky with notes of fruit, spice, and oak. Try it with some dark chocolate or a rich dessert. The sweetness of the whisky pairs well with chocolate or dessert, bringing out the different flavours in both.


Whisky is a range of light, complex, and richly flavoured spirits that can be enjoyed by beginners and experts alike. It can be described as sophisticated, warm, and versatile. And because of its variety, there is a bottle that fits every occasion and nearly every personality.

After reading this guide, you’d probably know which whisky to try or what’s the next spirit on your list. There is also clarity on what to look for when you’re out buying a bottle of whisky.

If you are torn between two or more whiskies, you can go to online stores and check the buyer comments for additional reference. Or you may want to visit liquor stores and explore their whisky selection. And even if you simply want to be adventurous, remember to read the bottle label to know if it matches your taste palate or if the flavour profile fits your purpose for buying.

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