We share with you how to start getting in to whisky, how to learn more about it and which whisky you should try or buy next!
We've all been there, you're at a local whisky shop or bar and are staring up at a wall of bottles and labels and they all look completely unfamiliar. You want to get something new and interesting, but without knowing what they taste like, or without a recommendation from a trusted friend it's almost impossible to know where to start!
You ask one of the staff for help, but you've had recommendations from people in the past that haven't been to your liking. So maybe you just pick something familiar. Or (tragically) maybe you just buy a bottle or glass of wine instead.
A decent bottle of whisky can easily cost $100-150 and up and that isn't an insignificant amount of money. Each of us have completely unique preferences, and there are loads of options out there so finding a new whisky to enjoy can be difficult.
So, here's our guide to whisky! Read up on this so before you have to take a punt on something, you know a few things you can do to increase your odds of loving your next purchase!
Go to a good whisky bar
This is possibly the best and easiest way to find out if you want to buy something. Simply try it at a bar! With whisky continuing to grow in popularity there are more and more bars with great whisky selection. Find one of your locals and make it a point to visit and try a few before buying. Here are some tips for getting the most from a whisky bar:
- Go on a less busy night or in the early afternoon. Bartenders at great whisky bars are very knowledgeable and have a skill for figuring out what you might like, and they should be happy to help when they're not slammed. Ask them to recommend something, or even surprise you!
- See if they have a tasting flight. Many bars will allow you to choose a number of whiskies and get half servings for half the price. That will allow you to taste more and not have to spend as much. It also helps with the memory ;)
- PRO TIP: To remember what you've tried and liked, use our ratings feature available to TWL members. It's free to join and easy to rate with a simple, love-hate scale.
- Look out for whisky events hosted by your locals. Often brands help bars and bottle shops host events which give people a fantastic opportunity to try a whole range of products from the brand. It not only helps you try a number of products, but also gives you an idea of what most products from the distillery generally taste like (their 'profile').
- If you're not sure which whisky bar to go to, just find the closest one on our list of notable whisky bars
Find a great local shop
Not all bottle shops are created equal! We've recently done some research (here) and often it's the local independent shops that have the fantastic selections of whisky. Some chains do have a decent selection, but they don't generally have the ability to educate the staff and let them taste many of the products. At independents, often you can get a recommendation from someone who has tried many of the whiskies or even from the person who selected and ordered each of them!
Some information to allow them to help make a good recommendation:
- Let them know how experienced of a whisky drinker you are. If you're new to whisky, there are many 'core range' whiskies (regular expressions from distilleries or brands that are always on shelves, e.g., Glenfiddich 12) that will take to your liking. If you've had more than your share, there could be some great, lesser-known brands or independent bottlings that will take your fancy.
- Give them a budget. This is one of the easiest ways to narrow down your choices.
- Tell them a few of your favourites. Our rule of thumb is that if you tell us 5 whiskies you love, we can quite easily find one you'll like. In fact, try it out on us, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your price range and 5 whiskies you love. We'll send you our top 5 recommendations!
- If you're not sure which local shop is best for you, check out our list of recommended local whisky shops
Go to a whisky show or tasting
Whisky shows and tastings are an amazing opportunity to learn about and (much more importantly) try all kinds of different whiskies. The better local whisky shops and bars often hold small tastings and there are a number of large whisky exhibitions around the country where you can (attempt to) try quite literally hundreds of different whiskies.
These tastings can be amazing value for money as the value of the amount and quality of whisky you can taste far exceeds the ticket price. And sometimes there's food, beer and/or cigars to go along with the whisky!
We highly recommend The Whisky Show as the experience is well worth the ticket price, the exhibitors always have something new and interesting to try and (best of all obviously) we're usually there so you can come say hi! For the full list of their events, see our guide to The Whisky Show.
On top of The Whisky Show, however, there are plenty of other exhibitions and LOADS of local tastings and events. See our guide to Whisky Events to find one in your area!
Join (or start) a local whisky club
A Whisky Club. Sounds like a cool idea, the kind of club you really enjoy being a part of. After all, drinking whisky alone is like the sound of one hand clapping. But where do you start?
How do you find a whisky club in your area, or better still, how do you create and run a whisky club from scratch yourself?
A whisky club is no different to any other club or society. A group of people getting together who share a common interest, and who live conveniently close to each other. It is no different to a bridge, Scrabble, poker or quilting club (apart from the obvious over-18 age restriction). Unlike some other clubs, however, a whisky club can have as little as two members.
For more info on local whisky clubs, wee our guide to Whisky Clubbing, and if you don't know of one in your area give us a shout at email@example.com, we may be able to help!
Know the basics (What whisky is, types, flavour styles)
Getting in to whisky is super fun as it seems like such a mysterious thing! And it certainly is (things happen to spirits rested in barrels of oak that just can't be done any other way), but it shouldn't feel intimidating! To help with that, read Whisky 101 - Back to Basics, and learn just the basics of what whisky is, how it's produced and some info on the basic major styles of whisky.
One top of that, here are a few bits to know to help you navigate some of your basic options:
- Single malt whisky was pioneered (and mastered) by the Scots, but in recent years single malt whisky has caught on globally with single malt distilleries popping up all over the world producing some amazing, weird and wonderful whiskies. Because the un-aged single malt spirit (made from malted barley) is so rich in flavour and because it can be aged in a variety of different cask types, there is huge variety in the various styles of single malt whisky. But to get started, you only really need to know 3 of them:
- American Oak Cask: These are whiskies that taste like what you'd expect whisky to taste like. This is because most american oak casks used to age single malt have been used at least once before to age whisky in them (thanks to the Americans for requiring that Bourbon barrels be aged in brand new American Oak barrels, and for the Scots for being 'economical' and re-using barrels). They generally have a nice richness about them due to the single malt spirit, but with an added toffee/vanilla/coconut element due to the american oak cask. To help you find these you can search for TWL Favourite American Oak Single Malts or User Highly Rated American Oak Single Malts.
- Sherry/Wine Cask: These are whiskies with a fair dose of wine or fortified wine (e.g., Sherry or Port) influence in them due to the spirit being aged in casks that formerly held said wine/fortified wine. The most popular/prominent of these is Sherry which adds rich sweetness and spiciness to the whisky. The dried fruit (raisins, dates, prunes), Christmas pudding, baking spices and chocolate! To help you find these you can search for TWL Favourite Sherry/Wine Cask Single Malts or User Highly Rated Sherry/Wine Cask Single Malts.
- Peated: In the production process of some (mostly) single malt whiskies, during the malting phase, the barley is dried with smoke rather than just heat or air. In the vast majority of cases the smoke is from peat, a traditional fuel source made from partially decayed vegetation or organic matter. Drying the barley with smoke infuses all kinds of lovely flavours in to the barley which eventually makes its way in to the spirit and final product. Peated whisky is predominantly described as smoky and medicinal, but can also be just a bit earthy and rich. To help you find these you can search for TWL Favourite Peated Single Malts or User Highly Rated Peated Single Malts.
- If you like sweet things and are not afraid of heavy doses of oak in your drinks, you may enjoy Bourbon. As it's made from 51% corn it tends to be nice and sweet. However, the demand for Bourbon in the U.S. is so high that many expressions we would love just don't make it to Australia, so going beyond the basics can be a bit difficult. To help with that, you can search for TWL Recommended Bourbons and User Highly Rated Bourbons
- Rye-based whisky is becoming more and more popular, partially driven by the demand for high quality spirits to be used in craft cocktails, and also due to more experimentation from craft distilleries to turn what was traditionally a mixer spirit in to a sipping spirit. Rye is generally quite spicy but can also be floral/herbal. When well-aged in quality barrels, the spiciness of the rye combined with the influence of the cask can produce some incredibly amazing, unique whisky! To help you find these you can search User Highly Rated Rye Whiskies
- Blended whisky is a huge category of whisky. Not only because in volume of sales it's by far the largest, but also because they can range from very inexpensive whisky meant for mixing, all through to some of the most expensive whisky on the market. As defined by the Scots, blended whisky is neutral grain spirit (often wheat) combined with some malt spirit and is usually from multiple distilleries. The inexpensive blended whiskies have generally been made for high volume consumption (which doesn't necessarily mean they're bad), but there are a few boutique blending houses doing some amazing things blending whiskies! To help find the good ones, you can search TWL Recommended Blends and User Highly Rated Blends
Know what you should expect to pay
Whether or not a whisky is 'worth it' is hugely personal. It depends both on our personal tastes and budgets which are widely varying, so what we're each willing/happy to pay for a given whisky is entirely unique. However, there are some guidelines that are often true (or at least helpful) when assessing whether or not something is worth the price:
- $75 & Under. There are some really great whiskies for around $40-$75. They tend to be blends, blended malts, or entry-level bourbons and are fantastic for new drinkers, for the daily drams, or for when it's all the whisky budget allows! Our list of Top 10 $50 Whiskies is a great place to start!
- $75-$125 is a sweet-spot for great, value-for-money whisky. You can find plenty of 10-12 year old (and sometimes older) single malt scotches, cask strength bourbons and even some Australian whisky in this price range. Our list of Top 10 $100 Whiskies is one of our most popular articles and has some amazing whisky in it.
- Around the $150 is another sweet spot. Some 15-18 year old single malt Scotch, 10-12 year old cask strength single malt scotch, some amazing Bourbons and a fair number of excellent Australian single malts are in this range. Our Top 10 $150 Whiskies is a top list of whiskies.
- When a whisky is around $200, we expect it to be a very, very good whisky. And right about this point, it becomes less likely that paying more for whisky will get you 'better' whisky. Often, the additional price has more to do with rarity than it does with quality or flavour. However, there are definitely many whiskies worth the money here, and you can start to get in to 18+ year old single malt Scotch, cask strength Australian whisky, fantastic independent bottllings, highly rated new world whiskies, pretty much any type of whisky could have something worthwhile in this price range! And of course, our list of Top 10 $200 Whiskies is a great place to start!
- Much over the $200 mark and whisky can be very hit or miss. More research and (ideally) just being able to taste it is hugely helpful. There are certainly whiskies well above $200 that are worth the extra money, but it's far too variable to make any general assumptions! Find out what $200+ whiskies other TWL members highly rate by searching $200+ User Highly Rated Whiskies
Big brand names aren't always best
We're actually quite lucky in Australia to have a very large selection of whiskies available to us. This is largely due to a number of small importers that bring in lesser well-known brands and independent bottlers (or IBs, brands that buy barrels aged whisky or buy new make spirit and age them in their own barrels and then bottle and release the whisky under their own label) and sell mainly through specialist whisky bars, local shops and independent online retailers.
Most of these businesses (or the producers themselves) though, don't have big marketing and advertising budgets, so unless your actively seeking information on them, you've probably never heard of them!
So, just because the bottle of whisky has label on it you don't recognise, don't be afraid to give it a try, if it sounds like something you might like of course! Some notable brands that are little known but produce amazing stuff are Springbank, Bunnahabhain, Deanston, GlenDronach and GlenAllachie (for example), and also be on the lookout for IBs like Cadenhead's, Gordon & MacPhail, Signatory Vintage, Adelphi (also as examples, there's many more out there!).
And finally on this point, look out for whisky from countries that aren't traditionally known for whisky, for example, The Netherlands, France, Italy, Canada, New Zealand, and especially Australia! More on this below.
TWL can be a handy guide to helping you find your next whisky, not only because you can pretty much search for and find any whisky available in Australia, but also with two very helpful features:
- User Ratings: At the time of this update, over 2k users have rated different whiskies nearly 6k times. And we've created some helpful tools to show you which whiskies our user rate most highly.
- Our Favourites: We've curated a nice selection of about 40 different whiskies at varying price points to help you along your journey.
Many of our different tools and special searches show popular (lots of ratings) and highly rated (lots of high scores) whiskies, but we've also created a great tool to quickly see what's rated highly without you having to search at all.
To see both highest user rated and TWL favourite whiskies, check out our Whisky Buying Guide
Major Whisky Types
A basic understanding of Scotch Whisky is essential for any whisky drinker as it provides a good basis for understand whisky from many other countries. The highlights:
- Must be made (from malting to ageing, and in one case even bottling) entirely in Scotland
- Can be made from only cereal grains (Barley, Rye, Corn & Wheat), water & yeast
- Hast to be aged for a minimum of 3 years in a 'traditional' oak cask
- Must be bottled at a minimum of 40% alcohol by volume (or ABV)
- A bunch of other, more-geeky stuff
There are 5 types of Scotch Whisky
- Single Malt: Distilled in a copper pot still at a single distillery from 100% malted barley and bottled in Scotland. For example, Glenfiddich, Laphroaig, GlenDronach, Macallan, Ardbeg.
- Single Grain: Distilled in at a single distillery from malted barley with or without other cereal grains. For example, Strathclyde, Port Dundas, Cameronbridge,
- Blended Grain: A blend of Single Grain Scotch Whiskies from 2 or more distilleries. Super rare.
- Blended Malt: A blend of Single Malt Scotch Whiskies from 2 or more distilleries. For example, Johnnie Walker Green Label, Naked Grouse, Monkey Shoulder
- Blended: A blend of one or more Single Malt Scotch Whiskies with 1 or Single Grain Scotch Whiskies. For example, most Johnnie Walkers, Chivas Regal, Ballantine's, Grant's
Single Malts are generally held in higher regard than other types of whisky, which is fine except when it leads to the exclusion of other varieties, as even though they can be amazing, there is no inherent guarantee of quality or superiority magically conferred on single malts. They also often attract a premium price, sometimes purely because of the perceived superiority, and sometimes because people pay it.
However, in Australia, we have access to a very wide variety of Single Malts at quite reasonable prices compared to the rest of the world. When looking for a nice single malt you can easily find something absolutely fantastic between about $100-$200. Most single malts around the $100 should be about 10-12 years old, or may not come with an age statement (which doesn't necessarily mean they're not good), or an entry level cask strength (the ABV of whisky as it was in the barrel, usually over 50-55%). At $200 you can expect to get something about 18 years old, or maybe 13-15 years AND cask strength. But prices between products vary immensely, so use this as a rough guide only!
And at a bar, you can easily expect to pay for a single dram (fancy way of saying shot) for between 10-20% of the cost of a bottle.
For (much) more on Scotch Whisky, see our complete guide to Scotch Whisky.
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The Aussie whisky industry is only about 25 years old, but is producing some really amazing whisky. Many new distilleries (now there are over 200 small distilleries in Aus and about half are making whisky) are still finding their feet but some of the well-established distilleries (e.g., Lark, Starward) are producing fantastic, relatively well-priced whisky that's certainly worth trying.
There's also a growing list of distilleries we've been pumped about for a while now (e.g., Iniquity, Black Gate, Bakery Hill) and lots of new ones we're really excited about (e.g., Archie Rose, Spring Bay, Hobart, Sawford, Killara), so watch this space as (try to) keep up with the budding Australian whisky scene!
Japanese Whisky (Coming Soon)
American Whiskey is a pretty broad term for any kind of grain or grain mash that has been fermented, distilled and then aged in an oak vessel - usually a barrel or hogshead - of some kind for a minimum of two years in the United States. Unless you are referring to Corn Whiskey which can be sold straight off the still.
Bourbon is probably the most famous of the American made whiskies. Often associated with Kentucky, Bourbon can in fact be made anywhere in the US. The major restrictions (paraphrased) are:
- It must be made in America.
- It must be made of a grain mixture of at least 51% corn.
- Aged in virgin (brand new) charred oak containers.
- Distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% ABV) during distillation.
- Filled into a barrel at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV).
- Bottled at no LESS than 80 proof (40% ABV).
- Tastes like whiskey (the hard one).
Other styles of American whiskey include:
- Corn Whiskey
- Rye Whiskey
- Single Malt Whiskey
- Tennessee Whiskey
- Kentucky Bourbon
Defining Irish Whiskey can be a bit tricky as - like most whiskey - it is more than the sum of its parts. The history, the people, the traditions and the world at large have all left their mark on Ireland and therefore Irish whiskey.
Irish whiskey represents all of these factors and more to most people who enjoy whiskey, but in particular, it usually brings to mind a delicate, buttery spirit - most likely due to prevalence of triple distillation and the propensity for using unmalted barley.
- On the other hand, legally, Irish Whiskey is a geographical indication and a set of legal requirements that state:
- Irish whiskey must be made from a mash of malted barley, plus other cereal grains (if desired).
- It must be mashed, fermented and distilled in the Republic of Ireland and/or Northern Ireland to no more than 94.8% ABV
- It must be matured in wooden vessels or casks no bigger than 700 litres for a minimum of three years in Ireland/Northern Ireland.
- No additives may be added other than water and caramel colouring (e150a).
- It must ‘Retain the characteristics of its raw materials’ (basically smell and taste like whiskey — amazing that this needed to be made explicit).
- Bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.
The styles associated with Irish whiskey have further technical requirements which are summarised below
- Single Malt Whiskey - Whiskey made using only malted barley, from a single distillery, in a pot still and aged for at least 3 years in oak.
- Single Pot Still Whiskey - as above but includes unmalted grain. Most common form of Irish Whiskey until blends took over in the 20th century. Previously referred to as 'pure pot still' or 'Irish pot still whiskey'.
- Grain Whiskey - Whiskey made from any number of a variety of grains (or a single type) - most commonly used in blends.
- Blended Whiskey - A mixture of grain whisky with either Irish single malt or single pot whiskies (or both).
More on this, including a brief history is here in our guide to Irish Whiskey