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Another beginner whiskey question

My tastes have been changing more and more recently and I find myself moving away from the sweeter cocktails in favor of something stronger. I've been reading through some of the whiskey discussions here to get some ideas on where to start exploring. I've had most of the usual suspects like Jack Daniels, Johnny Walker, Seagram's 7 (mostly 7&7s), VO, Maker's Mark (in Manhattans), etc.

I was in a bar recently where they were running a promotion for Famous Grouse. Basically these cute girls poured small shots of Famous Grouse, Johnny Walker (black maybe?), and Glenlivet 18. It was a blind tasting and we were asked to rank the drinks. I picked the Glenlivet, FG, and JW respectively. Apparently I picked correct since they said the Glenlivet was somewhere close to $80 a bottle. In any case, I really enjoyed the first two and want to try more. I recently tried some Buffalo Trace after reading some good reviews - I know it's not a scotch, but I'm just trying to find out what I like. I wasn't thrilled with it. I don't know what it was, but it seemed a little flat. Nice nose to it at first, but I just couldn't pick out much flavor when drinking it.

In addition to the whiskey mentioned above, I've been digging the brandy and cognac my fiance's family pours after dinners. These seem a bit sweeter and have more character to me. This brings me to my questions. Based on what I've mentioned, what else might be nice to try for a beginner? And, when I'm trying a whiskey, should I be pouring some water in, drinking it on the rocks, or just straight? I had a splash of water with the Buffalo Trace and think maybe it covered up some of the flavor. Seems like we have some serious whiskey and bourbon drinkers on here, so I'd love to hear some opinions and recommendations.

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  1. A splash of water is an accepted (and usually recommended) way to drink single-malt (scotch) whisky. I would recommend trying a wide variety of spirits and find what YOU like and enjoy. It may (or may not) be the most expensive (or most highly recommended) brand.

    1. How you drink it is up to you. If you want ice, water or whatever, drink it the way you like to enjoy it. Most traditionalists would tell you a small drop of water ina dram, so there is till much more liquour that water is correct. I prefer a few, very few, small ice cubes, and as the whiskey get finer, the cubes get fewer. I drink cognac, armanagac, and almost all brandies neat (with nothing), but again it's your preference. Experiment a bit, as you have been, and you'll find what you like to drink with what in it. And as far as preferring the Glenlivet 18, but wouldn't we both get off cheaper if we liked the Famous Grouse best.

      As far as whiskeys, two glaring holes are in the ones you listed, Irish and Rye. The Seagrams and VO probably have a decent rye content, but they are not ryes per se. If there was a rye to try at a bar, the ne I would recommend is Van Winkle. It's not cheap, so try it before you pop for a whole bottle. If you want to buy a whole bottle Rittenhouse or Old Overholt, are decent cheaper choices. I prefer the Rittenhouse.

      With regard to Irish, if there is truly a definitive difference when it comes to Irish whiskey, that difference is potstill. Potstills are stills that are used to distill a mash or wort (the beer) into a spirit (whiskey). Potstill however is a whiskey made from a mash that has both malted and unmalted barley in it. All "Irish" whiskey should have some potstill in it. Powers would probably be the typical Irish whiskey, and it is the most popular in Ireland. Red Breast is probably the best readily available Irish whiskey and it is all potstill whiskey. In any major city, especially one with a decent amount of Irish-diaspora, you should be able to find these at a bar, although they might not be in the same bars. I've found Powers in many dives, but Red Breast only in a few very nice bars. Green Spot is probably the finest Irish whiskey made today, but it is not imported into the U.S., as of the last time I checked. You could at that time find it in Toronto.

      Some whiskeys are labelled Irish and potstill but really have no "potstill" (unmalted barley) in the mash. Connemara is an example, as are almost all the products of the Cooley distillery, which although they are not "Irish" (more like Scotch made in Ireland) are fine whiskeys that I really enjoy.

      If think the best place to go exploring is a bar with a good selection. Sit, order one, drink it, and leave or order something different. Have some water one the side to clean you palate. Go back on different nights and order something different each time.

      1. Glenlivet is a Speyside single malt; Speysides are generally characterized by smooth flavor. If your tastes run to this, you may enjoy Macallan, Balvenie or Glenmorangie. You may also want to try some Highland malts such as Dalwhinnie or Glenmorangie. These are all fairly accessible and reasonably available.

        The issue of adding water is purely one of taste. Personally, I like my whisky neat with the exception of a few that are very high proof, but adding a little bit of water is common. Scotch drinkers frown on ice, saying it dulls the intense taste, but again, it's a matter of personal preference. You should experiment and see what you like. Have fun!

        1. You're really going all over the map here.... scotch, bourbon, canadian, irish...

          My suggestion would be to focus on one style at a time and try 4 or 5 manufacturers.... if you're trying to compare a scotch to a bourbon I think you'll just be confused.

          But in the words of George Thorogood, you can always have "... one bourbon... one scotch... and one beeeeeeeeeeeerrrrr...." :)

          4 Replies
          1. re: Chicago Mike

            Sorry to pick-a-nit here Chicago Mike, BTW I do enjoy your entries, but Delaware Destroyer Boy is only echoing The Original and still the best version. That would be by the guy who wrote and lived the song; the late, great
            John Lee Hooker!

            I strongly agree with your advice of concentrating on one "genre" at a time and then branching out from there. The Captain, as usual, has made some solid recs as to starting points.

            1. re: Harp00n

              Thanks Harp00n, and I with Chicago Mike's suggestion of concentrating on one kind of spirit at a time.

              And while John Lee Hooker is one of my absolute favorite artists of all time, and I think that he did make the song famous, I am pretty sure he did not write it. I think the writing credits go to Amos Milburn and/or Rudy Toombs. I recall reading that John Lee did not write it in the notes from one of my copies of his two CD set "The Ultimate Collection". He did however write the "House Rent Boogie" which Thorogood has teamed up with "One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer", and John Lee took any song he did and made it his own. One listen to his version of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," and I could never ever want to hear Tony Bennett sing it again. And the one other great thing I have to say about Thorogood, he makes no secret of the fact that when is going to move, he is going to "pack up [his] John Lee Hooker record collection And down the streets [he] go Sunday night jamboree and hootenanny," where we know what he is going to have. If someone orders one of those rounds for me (preferably a Hirsch, a Linlithgow and an Anchor Steam), I'll be there as soon as I can.

              1. re: Captain

                This requires some off-line discussion Captain, please email me geneatcrystal-steeldotcom

                1. re: Harp00n

                  Done. Some other sites indicate that John Lee might have been the first to record it, while giving writing credits to Rudy Toombs (mostly).

                  And on the topic at hand, an absolute real beginner drinking 7 & 7's seems like a pretty good idea to me. I don't think it comes close to the taste you would get drinking something neat, with a drop of water or an icecube, but it would give you some flavor of whiskey in the glass, from which you could wean yourself off.

                  However, I will note that someone I know who is dear to me but a beginner has taken to sipping Green Spot. I am both happy and unhappy about this development. I like that she is drinking some whiskey, but am in fear of soon having no Green Spot. Also, she has not liked the Hirsch bourbon she recently sipped. This tells me that a beginner may be able to sooner drink a whiskey neat or with little else in it, if that whiskey is neither peated or, like bourbon, stuffed into a freshly charred barrel. I'll be seeing if I can get her to try some different things over the next month or so.

          2. Thanks for the replies. I guess I am sort of all over the map here, but I'm just trying to find out what I like. So far it seems like the scotch was the most enjoyable straight (maybe a little water), so maybe I'll explore that for a while to start and then move on. As a side note, I made a Manhattan last night with the Buffalo Trace and it was excellent. It was the first one I've tried making at home. I only used the sweet vermouth, a twist of lemon, and a couple of dashes of bitters, but it was better than any I've had in the bars.

            1. I agree with Chicago Mike that you might want to consider sticking with one whisky at a time. Furthermore, what helped me understand whisky better was knowing what to look for from each (and within each) kind of whisky. Within scotch, flavor can range widely from rugged and hairy (i.e. Laphroaig) to mild and elegant (i.e. Highland Park). Irish tends to range in fullness and in apricot/honey flavor (see Red Breast). And so on. So I'd buy a good book on whisky and read . . and sip . . and read . . and sip . .

              1. Check in your area for whiskey tastings or whiskey-food pairings.

                As an example:

                We had one last night that cost $45 per person and included tax and tip. Featured at an Irish pub and restaurant, the selection was, naturally, Irish. It was a four course meal that began with a delightful whiskey cocktail called a "Soft Day" (equal parts of Clontarf and Celtic Crossing with a splash of ginger ale served on the rocks), served with cheese and crackers and a light spinach artichoke dip with thinly sliced and toasted bread, followed by potato soup with Tullamore Dew 12 yr. The entree was a choice of corned beef and cabbage, irish beef stew or shepherd's pie accompanied by Knappogue Castle Single Malt, and followed by cheesecake accompanied by a choice of Bushmill's Irish Coffee, Clontarf Single Malt, or an Irish Cream by a distiller I was not familiar with.

                In your initial post, you mentioned after-dinner drinks as well. Consider looking for tastings involving brandy, cognac or port as well.

                Some of the finer liquer retailers in our area (NE burbs of Denver), will host tastings frequently. You can usually sign up to be kept posted for your area of interest (i.e. whiskey, wine, cordials, etc). Look for or ask about these kinds of events where you purchase your liquer. Tastings are great social events and are a great way to learn, in bite size bits, more about your newly acquired taste.

                1. Bufallo Trace makes a particularly good manhattan compared to Makers Mark because of the rye content in BT while Makers has none whatsoever. If you like especially that fiery kick of the rye, perhaps try Canadian whiskies which traditionally are made from a high amount of it, or Woodford Reserve is a great bourbon with decent rye. If you want to go all out, try to get hold of some Sazerac straight rye, preferably the 18 year. I struggle to ti=hink how anyone would be disappointed by that particular bottle.

                  1. You might check out various scotch websites. E.g., Johnny Walker offers a "Journey" series where they highlight one of their whiskeys at interesting venues and they teach you how to enjoy it, how to pair it, and how to taste it. They offer a Journey for black, red and their blue whiskeys. On the JW Blue Journey, you'll sample all their whiskeys. It's an interactive class and pretty interesting. The last on in LA was held @ the Jim Henson studios. One last year was held at a mansion in Hollywood and one the year before was held @ the Pacific Design Center. There's an event held at each major city.

                    You'll also want to check your local liquor store; some will host tastings of various spirits.

                    1. I agree with the idea of working with one class of whisk(ey) (y) at a time. I am a Scotch guy, so that would be my suggestion. Single malts and blends are two different classes in my mind. Blends are more for drinking as a predinner cocktail or at happy hour, single malts more for contemplative after dinner drinking. Blends, more acceptable to put ice in. Malts, cool water only, or one or two ice cubes. In Scotland, they always add a wee dram of cool water. What a great post and thread though.