Choosing a whisky is never easy- do you go by distillery name, region, or the notes on the back label? Whisky producers don’t make it easy for us drinkers. Hard-to-pronounce distillery names, smatterings of Gaelic and scant tasting notes on the label, it’s no surprise that people play safe when choosing a dram.
The vast majority of whiskies give you very little guidance as to how the precious liquid inside actually tastes, so if you want to build up your knowledge, there’s no getting away from it – you’re going to have to roll your sleeves up and get tasting. Think of it as your whisky education.
If you’re not familiar with a particular distillery, can you pick a whisky based on its region? Not really. Many whisky books and websites talk about the character of regions, and while it’s true to some extent, it can be misleading. Take Speyside, for example: Glenfiddich is one of the most popular Scotch whiskies, characterised by soft fruit and an elegant grassy character. But head south for a mile or so and you’ll find Mortlach distillery, known for its big, meaty, uncompromising character. The two whiskies are both from Speyside but could not be further apart.
Even on Islay, that bastion of smoke and peat, two of its eight distilleries – Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain – hardly use any peat at all, so regional comparisons aren’t particularly helpful. I think the most helpful way is to think of whiskies by their flavour – the approach I always take when deciding which whisky to drink.
If I want a gentle dram, then Glen Grant is a safe bet, as it’s soft, lemon-scented spirit is a delightful pre-dinner drink. But if I fancy something to pair with dessert or to sip solo after dinner, I instinctively go for a whisky aged in sherry casks, which adds a layer of rich spice – a Glenfarclas or Glendronach would be ideal.
After a while, you’ll begin to learn the general style of each distillery, so you’ll build up a tried-and-tested list of names that are in tune with your taste. To get you started, I’ve chosen a trio of great whiskies that cover the three main styles: fruit, spice and peat. Get tasting.
Three to Try
Fruity – Balvenie 12 Year Old – Single Barrel First Fill
Balvenie is a class act, and this 12 Year Old is the ideal whisky for a beginner: lashings of honey and tropical fruit with toasty notes from the oak.
Spicy – Glenfarclas – 25 Year Old
Glenfarclas is famous for ageing its whiskies in sherry casks, adding tempting notes of cinnamon, roasted nuts and dried fruit. The 25 Year Old is the pick of the bunch.
Peaty – Kilchoman 2006 – 10 Year Old
Kilchoman was established on Islay in 2005 and has wowed both critics and drinkers alike with its well-balanced drams. This 10 Year Old is the perfect mix of fresh citrus and robust woodsmoke.