Most of my friends don’t drink much whisk(e)y. In fact I’d venture to suggest that the majority of them only really drink it around me, and occasionally only because I press it upon them. Humouring me, bless ‘em.
Still, the recommendation requests pop up every once in a while, so I thought I’d stick a few thoughts into a post. A starter pack for those looking for something more interesting than Bells, if you like.
Whisk(e)y geeks, this probably isn’t for you. I’ve put together five whiskies (plus a special bonus – no extra cost…) and whilst they by no means cover all the flavour bases they’re enough for a decent snapshot.
Needless to say, I think these are all very tasty indeed. I’m sure the list would look different were it to be put together by any other enthusiast; I can already hear the incensed cries of ‘no! Why didn’t you include…?’ … ‘That one? What are you on about?’ etc etc ad nauseum. Whisky is a broad church, after all, and that’s something to be embraced. All are under £40 per bottle; if you do some digging – and you always should – you can find most of them under £30.
If you’ve tried any Single Malt, it’s fairly likely you’ve encountered Glenfiddich 12. Maybe even Aberlour 10. Glenfarclas falls into broadly the same flavour bracket. Sherry casks means it’s a fruity number; baked apples alongside pears, with some honey and brown sugar. It’s only 40%ABV, so there’s no real heat, but the influence of the sherry casks alongside a pretty robust spirit makes for a nicely plump body and mouthfeel. If you find this works for you, then good news – you’ve become a fan of one of the whisky community’s best-loved distilleries. And the rest of the range is awfully good value too. Happy exploring. 40% ABV
If you enjoy this, have a go at Glendronach 12 years old and Benriach 12 year old Sherry Wood.
One of the most dangerously easy-drinking whiskies I’ve ever come across. Which sounds like damning with faint praise, but translates as ‘very tasty, very moreish and likely to please everyone.’ I’ve just finished my bottle, and I’m more than a little gutted. Young Scottish Single Grains aren’t really my thing; they tend to be wheat-based, and don’t lose their spirity edge until they’ve matured for a good long while. Teeling, by contrast, is Irish and corn based, which makes for lovely sweet flavours of creamy vanilla and buttered…well…corn. They’ve also used some red wine casks which add an extra layer of strawberry and cranberry. Are you going to discover previously undreamt-of complexity? No. But of all the pours on this list, I reckon Teeling would convert the most newcomers, because – drumroll – it tastes good. And it does so in an astonishingly approachable and straightforward way. A crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the term. Not sure about whisk(e)y? Try this one. Seriously. 46% ABV
If you enjoy this, have a go at Bain’s Cape Mountain and Kilbeggan 8 year old Single Grain.
There are a few good bourbons in this price range I could have gone for, but Woodford converted me, and a few years later it converted my mother too. So it seemed the obvious choice. Deep vanilla and brown sugar, with a little added spiciness from the relatively high rye content. (More on this later…) By the standards of this price point Woodford is also fairly rich on the toasty oak front, and more full-bodied than its direct competitors. The bottom line is that it’s the bourbon that got me into bourbon, and despite having tried hundreds and hundreds since, I still love it every time I go back. Can’t say much fairer than that. The bottle shape means you can also conceal it in a bookcase. Which isn’t a major factor in my recommendation, but what’s not to love about a bottle you can conceal in a bookcase? 43.2% ABV
If you enjoy this, have a go at Buffalo Trace and Four Roses Small Batch.
Bulleit’s design makes me want to throw back a glass in a crowded saloon, or swig it straight from the bottle on horseback as my steely-eyed gaze takes in some mountainous horizon. But both would be irresponsible and vulgar, and in any case I own neither a horse nor the means with which to look steely-eyed. So don’t do that. But do invest in a bottle of this, which has (finally) brought rye onto UK supermarket shelves. Rye is leaner and spicier than bourbon as a style. Some of the familiar vanillas and brown sugars are still there, but they’re accompanied by a whole load of green apple peel, nutmeg and pepper. It’s less voluptuously full-bodied, but the flavours tend to be a bit more concentrated. And that spiciness is a really wonderful thing. On offer you can find this at £22, which is a steal. It also comes with an unequivocally high rye percentage; if you’re a fan of this then rye is unquestionably a style for you. 45% ABV
If you enjoy this, have a go at Rittenhouse 100 proof and Rebel Yell Small Batch Rye
I’ve tended towards lower alcohol whiskies in making this list, as the chief complaint I field when doing ‘intro’ tastings is usually to do with heat. But bear with me on this one, because it isn’t a huge leap booze-wise, and the alcohol is fully balanced by body and flavour. More importantly, this is one of those whiskies that everyone who tastes it seems to love. As in properly love. I’ve seen so many people with only a couple of pours under their belt take one sip of this and be instantly smitten. It’s also a brilliant exception to the rule that great Japanese whisky tends to be on the super-pricey side. Flavour-wise I often describe this as a bridge from scotch to bourbon. It has the rich oak and caramel of the latter, with a fruity spiciness and mildly smoky (not peaty) meat that puts me in mind of the former. It’s also much more scotch-like than bourbonesque in terms of structure and body, but that’s drifting a little too far in the direction of tasting note poncery… Anyway, perhaps it’s wrong of me to compare it to either. Nikka from the Barrel is very much its own animal, and a terrific one at that. Pick up a bottle and join the legions of disciples. 51.4% ABV
If you enjoy this, lookalikes aren’t thick on the ground. The Nikka Pure Malt range is great though. Or you could just get another bottle of From the Barrel…
And your extra special bonus…
There’s no reason the whisky that wins you over shouldn’t be peated. For that matter there’s no reason it shouldn’t be Indian either. This is my favourite of the Paul John flagship range. It’s their light-medium peated expression, so if it floats your boat you can move on to the more intense stuff, but if you end up swiping left you won’t have had your face completely blown off. Plus I’m just a fan of the happy medium when it comes to my smoke. Sue me. Edited is a rather malty, savoury number. A little honey, a little smoked meat. A little lapsang souchong if you’re feeling fancy and know your teas. The peat is clear, but it isn’t all-consuming. I absolutely love the balance of flavours here, which is why I’ve picked it ahead of some more obvious Scottish alternatives. And being slightly off-piste gives you the chance to sound knowing and authoritative when you pass on the tip. Which is an absolute requirement of being a whisk(e)y nerd. 46% ABV
If you enjoy this, have a go at Highland Park 12 year old and Talisker 10 year old. Add a Springbank 10 year old to your basket too. Just for me. And out of respect.
So there you are. My starter pack for those looking to take their first/new whisk(e)y steps. Hundreds of others could easily have made the cut – that’s part of the fun. But do give one or more of these a go; I suspect you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find. And then, of course, you can move in whichever direction takes your fancy.
And if you happen to be a long-in-the-tooth enthusiast and didn’t stop reading after the first paragraph or two, I’d of course love to hear what your own introductory recommendations would be. Comments box is below – the more top tips the better…