When you are new to whisky, it can be a minefield to choose ones suitable for a beginner’s palate. There’s always the fear of not liking something and ruining the whole experience at the first few yards. You want something easy sipping, nothing overly complex, but with still enough oomph to make you want to keep exploring the category. Although it is important to remember that the only way to find out what you like is to keep on sampling.
To help you to embark on your whisky journey, I’ve previously written The Beginner’s Guide to Scotch Whisky. But there is no need just to focus on scotch. I have asked four lovely ladies, all great whisky enthusiasts, to put together their whisky recommendations for beginners and explain why they chose each one. I love how no one recommend the same whisky! Plenty to choose from.
The best whiskies for beginners
Hayley – @redwhiskygirl
Hayley had a look back to her own learning experience and she chose four whiskies she still owns or still loves.
The Glenfiddich 12 (Single Malt Scotch)
Admittedly, this is a whisky I think you could grow out of quickly, as your tastes and experiences change, but it is easily available at every supermarket (so you don’t have to venture into the unknown territory of a whisky specialist shop), the brand is world renowned, even to those who are new to the scene, and the price is on point so you will not mind making cocktails, adding mixers or giving it away if it is not to your liking.
Glendronach 12 (Single Malt Scotch)
This is an incredibly popular whisky in the community, and if your starter whisky is Glendronach you are starting well! This whisky is finished in a sherry cask, delivering a specific sherry finish. It is sweet, but more a Christmas pudding, figgy sweetness. If it is too much to begin with, add a splash of water to open up the scents and taste. This is a wonderful whisky to explore how casks influence the whisky.
Jack Daniels Single Barrel (Tennessee Whiskey)
A firm favourite of mine. Even though my tastes have evolved, I reach for this bottle for an easy, sweet, delightful drink when I don’t want to think about what I am drinking. If you think this is just like the classic Jack Daniels, you are mistaken, and I implore you to try it. The bottle makes a fabulous candle holder once empty.
Jameson Black Barrel (Irish Whiskey)
I was quite late in discovering Jameson (literally just a few months ago) and whilst many start their whisky journey with Jameson, I went backwards, but it was such a fabulous find! Irish whiskey is sweeter, and the Jameson Black Barrell is distilled in charred barrels (hence the name!), delivering a distinctive, rich, creamy whiskey. A little bolder than the Jack Daniels Single Barrel, it reminds me of Cherry Coke!
Nadia – @agirltastingwhiskey
Nadia has been tasting her way through the wonderful and (very diverse) world of whisky for nearly two years. After that first drop that got her hooked, she then immersed herself in everything there was to offer.
Hibiki Japanese Harmony (Japanese Blended Whisky)
Number one has to be my official whisk(e)y virginity breaker Hibiki Japanese Harmony by Suntory Whisky. This bright and delicate whisky left a serious impression on me. With sweet notes of honey and a subtle Japanese oak finish, which lingers for just long enough, it is perfect to sip neat, on ice or in a traditional Japanese Highball.
In my opinion and from my experience, it is the perfect beginner’s whisky. It has gone up in price quite a lot since I first had the opportunity to try it, but it is well worth the investment if you’re serious about getting into whisky.
Glenfiddich 18 (Single Malt Scotch)
Coming in at number 2 is Glenfiddich 18 by Glenfiddich. Being a Speyside whisky (which means typically less peated), it is much less offensive on a beginner’s palate. What you will enjoy from the Glenfiddich 18 are much more sweet and fruity notes. Perfect if you want to dabble in scotch whisky. Have it on its own or on ice – I personally found myself enjoying this one on any given occasion.
Eagle Rare (Bourbon)
As my love for whisk(e)y grew, my love for American whiskey really grew. A very reasonably priced, very easy to drink neat or mixed bourbon would have to be Eagle Rare by Buffalo Trace. Bourbon has a lot more of those dessert-type flavours which come from the high percentage of corn in its grain mash bill and from the charred American oak that it is aged in. Expect to experience notes of vanilla, toffee and just a bit of spice. If you have a sweet tooth like me, you will love it!
Starward Nova (Australian Single Malt)
Now it wouldn’t be a list of beginner’s whisk(e)y without recommending one from my homeland. Nova by Starward would have to be one of the most easily accessible Australian whiskies on the market worldwide. With it being aged in red wine barrels and made with Australian barley, it is fruity and full of flavour.
This whisky has a lingering flavour, red berries and orchard fruit shine through, with gentle vanilla and caramel notes making an appearance too. I personally prefer Nova neat, to enjoy its complexity, but it works well in a classic cocktail too.
Moa – @swedishwhiskygirl
After graduating, Moa found herself staying in Edinburgh and started working at The Scotch Whisky Experience, where she discovered the interesting world of whisky. She is now continuing her whisky journey on Instagram.
Black Bottle (Blended Scotch)
Affordable and super-fruity (pears and apples!), with a touch of smoke, which all adds together to an interesting and easy-to-approach flavour experience. I find this tends to be a hidden gem that could suit a lot of people. Smoke doesn’t have to be difficult to approach for whisky beginners – I find it can often be the gateway for some people who tend to enjoy smoked foods like meats or fish, for example. Also, the smoke in this blended whisky is not overpowering at all, but just has a slight influence that for me enhances the body of it. It is also one of my favourites that showcases that lovely flavours in whisky don’t have to cost much.
Glen Scotia Double Cask (Single Malt Scotch)
This was one of my first go-to whiskies because of its rich character and often great price. As far as I know, some PX sherry maturation is involved in the making of this whisky, which adds a sweetness to this slightly oily treat. Definitely one for people who like Christmas cake and raisins.
If you like this one, then you can continue your journey by looking into other whiskies with a sherry cask influence.
Tomatin Legacy (Single Malt Scotch)
This is another of the whiskies I often turned to at the start of my whisky journey – and of course still do to this day. The Legacy has influences of both virgin oak and ex-bourbon casks, which give such pleasant notes of coconut, vanilla and soft wood. Easy to sip for every occasion. What I really like about a whisky like this, with a primarily American oak influence, is that you can taste the spirit character but also the wood influence in a lovely balance!
Teeling Small Batch (Irish Whiskey)
Another fairly priced whisky, but this time from Ireland. It was also one of my favourite whiskies of 2020! This is definitely a whisky that can suit both enthusiasts and beginners, and perhaps especially those who already like rum. The influence of rum casks in the maturation makes this an easy-to-approach whisky with sweet tropical notes. As Irish whiskey also tends to use triple distillation, you might find this whisky slightly smoother than, for example, a Scotch whisky that primarily uses double distillation. Distillation might be a bit tricky to understand at first, but the third distillation basically removes even more of the heavier and robust notes, which means that most Irish whiskeys tend to be lighter than Scotch whisky.
To sum it up:
For more spice: Glen Scotia
For more fruit: Black Bottle
For more smoothness: Teeling
For a lovely classic scotch: Tomatin
Sona – @thespiritedwoman
Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Sona in person and visiting a whisky bar with her. Her knowledge and passion for the spirit is both extensive and impressive. She used last year’s Melbourne lockdown wisely and took part in many virtual whisky tastings to widen her knowledge even more. Below are her recommendations for absolute beginners.
Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or (Single Malt Scotch)
This is a lovely light, nicely balanced citrusy, sweet and buttery dram. It’s easily accessible to less-experienced palates and can even be enjoyed in a highball if a neat sip feels too daunting.
Balvenie DoubleWood 12 (Single Malt Scotch)
I’ve chosen this not only because it’s from one of the great Speyside distilleries, but also because it’s a fantastic whisky to start learning about core palate profile. Regardless of expression, Balvenie whiskies will invariably have wonderful roasty toasty, honey, vanilla, marshmallow notes with a touch of baking spice. In time, you may be able to recognise different whiskies purely by taste rather than label.
Try either (or both!) of these award-winning new-world whiskies to get a taste for what’s being made outside Scotland. When you’re starting your whisky journey, it’s important to try as many different drams as you can – only then will you find out what you like and don’t like. And only then will you give your palate a chance to develop.
Laphroaig 10 (Peated Single Malt Scotch)
This is an Islay classic, and no beginner’s whisky flight would be complete without an entry-level smoky dram. You might love it; you might hate it – either response is okay. What’s important is that you experience how your nose and palate respond to a peated whisky. Compare and contrast your findings with the non-peated drams!
The main thing is – there’s no right or wrong with drinking whisky. It’s purely a subjective experience (and whisky snobs are boring!). Drink it neat, with ice, with water, with soda or even with a mixer – just as long as the whisky remains the star of the drink and as long as you enjoy it!
A few words
Wonderful whisky recommendations and advice from all the ladies. I like that everyone is suggesting a range of (affordable) whiskies worldwide and with different flavour profiles. It is always difficult to just name a few, but I believe this list will get you started on your whisky journey.
Personally, I would also have included Glenfiddich 18 as Nadia suggested. I only tried it for the first time last year and it was love at first sip! Aged in both Oloroso and ex-bourbon casks, it is loaded with candied fruit, baking spices, ginger, toffee and dry sherry notes.
Like Sona, I definitely wanted to include Balvenie DoubleWood 12yo in this list, and this was purely because Sona introduced me to this wonderful single malt and I have been a fan ever since. My last two suggestions are given below.
Bunnahabhain 12 (Single Malt Scotch)
This was one of the first whiskies I tried some five to six years ago and I still very much enjoy it. Bunnahabhain may be an Islay distillery, but not all whisky from the island has to be full of peat. This 12-year-old has been on the market since 1979 and remains one of their core expressions for a reason. Matured in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, the whisky is sweet with a strong sherry influence. Expect red fruit, rich dried fruit, nuttiness, a touch of vanilla and a lovely bit of saltiness at the end.
1770 Triple Distilled (Single Malt Scotch)
I have to admit that at first, I was a little concerned about the virgin oak maturation, but the outcome is well balanced. There is a nice spice kick to it, but don’t let that put you off. This whisky is delicious, with plenty of toffee, honey, vanilla and baked-fruit notes. I love the silky and rich mouthfeel. Let the whisky breathe in the glass for a few minutes to allow the flavours to open up. It will also get more complex and enticing after a few sips.
Have you tried any of the whiskies on this list? Would you add any special bottles to this list?
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