Whisky is a miraculously diverse drink, given that its raw materials – cereal grains, water and yeast – are so few, and the way it’s made so simple: fermentation, distillation and maturation in oak casks. But that’s the easy bit.
There are any number of tweaks and riffs to that production process, and even the strictly regulated world of single malt Scotch – only barley, water and yeast allowed – is one of many hues and flavours. Smokily peated, vanilla-scented when Bourbon-matured, Sherry casks giving aromas of Christmas cake and exotic spices… and many, many more.
Factor in geography – great whisky is now being made all over the planet – and you have an endlessly fascinating world that it can take a lifetime to fully explore. The best advice? Don’t get fazed by the complexities, and just take it one whisky at a time. These eight drams might just be the perfect place to start.
Whiskies for beginners
Ardbeg An Oa
Ardbeg, like its Islay neighbours Laphroaig and Lagavulin, is famously peaty, but the distillery’s fruity spirit is just as important to its unmistakable character. An Oa (named after a nearby peninsula) is a great place to start a peaty whisky journey: bright citrus fruit, seductive vanilla, with smoke billowing in the background. A beast on its best behaviour. Alc 46.6%
Arran Sherry Cask ‘The Bodega’
Such is the long history of Scotch whisky that Arran – in operation since 1995 – is still thought of as a ‘newcomer’. But this island distillery is firmly established for the quality of its distillate and excellent cask regime, including this full-on evocation of the joys of ex-Sherry wood: fig, dessert cherry, Christmas cake and lots of plain chocolate on the finish. Alc 55.8%
Compass Box Hedonism
Former Johnnie Walker marketeer John Glaser launched innovative whisky bottler Compass Box 20 years ago, and this – his first release – showed the world that Scotch grain whisky can be great. It’s a blended grain, and the clever combination of distilleries, ages and cask types creates a crowd-pleaser that mingles popcorn, Sugar Puffs, coconut, toast and honey. Fun whisky. Alc 43%
Four Roses Small Batch
This reliably excellent whiskey from one of Kentucky’s best producers ticks off just about everything on a bourbon lover’s wish list: velvety texture, rich and smoothly mellow, with bucketloads of red fruit, sweet vanilla and coconut. There’s power here, but worn lightly thanks to the delectable notes of fudge, hazelnuts and salted caramel. Alc 45%
Glen Grant 12 Year Old
In a world increasingly dominated by bold flavours, Glen Grant remains a masterclass of understatement and subtlety. This is the lighter side of Speyside: orchard fruits, spring hedgerow scents, then a pinch of cinnamon and custard on warm apple pie. There’s structure and weight too, but this is a whisky that never shouts. Alc 43%
Green Spot Single Pot Still
The perfect entry into to the world of single pot still Irish whiskey, which emerged when distillers facing a tax on malted barley began including unmalted barley in their mash – resulting in this enticingly oily, spicy, tangily fruity delight. Drink it in and ponder the fact that Irish whiskey nearly died out altogether a few decades ago. Alc 40%
Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Year Old
There’s been a backlash against blends in recent years, but it’s entirely unmerited, as this classic proves. It may just be the most famous whisky on the planet, but that’s hardly surprising when you experience its pitch-perfect combination of rich fruit, smoke, light spice and vanilla. When blending is this good, it approaches the level of genius. Alc 40%
The Lakes Whiskymaker’s Reserve No 3
Innovative whisky makers are at work the length and breadth of England now, and one of the most ceaselessly inquisitive of them is Dhavall Gandhi at The Lakes Distillery in beautiful Cumbria. This is a rich, indulgent and hugely promising single malt, matured in a mix of Pedro Ximénez, oloroso, cream Sherry and red wine casks. Sumptuous. Alc 54%