Building Your First Whiskey Collection
I got really into Scotch when I turned 30 years old and took a father-son trip through England and Scotland. Since then it's been one of my favorite hobbies and I've built a great collection over the past few years that I enjoy sharing with my friends and family.
A lot of the people in my circle have expressed interest in learning whiskey and how to build their own collection - so I put this together as a short guide to help explain how to build a tasty, diverse, and affordable "Starter Whiskey Collection." Enjoy!
A Beginner's Palette
Tasting whiskey or any hard liquor can be a challenge at first, because the alcohol flavor overwhelms the sugars, esters, and other residues from the fermentation and aging process. We want to be able to taste the stuff in the latter category without being perturbed by the former.
This guide is designed to help steer readers towards whiskeys that are easy to drink: ones with a naturally sweet or slightly berry flavor. As you start to be able to recognize those types of pleasurable flavors your taste receptors will become trained to react to those more than the flavor of the alcohol itself - and it doesn't take all that long for this change to occur. It took me an afternoon in a tasting room in Edinburgh. For others it takes deliberately finishing 4-6 drinks of whiskey over 1-2 months.
Once you've developed your palette some you can move onto more advanced types of whiskeys - such as Islay Scotch (intense, smoky flavors), American Bourbon, and Rye (American whiskeys have much more subtle differences in flavor.) For the purposes of this guide we're going to stick to sweeter whiskeys that have more distinct and obvious flavor differences.
Key Whiskey Terms
Whiskey can get technical rather quickly, so let's define some helpful terms:
Single malt - this means that the whiskey was distilled from a single "malt," where malt is the grain that's fermented in order to create beer, and that beer is distilled in order to create whiskey. So a single "malt" means that all of the whiskey in the bottle comes from the same source ingredients, the same water, and the same distillery. The word "malt" comes from "malted barley" - the ingredient used to make whiskey typically.
When you open a bottle of single malt, that single malt might include a blend of different whiskeys that were all brewed by the same distiller. Same source ingredients, but some of the whiskeys might be older, younger, or were aged in different types of barrels.
Single grain - A grain whiskey is a single malt that is made with other grains (i.e. coffee grounds, corn, etc) at the time of distillation.
Blended whiskey - Johnnie Walker, a popular Scotch, is a blended whiskey. The final bottle of Johnnie Walker that you buy on the shelves is a blend of whiskeys produced by more than one distillery: there might be some Port Dundas, some Oban, and some R&B blended together. Blended whiskeys are the most popular by total sales volume in most countries in the world.
Age statement - You'll see this on the front of many whiskey bottles: "Ardbeg 10 Year," "Old Rip Van Winkle 15 Year," and so on. The "_ Year" is the age statement of the bottle - all of the whiskey contained inside is at least that old. If you see a bottle without an age statement, it's safe to assume that whiskey is probably younger. All Scotch has to be aged for a minimum of 3 years, but American whiskey is usually less than that, for instance.
We're going to build a small collection that is diverse by both region and flavor:
Port Dundas is no longer made anymore as of 2011, but it's been one of the ingredients used in Johnnie Walker for decades. It has a very sweet "candy shop" nose - vanilla and coconut. And it's an amazing deal at $49.99. Plus it's unusual: most whiskey drinkers will have never heard of or tried a single grain before. It's a bit like "cult wine" for Scotch.
Now we travel to Japan, home of the highest rated whiskeys in the world. It's very difficult and expensive to get ahold of the truly rare and well-aged Japanese whiskey, but Nikka Coffee Malt and Coffee Grain are superb. They have a sweet caramel / vanilla bean pod / coffee nose and taste that is easy even for beginners to palette, and at $59.99 per bottle rank among the best value whiskeys in the world. This is a must-have for every collection.
Edrador used to be the smallest distillery in Scotland, but it's been getting more popular in recent years. This is an unusual highland Scotch - compared to mainstays like Macallan, because it has a complex and interesting flavor to it. To me it tastes like vanilla, rum, and sherry - a boozy fruitcake.
Like I mentioned above, Bourbon and American Whiskey are more challenging than Scotch and Japanese whiskey due to how subtle their differences are. But that being said, B&E is one of my favorites because it has a burnt caramel and toffee taste - and it's also my favorite whiskey for making egg white whiskey sours at home. And at $35.99 it's a great value and much more interesting than something comparable like Maker's Mark.
In my opinion the best all-around value whiskey on the list - Aberlour is distilled and aged alongside the Spey river in Scotland inside Sherry casks, which give it a cherry, vanilla, and toffee flavor. I have trouble keeping this one in stock at home because it goes down dangerously smooth.
Despite its name, Highland Park isn't actually a highland Scotch at all - it comes from the Orkney Islands off the northeastern coast of Scotland. Highland Park is the most well-rounded Scotch - it has some of the iodine / medicinal flavors that you find in Scotches that are aged close to the Ocean, it has some peat which gives it a bit of fire and smokiness to it, but it also has a rich golden honey and caramel taste.
Total price of all whiskeys on this list: $295.44, not bad at all for 6 bottles of great whiskey. That should be a great starting point for you to work on your palette and see what sorts of things you like. When you're ready for something more sophisticated, I'd recommend trying Islay Scotch, Irish whiskey, or perhaps some American ryes and bourbons such as Whistlepig or Four Roses.