Despite what some people might have you believe, whiskey should not feel like an intimidating spirit for novice drinkers to get to know better. For the uninitiated, it can have a reputation as being harsh, complicated, or meant to be drunk in a very particular way. The flavor profile of different whiskeys indeed can be complex, but it’s nothing you can’t handle, especially if you are picking the right bottle to start out with.
We spoke to bar industry experts from around the country to get their recommendations on what the best whiskey for beginners are, from bourbon and rye to single malt scotch to Japanese whisky. Start with these if you are new to the category, and branch out from there. But don’t let anyone tell you how to drink your whiskey, because there is no wrong way as long as you are enjoying it. Here are the best bottles of whiskey for beginners.
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Caramel, Oak
“Representing the wilderness of American pioneers and explorers, this bourbon whiskey is good for beginners because it is not that aggressive,” says Danilo Bozovic of Sugar, the rooftop bar and restaurant at EAST Miami. “On the contrary, it is very mellow and inviting.” Timothy Slane, a bar manager in Edmond, OK, also recommends Buffalo Trace. “It's smooth and well balanced,” he says. “Easy to drink with a little sweetness that makes it more palatable for someone who isn't accustomed to those tastes.”
Slane Irish Whiskey
Region: Ireland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Chocolate, Vanilla, Spice
Slane is a relatively new entry into the Irish whiskey category. Although the whiskey is currently sourced, future bottlings will consist of the whiskey being produced at the distillery located on the grounds of the namesake castle, world-famous for the many concerts that have taken place there over the years. Slane is triple-cask matured in virgin oak, used whiskey barrels, and sherry casks, giving it an approachable and rounded flavor profile that newcomers to the category will appreciate.
Read Next: The Best Irish Whiskeys
Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Cinnamon, Pepper, Vanilla
Some rye whiskeys are very assertive, with a 95% rye mashbill that packs a lot of spice onto the palate. But Old Overholt, produced at the Jim Beam distillery, has a rye percentage hovering somewhere over the legally required 51 percent, giving it soft notes of fruit, vanilla, and caramel that match the subtle spice. This is an affordable bottle for rye whiskey beginners that can be used to make cocktails, and goes down easy neat as well.
Suntory Whisky Toki
Region: Japan | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Honey, Vanilla, Smoke
“Toki is made for mass-market appeal, and it’s definitely a crowd pleaser,” says Clay Tolbert of The Alley Light in Charlottesville, VA. The whisky is a blend from the same company that makes harder-to-find bottles like Yamazaki and Hakushu. “Huge honey profile, with just enough wood to remind you it’s whisk(e)y,” says Tolbert. “It’s a scotch descendant, masquerading as Irish, with Japanese trappings. You look sophisticated AF!”
Best Single Malt Scotch
Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask
Region: Scotland | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Brown Sugar, Toffee, Orange
“The bridge between bourbon and scotch is a short one,” says Donegan. “However, if you aren’t quite ready to label yourself as a whiskey drinker full time and are dabbling in the art of barrel-aged spirits, this is a great place to start. It’s a light, sipping scotch that isn’t too sweet. It needs no mixers nor pretense for anyone to enjoy it as is. I like to refer to it as my ‘summer scotch,’ but I happily indulge all year round.”
Read Next: The Best Single Malt Scotch Whiskies
Best Blended Scotch
Monkey Shoulder Blended Scotch Whisky
Region: Scotland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Citrus, Spice
Monkey Shoulder is a step above other blended scotch whiskies because it’s made up of just malt whisky, with no grain whisky included. There’s nothing wrong with grain whisky, but many scotch blends use very young whiskies that give it a harsh, bland taste. That’s not the case with Monkey Shoulder, a blend meant for making cocktails that has a complex flavor profile full of vanilla, fruit, and spice.
Read Next: The Best Blended Scotches
Four Roses Bourbon Yellow Label
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Caramel, Oak
“Easy on the wallet, this is a great place to start experimenting with a great American classic,” says Donegan. “It is a great mixer, but can also stand on its own in an Old Fashioned, Manhattan, or New York Sour (I recommend topping with a California merlot).”
Four Roses is often recognized as being one of the best affordable bourbons, and stands out in the whiskey world as a combination of ten different recipes that are blended together to make the final product.
Best American Single Malt
Westward American Single Malt Whiskey
Region: Portland, OR | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Butterscotch, Citrus, Oak
The American single malt category is rapidly growing in popularity, and there are many distilleries of note. For newcomers, try this flagship single malt from Westward, an innovative Portland, OR distillery. It’s made from 100 percent malted barley, like its scotch cousin, and aged in new charred American oak barrels, similar to bourbon. But the result is something completely different, and this bottle provides a good snapshot of what to expect from this burgeoning category.
Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 46.85% | Tasting Notes: Baking Spice, Vanilla, Oak
“I grew up in Virginia, a small town, and my grandfather always told me a man needs three types of whiskey,” says Scott Wenger, independent consultant in Tampa, FL. “One to mix with soda, one you can sip every day, and one for celebrations. This falls into the category of ‘one you could sip every day.’ The flavor is good enough to sip on, but it also stands up to cocktails, and the price is so reasonable. I think it is very well rounded and easy to approach for beginners and, once again, the price is amazing for the quality.”
Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey
Region: Tennessee | ABV: 35% | Tasting Notes: Honey, Vanilla, Banana
“Brown spirits, in general, can be an acquired taste and take some time to adjust to,” says Matthew Sentas, general manager at Precinct Kitchen + Bar in Boston. “However, I suggest starting with Jack Daniel’s. If you find Tennessee whiskey to be tough to drink at first, then flavored versions of whiskey might be a nice place to start. Jack Daniel’s offers a honey, apple or fire version that could help ease into it.”
Best for Boilermaker
Jameson Irish Whiskey
Region: Ireland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Almond, Fruit, Oak
Nearly everyone is familiar with Jameson, an extremely popular Irish blended whiskey that is easy on the palate. “This was my gateway into whiskey,” says Jonathan Cunningham, bar manager at Husk Barbeque in Greenville, SC. “It’s light-bodied, slightly sweet, and dangerously drinkable.” Try it in a boilermaker, which is a shot of whiskey dropped into a beer. Jameson goes particularly well with a light American lager.
Best for Cocktails
Old Forester 86 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Brown Sugar, Molasses, Spice
“Old Forester is the oldest continuously distilled bourbon from before, during, and after Prohibition,” says Trey Ledbetter, beverage manager of the forthcoming Kimpton Sylvan Hotel in Atlanta. “Budget and palate friendly, this bourbon is sharp at first but softens quickly. It’s perfect for drinking on its own on ice or in your favorite bourbon cocktail. Spicy with soft vanilla and orange notes, try this in an Old Fashioned or Mint Julep.”
Read Next: The Best Whiskeys for Old Fashioneds
Buffalo Trace is the best option for whiskey beginners for a few key reasons. First of all, it’s affordable, and arguably one of the best deals out there considering its complex palate and flavor profile. It’s made at the Kentucky distillery of the same name, and while much more expensive and limited bottles are produced there as well, the eponymous bourbon is a fantastic place to start for any whiskey novice.
What to Look For
Whiskey can be an intimidating category to newcomers, but the main thing to remember is that there’s no need to be worried because there’s a whiskey for every palate in every category. When looking for a whiskey for beginners, think about the style you prefer. Are you looking for a sweeter American bourbon, a smoky Islay scotch, or a spicier rye? Are you going to be sipping neat or mixing up some cocktails? Look for a lower ABV if you want to keep things on the cooler side of the spectrum, or go for something at 90 proof or higher if you want to unlock more flavor. Most importantly, have fun exploring the whiskey category, as there are pronounced differences depending on the country where it was produced and the particular style.
What is the easiest type of whiskey to start with?
There’s no right or wrong answer here, but two styles that might be a good place to start are bourbon and Irish whiskey. Bourbon is known for having a sweeter flavor profile with notes of vanilla, caramel, and a touch of oak from the time it spends in virgin charred oak barrels. Irish whiskey is always called “smooth,” which seems reductive but really describes an approachable and fruity profile that many people find easy to drink.
What's the difference between bourbon, scotch, etc?
Each whiskey (or whisky) has certain defining characteristics that are legally required. Bourbon must be made in America from a mash bill of at least 51 percent corn and is aged in new charred oak containers (virtually always barrels). Rye is made from 51 percent rye making it a spicier whiskey. Single malt scotch must be aged for a minimum of three years and is made from 100 percent malted barley, while a blended scotch is a mixture of malt and grain whiskies. Irish whiskey is also aged for a minimum of three years, and depending on the style can be a blend of different grains or made from malted and unmalted barley (single pot still) or 100 percent malted barley (single malt).
Are you supposed to drink it straight or can you have it in cocktails?
Always remember - there is no wrong way to drink whiskey, particularly if you are new to the category. Try it neat to really see what the whiskey tastes like, add some ice if you want to cool it or bring down the ABV, and definitely use it to make any classic cocktail like an Old Fashioned.
Is it a waste to buy expensive whiskey for beginners?
Go ahead and splurge on an expensive bottle if you’d like, but remember price, like age, doesn’t necessarily mean better whiskey. So if you are new to the category, start with one of these recommended bottles that are affordable but don’t sacrifice quality.
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Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries for many years. His work has appeared in many different national outlets covering trends, new releases, and the stories and innovators behind the spirits. His first love remains whiskey, but he is partial to tequila, rum, gin, cognac and all things distilled.