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The 12 Best Whiskeys for Beginners in 2021

From bourbon and rye to single malt scotch and Japanese whisky.

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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.

Best Overall: Buffalo Trace

Buffalo Trace

Image Source / ReserveBar

  • 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.”

Best Bourbon: Four Roses Bourbon

Four Roses Bourbon

Image Source / ReserveBar

  • 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 Rye: Rabbit Hole Boxergrail

Rabbit Hole Boxergrail Rye

Image Source / ReserveBar

  • Region: Kentucky
  • ABV: 47.5%
  • Tasting Notes: Cinnamon, Pepper, Vanilla

“As a relative newcomer to the traditional Louisville whiskey market, Rabbit Hole has become one of my quick favorites,” says Jennifer Donegan, bartender and executive bourbon steward at Spanish Peaks Mountain Club in Big Sky, MT. “Their unique mash bill marries vanilla, spice, and everything nice into this perfect introduction to bourbon’s spicier cousin. My favorite way to enjoy this is on a large cube on a cold night with close friends.”

Best Irish: Tullamore DEW

Tullamore D.E.W. Irish Whiskey

Image Source / ReserveBar

  • Region: Ireland
  • ABV: 40%
  • Tasting Notes: Fruit, Vanilla, Spice

“Tullamore DEW is my ‘toe in the water’ whiskey,” says Benjamin Pozar of Fogo de Chao in Philadelphia. This is a blend that is triple-cask matured in refill barrels, ex-bourbon barrels and ex-sherry butts. “Irish whiskey tends to have the lightest flavor as it's typically three times distilled. It retains some flavor and character and can easily be branched off into different styles.”

Read Next: The Best Irish Whiskeys

Best Japanese: Suntory Toki

Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky

Image Source / ReserveBar

  • 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 Blended Scotch: J&B Rare Blended Scotch

J & B Rare Blended Scotch Whisky

Image Source / Wine.com

  • Region: Scotland
  • ABV: 40%
  • Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Citrus, Spice

“J&B is a mix of 42 different whiskies,” says Reniel Garcia, bar director of Miami's Havana 1957 on Española Way. “It’s very smooth on the palate, perfect for beginners. Fresh, nutty and grassy.” J&B, named after spirits merchants Justerini & Brooks, is a mix of malt and grain whiskies that is great for making cocktails like a classic highball. Of course, you can sip it on its own as well over a couple of ice cubes.

Read Next: The Best Blended Scotches

Best Single Malt Scotch: The Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14 Year Old


Read Next:
The Best Single Malt Scotch Whiskies

The Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Image Source / ReserveBar

  • 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 American Single Malt: Westward American Single Malt

Westward American Single Malt Whiskey

Image Source / Caskers

  • 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.

Best Sipping: 1792 Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon

1792 Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Image Source / Drizly

  • 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.”

Best Flavored: Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey

Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey

Image Source / ReserveBar

  • 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

Jameson Irish Whiskey

Image Source / ReserveBar

  • 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 Kentucky Bourbon

Old Forester 86 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky

Image Source / ReserveBar

  • 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

Why Trust Liquor.com?

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.

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