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The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Drinking Whiskey

Want to become a pro in all things whiskey? This is the ultimate beginner's guide to drinking whiskey so you can appreciate the spirit even more.

By Greg BondPublished 6 years ago 9 min read

The sound of a whiskey bottle cracking open, pouring the drink into my glass, and dropping an ice cube in is like heaven to my ears. I don't just enjoy the beverage, but what it gives off. There's a lot that the spirit offers, from the slight fruity notes to the earthy aroma. There's also a wide range of whiskey you should know before picking out your favorite. I know I had to taste test every liquor from bourbon to rye before I discovered that I love Scotch.

There are different ways in which you can drink whiskey. I tend to drink it on the rocks (I'll get to what that means in a bit) and I have friends who drink it neat (again, I'll explain in a bit). The topic of whiskey can seem complex to many people, but it's fairly easy to get around. If you want to impress your friends with your knowledge of the liquor, this is the ultimate beginner's guide to drinking whiskey.


Starting off with my favorite type of whiskey, Scotch comes from Scotland and is aged there for a minimum of three years in oak barrels. The majority of Scotch today is aged in used bourbon barrels with sherry and other used casks. The whiskey is usually distilled (fermented) twice and it falls into several strict classifications.

There are different types of Scotch out there:

  • Single malt Scotch is made only from malt and is produced at a single distillery.
  • Single grain whiskey is made at a single distillery, yet incorporates extra grains in the combination beyond malted barley. Single grain is also a rare commodity because it’s mostly used in blends.
  • Blended malt is the blend of two or more single malt Scotch whiskeys from diverse distilleries.
  • Blended grain is the blend of two or more single grain whiskeys from other distilleries.
  • Blended Scotch is the blend of one or more single malts with one or more single grains.

The majority of Scotch that’s sold across the globe is blended.

Scotch Regions

Knowing the official five Scotch regions is part of the beginner's guide to drinking whiskey. Campbeltown was home to a ton of distilleries, but only three distilleries are still operating today. Highlands is known to be the largest geographical region, and it’s well represented with brands like Oban, The Macallan, Old Pulteney, and Glenmorangie. Islay is another one of the Scotch regions and home to large, salty, smoky whiskeys like Laphroaig and Ardbeg. This small island holds eight distilleries including Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Bowmore, and more.

Lowlands is another abandoned region like Campbeltown where there are only a few distilleries left. Speyside actually has the largest collection of distilleries of any Scotch region—half of the country’s total. This includes top brands like The Glenlivet, Aberlour, Glenfiddich, and others. Lastly, the Islands is the unofficial sixth region that represents all of the islands except Islay.


Yes, Irish whiskey comes straight from Ireland and also has a three year age minimum. However, Irish whiskey is triple distilled. Another difference is that Ireland distillers add enzymes to change starches to sugars before fermentation. Ireland’s classifications mention that a distiller must add the term “blended” to any product with two or more separately distilled whiskeys. Single pot still refers to Irish whiskey that’s made at a single distillery from a pot still and mixed with malted and unmalted barley.

There are only 10 operating distilleries currently in Ireland, believe it or not. Seven of them recently came to be in the last decade managing new projects. The main ones include Old Bushmills, which first opened in 1784, and is known to be the oldest licensed distillery in the world. Then there’s New Midleton Distillery that’s been running since 1975 and makers of Midleton, Powers and Paddy, Jameson, and Cooley Distillery that have been open since 1987.


American whiskey is more than bourbon; it includes a wide variety of other popular drinks. Bourbon is an American whiskey that contains a minimum of 51 percent corn and is aged in charred, new oak barrels. Bourbon only settles in new oak barrels which is the key reason why used bourbon barrels end up aging Scotch and other products (still confused? Try bourbon made easy).

Rye is an all-American drink that’s made with a minimum of 51 percent rye. Similar to bourbon, rye must be aged in charred, new oak barrels. Wheat whiskey should have a minimum of 51 percent wheat, as well.

Tennessee whiskey is seen to be a descendant of bourbon. This type of liquor owns its own category because the laws require that it must be produced in Tennessee and meet the requirements of a bourbon. As for aging, this spirit goes through an extra charcoal filtering process called “Lincoln County Process.” There are other American classifications like Bottled in Bond, Moonshine, Straight, and Undefined “American whiskey.”


Understanding Canadian whiskey is a quintessential part of the beginner's guide to drinking whiskey. This type of liquor is usually labeled as “rye whiskey” even though it doesn’t match up with the American definition of having a minimum of 51 percent rye. In actuality, Canadian “rye whiskey” may not even have any rye in it.

The spirit is most likely based on the tradition of Canadian whiskey that was known for its rye flavoring and profile at one point. The majority of Canadian whiskey these days includes a much higher percentage of corn than rye. It’s made with blending, using a small amount of rye, or rye-heavy to flavor a blend made from bourbon-style whiskeys and other grain liquors. In addition, straight Canadian rye is aged for at least three years in 700-liter wooden barrels.


Japanese whiskey has actually taken the world by surprise when Masataka Taketsuru returned to Japan from Scotland around the early 1920s to study distilling. Then, he became responsible for creating Japanese whiskey, which includes brands like Yamazaki and Nikka. This form of spirit is widely based off of the same method as Scotch, but with Japanese single malts and Japanese blended whiskeys.

Even though the distilleries in Scotland may produce a variety of single malt, it’s sold like or used primarily for blends. In Japan, it’s not unusual for a distillery to create a wide selection of styles, mash bills, and utilize different stills and profiles.

Now in the beginner's guide to drinking whiskey, it's time to know how you enjoy your spirit. Drinking it "neat" means that you're drinking the beverage straight without tossing in an ice cube or two or pouring a few drops of water. Some of my friends find that including ice or water ruins the flavors of the spirit, and drinking it straight is the most preferred method.

It mainly depends on everyone's palate. You might find that drinking whiskey neat is the best way to enjoy it. The taste is also much stronger, where each sip is like a shock to your taste buds through the high alcohol content and the intense flavor profiles.

A great glass to enjoy it neat in is the Lismore Connoisseur Whiskey Straight Sided Tumbler Glasses by Waterford. These glasses are timeless and sophisticated. The set of two is made from pure crystal and can make your bourbon, Scotch, or Irish whiskey look rich.

The majority of people that I know, including myself, tend to stick with their whiskeys “on the rocks.” I personally find the taste of the drink to be better when it’s chilled and with the ice dimming the strong taste. Including ice can actually numb your palate, which is something people prefer.

When you do order whiskey on the rocks, it's best to order one large ice cube. The thing about smaller cubes and chunks of ice is that they melt much faster and you don’t want your drink to be completely diluted. If you just want your beverage to be chilled, you can simply use whiskey stones.

The On the ROCK Glass with Ice Ball Maker is perfect if you love your spirit on the rocks. The glass comes with a silicone mold that allows you to create an ice ball for your beverage. The shape of the glass also lets the ice ball swirl around and release the aromas and flavors of your favorite whiskey. These glasses are definitely high on any list of best gifts for whiskey lovers.

I know a few people who enjoy whiskey neat, but want to keep their drink chilled. Even though they like to drink their liquor cool, they hate adding an ice cube to do the chilling because the ice dilutes their drink. Instead, they use chilled whiskey stones that do nothing but keep their beverage cool.

The ideal type of whiskey stones are Sparq's Original Soapstone Whiskey Rocks because they're made of naturally occurring soapstone. These type of stones are known for their temperature-retaining properties. They’re also odorless, tasteless, and non-porous, which means they don’t have any holes in them. Sparq’s stones can be frozen in the freezer or even heated in the microwave. Overall, using these rocks chilled can bring out the hidden notes and flavors of your whiskey.

Yes, a few drops of water can make a difference to your whiskey and this is a big part of the beginner's guide to drinking whiskey. I’m not the biggest fan of this, but I’ve seen drinkers do this. When adding a little water, it can release the hydrophobic (water repellent) elements in the glass. This allows you to notice more aromatics and lowers the alcohol content to give you more flavors on your palate.

The best and easiest way to do this is using a straw to collect water droplets and adding them to your whiskey. Give your glass a swirl, sip, and repeat this until you’re pleased with the flavor. If you include more drops of water, this can dilute your drink and it’ll have the same effect as an ice cube without the chill.

Nachtmann's crystal glasses give off class and elegance whenever you're enjoying your drink. The set of two glasses features a sculpture look with its "unfinished" surface that reflects light, making them look rich and brilliant.

Cinnamon Maple Whiskey Sour

There are definitely great-tasting whiskey cocktails and they're a key part of the beginner's guide to drinking whiskey. You can make your own whiskey cocktails right at home and the recipes are really easy, including this one—the Cinnamon Maple Whiskey Sour recipe. In this recipe, the spirit is sweetened with maple syrup to give it a more mellow taste.

The recipe also includes plenty of fresh lemon juice and a hefty pinch of ground cinnamon. You'll also include your bourbon of choice to tie the recipe together. Make sure you thoroughly mix the ingredients together so everything is smooth when you drink it.

Ginger Whiskey Cocktail

Lastly, a recipe like this certainly deserves to be part of the beginner's guide to drinking whiskey. The Ginger Whiskey Cocktail recipe requires fewer ingredients and it's very simple to create on your own. This is also a great recipe for those who can't handle the tough taste of the liquor.

All you need to do is combine your choice of whiskey, ginger ale, and a lime wedge. For a three-ingredient recipe, not only could it be any simpler, but the cocktail tastes fantastic, too. You can never go wrong with this alcohol and ginger ale.

Once you've mastered these basics, it's time to move on to learning the best ways to drink whiskey like a pro.


About the Creator

Greg Bond

Will always catch him wearing a tux on the daily. Goes by Bond, hates his name Greg. You’ll find him in high-end New York City bars making conversation with strangers.

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