“I hate happiness,” said one.
“I wish my life was worse,” said another.
“The very concept of distilled warmth and wisdom repels me,” said a third.
Real people told me all these things. What they actually said was “I don’t like whiskey” but it’s pretty much the same thing. Whiskey offers a range of locations and experiences which make wine look like a morgue elevator, but millions insist that they just don’t like it.
And they’re not stupid.
The problem is the whiskey barrier. Someone who thinks they won’t like whiskey won’t. It’s the most self-fulfilling prophecy since “I will never put the pin back in this grenade I’m holding!” and even more painful. We’re not talking about some silly psychosomatic sensation, or an attitude to taste. This problem has the same cause as ketchup stains and oven fires: sheer carelessness. The would-be whiskey drinker tries the first cheap thing they find. And because they’re not a tractor engine in need of degreasing, cheap whiskey doesn’t help them. It stabs them in the senses, and they struggle through the rest of their life thinking whiskey is “old man grimace-face juice” because their first sip felt like biting a battery.
Most cheap whiskeys only work in cocktails, mixed with either alcoholic ingredients or a lifetime of memories the drinker wants to forget as quickly as possible. Either way, they’re not in it for the taste. But forsaking whiskey from this first taste is like swearing celibacy because you caught skin in your zip the first time you tried to take off your pants. You’re overreacting, and the pain was your fault in the first place.
So where should you start?
Whiskeys distill national character, and turn people into hilarious stereotypes, and Ireland and Canada are brilliant in both. They’re both extremely friendly, the Irish are more famous for the drink and the Canadians don’t get aggressive. Scotch, meanwhile, is incredibly characterful, but the beginner shouldn’t walk into a drinking establishment and shout “Come on, Scotch, hit me in the mouth.”
My best bet for beginners is the Irish Redbreast 12 with a drop of water. This is essential. The water has two important functions:
1. It opens up the drink, removing the harsh edge of the neat
2. It teaches beginners that it’s okay to add water to whiskey.
Too many wannabe-whiskologists bring bons mots instead of wisdom. “The distiller spent twelve years getting the water out of that, and you want to put it back!” sounds smart until you realize he thinks distillation means dehydration. Watering whiskey helps you appreciate the tastes, and over time you can reduce the amount added. Even the Glenfiddich global brand ambassador adds a few drops to his daily dram. It’s not the mark of an amateur, it’s a matter of taste.
Whiskeys are the Norse Gods of liquor: incredibly powerful incarnations of natural forces, enabling feats of heroism and idiocy, and they hate the frost giants. Ice is the true enemy of whiskey. Extra cold beers try to replace taste with temperature, because it’s much easier to make a tongue cold than it is to make something that tastes good. Whiskey should be held in the hand to warm, and just like the drinker, both get better and reveal more of their true characters as the night heats up. Freezing is how you tell a whiskey it waited 12 years to be wasted.
Another Irish starting point is Tullamore Dew, an incredibly mellow fellow with warm buttery spices, with just enough of that alcohol edge to train up Padawans of true taste. And since the edge can be instantly removed with a little water, even a beginner will never waste any.
For Canadian beginners, many have found their way into the world of whiskey with Crown Royal and water (or the famous Crown and coke.) Just be warned that Crown Royal is the whiskey equivalent of stabilizer wheels: they’ll help you get started, and are a lot of fun, but when you get better you won’t look back. Moving on, the bourbon beginners should then try Maker’s Mark, which is less an alcohol than a bottle of pure liquid warmth. In fact, I’d skip straight from the Irish to Maker’s, but that’s because I’m an Irishman who drinks Maker’s. Which means I’m biased and incredibly happy.
As for scotch; there is no beginner mode. Only a world of adventure. (Though Glenfiddich 12 is the best selling single malt whiskey in the world for a reason, and the range of increasing ages provides a handy way to level up when you want to try something new.) Just like anyone adventuring into the rocky mountains with nothing but a bottle of potion and your own courage, there are many monsters and wonderful treasures to be discovered. Go forth, bold hero, and enjoy. And if you happen to climb the burning peat mountain of Laphroaig Quarter Cask, we can share a dram.
Luke McKinney watches the new Halo series and mocks The Craziest Scientific Theories of U.S. Politicians.