How to become a single malt connoisseur

At a recent holiday party, a family member offered me a glass of 12 year old Macallan single malt whisky. I told him offering it to me was casting pearls before swine as I’m no judge of whiskey, but he insisted. So I sipped it a few times and found it tasted like…well, whiskey. You know, it had that alcohol taste and kinda burned going down. There could have been a whole lot of other things going on with the tasting experience, but being able to count the number of times I’ve tasted whiskey on my fingers, I really had very little referent with which to compare.

I’m aware that in order to acquire an appreciation for the taste of many different things, it’s necessary to first have a certain amount of baseline experience in sampling different types of that item. Over several decades I’ve managed in this manner to educate my palette with respect to beers, but I’m now considering expanding the scope of my appreciation to whiskey. Does anyone know how best to go about doing this to help identify certain benchmark characteristics in various whiskeys?

A few years ago, after reading several threads here about whiskey, I decided to start trying out some single malt Scotches. I would go buy a bottle, finish it off over the course of a month or two (I’m not a heavy drinker), make some mental notes, then go try something else. I started off in the $40-50 range, still try to keep it in the $50-70 range, but will sometimes go a little higher if something catches my eye. I’m not a connoisseur by any means, but I have at least figured out which ones I like and which ones I don’t particularly care for. The downside is that if I buy something I don’t like, I feel like I wasted my money and still have a whole bottle to finish off.

A couple of years ago when my brother turned 60 I bought him a bottle of MacCallan (I think it was 15 years old, may have only been 12) and we had a couple glasses. He has these whiskey glasses that are like little brandy snifters - and I have to say it was a completely different experience than my usual straight sided whiskey glass.

I’m glad you mentioned this, as making expensive mistakes could be a real downside.

There’s a good chance that there’s a liquor store near you with a manager who knows of a whiskey tasting group in your area.

Well I received advanced training and certification from this place in Edinburgh. I’m sworn not to discuss the details with non-certified peoples, but just let me say, you want your Scotch to have legs.

And it was only a third of that price 10 years ago! Hopefully they get to sample higher end stuff now. I must go back for a refresher.

Cool! I once watched a wine appreciation series on the Great Courses, so a class is certainly an option.

Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan (

Drink. Lots.

No, seriously. Find a good whisk(e)y bar and a wingman or two and start sampling. Don’t go for subtleties right off the bat. Go for general impressions. Then start honing in on what it is you like/dislike about each. No need to buy a bottle when you can buy a glass. Your palate is your palate, so you have to experiment. You are about to embark on an amazing journey of discovery, you lucky bastard.

PS. Macallan 12 is Nectar of the Gods. Almost as good as Highland Park 12.

Developing a palate for liquor can be prohibitively expensive.

Your first step is to identify an affordable bottle that you can enjoy regularly. If you don’t have a generous and well-stocked friend, that means going to a well-stocked bar and trying stuff.

Once you have your affordable baseline bottle identified, you’re gonna have to drink it. Not to excess, but often enough that you can begin to identify its qualities. A nightcap a few times a week, maybe? Be deliberate and thoughtful. Think about what you’re tasting. Hold it up to the light and give a serious “hmmmm.” That kind of thing.

Your only goal here to get your palate to identify something other than “alcohol taste that burns.”

Once you feel like you’ve got a handle on your baseline whiskey, go back to your friendly and well-stocked bar to try a few new things. Tell the bartender what you like and ask for some stuff that’s similar. See what you like. Put on a very solemn face as you try your best to compare the new stuff to your baseline stuff.

If you find yourself liking one of the new ones, go buy a bottle of that. Enjoy them both. Look up reviews and see what people are saying about them. See if you agree with the tasting notes they give. If you don’t agree it’s probably because they haven’t extensively trained your palate as you have. Philistines.

Go back to the bar in a few weeks. Go farther afield. Try to identify wider contrasts. Etc etc.

Eventually you’ll have a good handle on what you do and don’t like and you’ll be able to make educated guesses about whether you’ll enjoy a particular bottle. Now you don’t have to go back to the bar. Just pay attention to what people are saying and buy bottles that have qualities similar to what you enjoy.

Once you get your baseline, tell us. We’ll have all sorts of suggestions, ranging from the cheap and easy to the sell your grandmother bottles.

Another PS - You might want to start with Irish whisky. I am currently drinking Redbreast.

Another suggestion I would make is to try to stay in that 12 year range. I bought a bottle of 8 year old Lagavulin (because it was affordable) but it had hardly any color and mostly tasted like burning. Get something that’s had a chance to age, take the rough edges off, and gain some color and flavor.

Why Irish? I ask because the host also had a bottle of Bushmills on hand which I believe is an Irish whiskey. He mentioned travelling to Scotland years ago on a sampling tour. When I suggested maybe I should go to Scotland to taste the finest in the world he said in that case maybe I should go to Japan(?)

Irish whisky is triple-distilled barley, so it tends to be smoother, with less sharp edges that grate on some people. The emphasis remains on the grain as opposed to peat (Scotch), oak (Bourbon) or other distractions. Less “burny going down” as well. Bushmills is a decent middle of the road Irish. Powers is a great intro to the type. So is Redbreast, but it tends to be a bit pricier.

One of these days I’m going to follow my own advice and find a bar with a decent selection of Japanese whiskies and educate myself on those.

For smoother bourbon, try Maker’s Mark. It uses wheat instead of rye in the mash bill, so it has a more “rounded” flavor profile.

I’m in the mood for PSs today: Go on Youtube and search for “whiskey tribe” or “whiskey vault” and watch Daniel and Rex’s reviews. Very educational and funny. Daniel is a pro, Rex is a mooch.

Personally, if I was in that situation, here’s how I’d go about it:

  1. Research Scotch whisky, and see what the main categories are. AFAIK (and I’m not a Scotch connoiseur), it’s based on where in Scotland it’s made. For example, Speyside whiskies are made along the banks of the Spey river in NE Scotland, Highland whiskies are made in the Highlands proper, Islay whiskies on the island of Islay in Western Scotland, and so forth.

  2. Then I’d look up what the archetypical brands/bottlings are for those geographic types. So for Speyside malts(whiskies), something like Glenlivet 12 year is supposedly pretty representative. And I’d figure that out for all the various regions.

  3. Then finally, I’d go and find a bar or bars that have those bottles. I’d be flexible; maybe have 2-3 from each region, so I didn’t have to hunt down some kind of unicorn. I’d try them all- maybe keep notes, definitely NOT do it in one sitting.

  4. Once I’ve accomplished that, I figure I’d be able to express some kind of opinion- like Speysides over Islays, or vice-versa. And once that’s figured out, maybe go get a bottle or two of your preferred kind and explore the differences between them. Or maybe a bottle each from your two most favorite.

Or just keep going to the bar and trying different stuff in the general direction of what you liked from your initial survey.

I started learning about it at a MaltCon (a series of whiskey tasting parties at SF conventions). They had samples of the different styles, and of many different brands where you can take a sip and decide what you like. I’d write my favorites down and try them out.

The first whisky I tasted (at a renaissance faire) was Laphroaig. It was the only whisky I’d drink for a lot of years. I liked the taste of peat.

Now Jimmy didn’t like his place in this world of ours
Where the elephant man broke strong men’s necks
When he’d had too many powers

I like Maker’s Mark (though I know it isn’t single-malt scotch). I keep wanting to try Knob Creek. Have done when the company’s buying. But I don’t want to buy it myself and then find out it’s not as good as Maker’s Mark. (OTOH, it might be better; in which case that would be a good thing.) I like Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey, which I think tastes like bourbon. But then I like Trader Joe’s bourbon too, so…

Knob Creek is basically Jim Beam with a couple more years under its belt and a prime selection of barrels. I like it more than Maker’s, and I like Maker’s. Jack Daniels is bourbon, no matter what they say. The other Tennessee whiskey (Dickel) has started calling themselves bourbon on their label. Trader Joe’s bourbon is sourced from Buffalo Trace, although not distilled at their main site.

I don’t want to derail this single-malt thread, so I’ve replied here: It’s time for some bourbon/whiskey recommendations - Cafe Society - Straight Dope Message Board

I came here to recommend Whiskey Tribe review videos. They are a hoot and I watch FAR more than I drink.

But my other recommendation is to check for small bottles at your liquor store. Not everything is available in a small bottle, but some good stuff is and you can try 10 things for the price of a single large bottle.

Also, this is about coffee, but I think it’s relevant:

  1. Buy this book:

  2. Search for tastings in your area, or places that pour flights. Taste, read the descriptions to acquire sensitivity and vocabulary, and write your own notes. I was shocked to discover that Tormore had tastes of fudge and artichoke, as the Jackson book described. I wouldn’t have though to characterize it that way, but it was absolutely accurate.

  3. Go to Edinborough and buy a good samplng of miniatures. Have someone at the Scotch Whisky Experience tell you in what order you should try them. If you’re more hardcore, walk/be driven to the Malt Whisky Trail to try several distilleries.