The beginner's guide to enjoying whisky

Whisky claimed another victim over the weekend. It was a Saturday night, bleak and cold, when five men walked into the bar where I work. After slowing adjusting to the space and its warmth, they eventually reached the bar where one of the burliest among them barked – "Five Lagavulin's please".

I promptly poured five glasses of the smoky, leathery Islay whisky, and then noticed the eyes of one of the men widen with panic. As the glass was handed to him, he began searching for a way to change or protest the order. 

But it was too late, and when he timidly brought the glass to his nose his head lurched back in horror at the hellfire in his hand. In an attempt to save him, I asked if they'd like some water on the side, but the burly leader refused. He was on his own now.

Eventually, he took a sip when the group was distracted, and I couldn't help but laugh a little when the poor bugger grimaced in anguish. 

With so many whiskies and whisky bars now arriving on the scene, it's sometimes worth remembering that learning to enjoy whisky is a bit of a process. Some people can dive straight into the deep end and revel in the depth and intensity of flavour. Others need to take a more gradual approach.

So unless you were born a Ron Swanson, here's a quick rundown on how to get there.

1. Mix it up

This is where we all begin the journey. If what you want, really, is a whisky that doesn't taste like whisky, then a mixer is what you're after. Coke and ginger ale are the most helpful assistants, but a whisky highball (whisky and soda) is refreshing, delicious and enjoyed by beginners and experts alike as you can still find many of the flavours in the whisky.

To put things in perspective, the vast majority of whisky consumed around the world is taken mixed – many whiskies are designed specifically for the purpose. So don't let anyone give you crap about it. But think twice if it's an old, rare, or special dram – many whiskies are also designed to fly solo.

2. The whisky cocktail

There are umpteen whisky cocktails out there, and lots of amazing bartenders around to make them for you. From approachable options like a whisky sour, penicillin, or a blood and sand, to more robust and spirit forward numbers like manhattans and sazeracs.


One of the best things about whisky cocktails is how versatile they can be when you play around with the whisky. The popular old fashioned is handy in this regard. I've made tasty old fashioneds with hundreds of different American and Scottish whiskies, and changing it up is a great way to see what styles of whisky you might enjoy.

3. On the rocks

Some consider it sacrilege to put ice in your whisky. Nevertheless, it's incredibly popular, especially when the Japanese bring their artistic precision to the party. But this one comes down to personal preference.

Ice will dilute and lower the temperature of the whisky making it harder for you to interpret its flavours. Yet many of us really enjoy drinking whisky on the rocks. So if you've paid good coin for a dram, I say, drink it however you like.

4. Neat and peat

To discover whisky's endless array of flavours, neat or with a touch of water is certainly the way to go. You'll be able to compare and contrast styles of whisky like scotch and bourbon, Japanese or Australia; you'll encounter different casks, age statements, even no age statements, and begin to understand their influence.

Eventually, you'll run into peated whisky as well, and as I've shown before, you might grow to either love or detest the style. Once you've broadened your portfolio, there are so many different expressions to try and experience, and agreements and arguments to be had about what you enjoy most, and why.

5. The real deal

Finally, you have the whiskies that the most handsome and tasteful aficionados swear by: non-chill filtered, cask strength, no added colouring. If you're wondering what the hell any of that means, here's the lowdown: a whisky bottled at its natural strength hasn't been diluted with water after being removed from the cask, so it might range anywhere from 50-73 per cent alcohol by volume depending on factors like age, quality of the cask, and climate.

When you see 'natural colour' on the bottle it indicates that caramel colouring, a common additive used to standardise the colour between different batches, hasn't been added to the whisky.

As for chill-filtration, across the majority of the industry, whisky is chilled and then filtered before bottling in order to prevent consumers from freaking out when a cloudy haze forms if the whisky is cooled down, like, say, if some ice is dropped in. Mostly, if the spirit is chill filtered, the bottle won't tell you about it. But if they don't, you'll normally see 'un-chillfiltered' displayed like a badge of honour.

The use of these methods and their perceived or imagined effect on the flavour of a whisky is hotly debated among various brigades of pedants. Suffice it to say, if you get to this stage and you can moralise about the pros and cons of these techniques and rattle off some of the spectacular whiskies they produce, you're well on your way and there's probably no stopping you.

What's your preferred way to enjoy whisky? Let us know in the comment section below. 

A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment.