When it comes to whiskey, the choices are endless. Scotch, bourbon, rye, Japanese whiskey and more give whiskey drinkers a wide range of styles to explore. With options can come uncertainty, however. Maybe you’ve had a bad experience with rye in the past, or tasted an expensive bourbon that you liked but didn’t want to shell out for a bottle. Or maybe you stayed away from the category altogether for one reason or another.
The good news is that there is a whiskey to suit almost every taste bud, every style and every budget. If you’re enjoying a glass of whiskey but aren’t sure where to start, it might be time to seek advice from the pros.
We asked nine bartenders to reflect on which whiskeys they think would be great starting points for those curious about the category. These are the whiskeys that tell a story, help educate consumers and appeal to a variety of palates. Read on for their picks.
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The best whiskey for beginners, according to bartenders:
- four roses
- Elijah Craig
- bison track
- Larceny Bourbon
- Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond
- Glenmorangie Golden Nectar
- Macallan 18
- Toki Suntory
“For someone just starting to navigate the whiskey world, Four Roses is by far the best place to start. It ticks all the boxes for a value bourbon. It’s very reasonably priced, widely available, incredibly easy to drink, and has enough flavor to shine in any cocktail application. At least five years old and posting 80 proofs, it outperforms many of its peers around the $20 mark. —Anthony Belculfini, bartender, Animae, San Diego
“I would say Elijah Craig. It’s a great sipping bourbon and great for mixing up but doesn’t break the bank. —Ivy Mix, co-founder, Speed Rack; co-owner, Leyenda & FIASCO! Wines & Spirits; author, “Spirits of Latin America”, NYC
“I think Buffalo Trace is an amazing bourbon for people who are just starting out on the love bourbon highway. Buffalo Trace is silky smooth and very easy to sip. Subtle notes of brown sugar, caramel and vanilla allow this approachable bourbon to be used in any of your favorite cocktail recipes. Easy, airy and delicious. —Bob Peters, Beverage Manager, CocktailClass.com, Charlotte, NC
“Buffalo Trace, hands down. It goes down smoothly and isn’t too sweet, so it works well with cocktails and classic cocktails. The fact that you can take Buffalo Trace shots and create a balanced cocktail makes it the best for beginners. —Deniseea Taylor, mixologist, @chickenandchampagne, New Orleans
“An excellent beginner’s whiskey is the Larceny Bourbon, which is made with a fair amount of wheat. Wheat bourbons tend to have a sweeter, easier-drinking profile, which is one of the main reasons for Maker’s Mark’s popularity. Larceny is good for the same reason, but I find the flavor profile to be a little more balanced than Maker’s, making it a good entry point into bourbons in general. And you can usually find it for a few dollars less off the shelf. —Harry Jamison, general manager, a.kitchen+bar, Philadelphia
“For a whiskey that provides a beginner with a lot of information and knowledge about a whiskey product, I would recommend Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond. It is a rye bourbon, which means by definition that it is composed of at least 51% rye. The BIB designation requires brands to pass many rigorous hurdles. The spirit must be aged for at least four years and bottled at precisely 100 degrees. It must be produced by a single distiller from the same distillery in one season, then aged in a bonded warehouse. He must also be at least four years old. It is a rye that makes a delicious stirred, shaken or stretched drink. —Lauren Paylor, bartender, Silver Lyan; Owner and COO, Focus on Health, Washington, DC
“The first time I opened a bottle of Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or, I knew by the warm, honeyed aromas of vanilla and maple that this would be the first Scotch whiskey I could truly enjoy. And despite being extraordinarily smooth, Nectar d’Or was the Trojan horse for all the delicious characteristics of the most peated Scotch I now love. With a fruity caramel palate and chocolate finish, I would wholeheartedly recommend it to the bartender who believes they may never overcome their fear of scotch like I once did. —Jessica King, owner and operator, Brother Wolf, Knoxville, Tenn.
“The best whiskey for beginners might not be what most want to hear, because it’s going to be on the top shelf. Whiskey can have a gnarly bite if you look at the cheaper mainlines like a Jack or a Maker’s, and it won’t be a pleasant experience if this is your first introduction to brown juice. The top shelf will have aged longer and softened the finish that a beginner would typically balk at. If you’re going for an upper shelf, go for an American bourbon like Weller – which will have a soft, sweet finish – or an oak-aged Scotch like Macallan 18. The only other avenue I’d suggest if you can’t walk the bill would start shooting the Fireball or the Skrewball. —Scott Slater, Bar Founder, Understory, San Diego
“For Japanese whisky, I would say Suntory Toki. It is a blended whiskey from the three Suntory distilleries: Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita. I like the sweet malt throughout the flavor profile. It’s also crisp and citrusy, with lighter notes of honey and golden raisins. It’s great for a highball, Old Fashioned, any beginner whiskey cocktail, or on a big rock. —Lynnette Marrero, co-founder, Speed Rack; Bar Manager, LLama Inn & LLama San, NYC