Once upon a time, whisky did not like me. The basics steps to drinking are simple enough: check the colour, swirl the glass, take a sniff, then take a sip. Yet it seemed like anything labelled “whisky” smelt and tasted the same: like nose-piercing nail varnish that stings my throat.
I found out there wasn’t anything wrong with my nose or my tongue. The main reason I could not fully appreciate whisky was because I wasn’t trying enough varieties of whisky.
First-time whisky drinkers simply lack the vocabulary in their minds to identify various flavours of whisky. There is nothing in their minds to compare the current whisky with. Asking a first-time whisky drinker to identify specific flavours in the whisky is akin to asking an alien to identify a housecat.
You would not be able to pick out all the nuanced notes in your first dram of single malt unless you start tasting a variety of whiskies. To that end, here are three whiskies with different flavour profiles to get you acquainted with the world of whiskies and kick start your whisky adventure. One friendly Japanese, one robust Scotch and one smoky Islay-style whisky.
1. The Friendly, Floral Japanese: Yamazaki 12 Years Old
First up, we recommend starting your whisky journey with a highly approachable dram. The Yamazaki 12 is something almost everyone growing up in Asia would recognise. One of Suntory’s flagship whisky expressions, the Yamazaki has become something of a timeless classic in the realm of whiskies (within Japan and around the world). As our writer @111hotpot noted, any authentic Japanese Izakaya worth its salt would have a wall decorated with rows of Yamazaki bottles. Any seasoned whisky drinker worth his salt would also have tried a dram of Yamazaki at some point of his life.
So how does it taste?
The Yamazaki 12 is an elegant and wonderfully well-balanced whisky that is lighter-bodied (as many modern Japanese whiskies are), delicately-flavoured, approachable and crucially, easier on the beginner’s palate.
After pouring yourself a dram of Yamazak 12, look out for the very fragrant honeyed, fruity and delicate floral aromas of plumerias, jasmines and frangipanis.
As you sip the Yamazaki, notice the light body of the whisky with vibrant notes of tropical fruits.
This is followed by very light and fragrant wisps of incense smoke. This gentle smoky note is due to maturation of the whisky in special Mizunara oak casks.
Feel free to check out our full review of the Yamazaki 12.
2. The Robust, Oily Scotch: Springbank 12 Years Old Cask Strength
After some quiet reflection in Yamazaki’s Zen monastery, it is time for your palate to experience the lively and robust flavours of a classic Scotch whisky.
Now, new whisky drinkers may be more familiar with brands such as Macallan and Glenfiddich due to their disproportionate and out-sized marketing budgets. Springbank barely spends any money on marketing its brand. Yet, amongst Scottish distilleries and whisky enthusiasts, Springbank Distillery has been hailed as modern day purists who continue to make Scotch whisky in a traditional style that is typical of Scotch whiskies made in the 1960’s. To learn all about how Springbank gets its flavour profile, read all about the distillery’s unusual story in our distillery write-up here.
So how does it taste?
This bottle of Springbank would taste a little stronger than the Yamazaki. It is a very rich-textured and robustly-flavoured dram with a thicker and more viscous (or oily) texture, with honeyed, malty flavours and a note of dried raisins and plum.
You would also notice that the dried fruit notes are balanced by some faint brininess, minerality and a very light but distinctive smell of motor oil from a petrol station.
Feel free to read our full review of the Springbank 12.
3. The Barbecued Islay Whisky: Port Charlotte 2010, OLC: 01
Finally, to complete their initiation, every new whisky drinker is highly encouraged to try a heavily peated whisky made in the Scottish Islay region. Port Charlotte is one of three brands of whiskies released by Bruichladdich Distillery in Islay.
So how does it taste?
This 9 Year Old Port Charlotte that was finished in an Oloroso Cask is a great example of a smoky Islay-style whisky with a very flavoursome element of sherry. The whisky is very smoky and yet well-balanced by the nuttiness and dried fruit elements from the Oloroso cask.. This is also the strongest-flavoured of the three whiskies recommended in this article- so brace yourself and take smaller sips!
As you pour yourself a dram, notice an immediate aroma of hefty sooty smoke reminiscent of an outdoor barbecue. The aroma then turns towards brighter notes of fruits such as plums, apricots and candied orange. You many not get much apart from smoke from this dram initially. Due to its substantial smoke and 55.1% ABV I would highly recommend letting this dram sit for about 3 minutes before sipping it – because this allows a bit of alcohol to evaporate, and more subtle layers of flavour to really unfold.
When you finally sip the dram, notice still very intense leading notes of smoke, ash, tobacco and leather.
This is then joined by a bright and mild dark fruit sweetness reminiscent of cherry jam and raisins.
Feel free to check out our full review of the Port Charlotte OLC Cask.
Stay tuned for more recommendations!
And there we have it- the 3 styles of whiskies that every beginner should be familiar with. As is already evident, there is more to whisky than just barley and alcohol. The whisky-making process is subject to numerous levers that can drastically affect its flavour profile and texture, allowing for the creation of fragrant and floral Yamazaki expressions on one hand, and rich and smoky Port Charlotte expressions on the other.
Beyond these classic categorisations, the world of whiskies is yet more diverse. There are extremely old and rare vintage bottles that spark the envy of aficionados, and recently, quaint and unusual cask-maturation styles that provoke and intrigue. Rum-cask Talisker anyone? Fancy a Pinot Noir-finished Ardbeg? Stay tuned to this space for further notes on bottles that all whisky drinkers must know about.