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A glass of whiskey on a wooden table in which poured whiskey from a bottle. In the background are four glasses of whiskey, a full bottle of whiskey and a wooden bottle stopper.

How to tell good whiskey from bad

By Dan Cole on 11th September 2019

According to market reports, the global whiskey market is worth the best part of 60bn US Dollars per annum. From traditional production in the Scottish Highlands to the fledgling, but impressive, distilleries of Japan – ‘fire water’ is truly a global industry these days – which is exciting for the whiskey connoisseur.

But, what if you’re not a whiskey aficionado just yet? How, in 2019, does one decide from the plethora of whiskey styles, and brands, to try first? And, more importantly, how would you know if it’s any good?

Have no fear – the team of whiskey-lovers at Luxury Lifestyle Magazine have cobbled together our best advice to help you begin your journey to your favourite brew, and away from basement-level bourbon.

Moscow, Russia - April 24 2018: Jack Daniels whiskey bottle and glass with ice cubes on an iron grating. Jack Daniels is a famous whiskey brand and the best-selling American whiskey in the world
The global whiskey market is worth the best part of 60bn US Dollars per annum. Image credit: artkivshar/Bigstock.com

Don’t just reach for the top shelf

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first; it is not as easy as simply heading to the local liquor purveyor and reaching for the bottle with the highest price. If it were, you would not be reading this article.

That is not to say, though, that the price should be ignored, but a great deal of whiskey is subjective. A brew can be more expensive to produce, contain better ingredients and have a more experienced hand behind it, but if you do not enjoy the flavour profile – its feasible that you could prefer the cheap stuff. After all, one man’s perfect blend is another’s worst nightmare.

Often, the price attached to a whiskey comes down to a few factors: quality of ingredients, longer aging period and a smaller production run. These all impact the quality of experience, somewhat, but not exclusively. However, there are also a number of expensive production procedures which directly impact the flavour of the product – which may be more important to you.

These include the combination of grains, the age and type of barrel used, and the alcohol content. Many of the cheaper brands have their alcohol percentage watered down – literally – by just adding water. This reduces the potency of the product, but also cheapens it significantly.

barman pouring whiskey in front of whiskey glass and bottles on wood table
Most people choose their whiskies by their age

These are all factors to bear in mind when selecting your whiskey – but, ultimately, does not help a novice pick their poison. Ultimately, this cannot be done with any level of confidence unless you begin to build your personal preference profile. Over time, you will begin to learn what you enjoy from a whiskey – its age, strength, blend, and even distilling technique – which leads us onto our second point.

Whiskey flights

Don’t worry, we’re not suggesting that you disappear on an airplane to some far-flung distillery (although, if that is an option for you, count us in!), ‘whiskey flights’ is a term used to describe the experience of sampling a selection of brews from a particular location, or distillery.

If you want to identify your own personal ‘good’ and ‘bad’ whiskeys, you need to get stuck in. While a large collection of whiskey bottles might make for interesting dinner conversation, it’s probably impractical, not to mention wasteful, to simply stock up on dozens of bottles in the hope that one, eventually, might hit the spot.

Glass of whiskey with natural ice and cigar on old wooden table.
Whiskey is made from fermented grain mash

Fortunately, sampling the thousands of whiskeys on the market is a thoroughly enjoyable experience – and there are plenty of ways to go about it. There are a number of fantastic whiskey pubs in the UK, particularly in metropolitan areas, which serve select menus of the world’s leading fire waters.

While you’re there, say, at the London Metropole, which has an exclusive whiskey bar serving some of the world’s finest drams, ask your server to talk you through the subtle differences in each selection of drinks. The majority of these venues are staffed by qualified whiskey sommeliers, who know their subject as well as anyone on the planet.

If you prefer your whiskey experience in a more solitary setting, you can replicate the effect of taking a whiskey flight at home, by ordering tasting set samples from reputable online purveyors like the Whisky Exchange or Master of Malt. A number of tasting sets are available, each built around a specific theme, allowing you to work your way through a number of whiskeys, iron out your preference, and then order bigger bottles of your favourite brew.