In this installment of our whisky guide, we’re going to focus on how to buy whisky at the store and online. In past guides, we’ve covered Scotch for Beginners, how it’s made, how to properly drink it and the various regions, as well as many other aspects of whisky.
More often than not, walking into a liquor store and asking for a whisky recommendation from the salesman is like the blind leading the blind. In most cases – but not all – the people working at the liquor store have minimal expertise and knowledge about the products they’re selling. They might have some very basic understanding, but for the most part, they’re a jack of all trades and a master of none.
Occasionally, liquor stores will have product advisors that do specialize in a specific spirit, but for the most part, this is wine and not whisky. The first rule of buying a bottle of Scotch in a general liquor store is, don’t ask for help.
Why shouldn’t you ask for help?
Because most salespeople at the store level will lead you to one of three types of products.
1. The most popular bottles.
If you don’t mind overpriced, meretricious whisky from a grossly over-rated and feverishly inadequate distillery, then by all means take their advice. But keep in mind that Budweiser and Big Macs are also popular. It doesn’t mean they’re any good.
Picking a bottle based on its popularity is a recipe for disaster. Popularity is determined by the widest number of drones who shop for their produce at Walmart and call the Olive Garden an authentic Italian restaurant. There is no guarantee of quality by sticking with what’s popular and alcoholics are the biggest spenders at liquor stores, yet they typically are buying the least expensive products.
2. The most expensive bottles.
If the employees at your local liquor store receive any commission or bonus when they make a sale, you can expect that it’s possible they may try and sell you the most expensive bottles on the shelf. After all, as soon as you mention the word Scotch, their ears perk up because – as a product group – it’s one of the most expensive spirits sold in most stores. If you’re new to whisky, and you admit it, you run the risk they might try and steer you into assuming a more expensive bottle means a better bottle. This isn’t always the case. As a new whisky drinker, you need to walk before you run. Certainly, a 30-year-old bottle of whisky will look good in your bar and may be enjoyed by many, but it also might be too potent for your palate. I would take a bottle of 18 Year Highland Park over a bottle of Lagavulin 1976 any day of the week. Instead of focusing on price, you should be looking at the other factors which will indicate strength, flavor profile and the amount of peat or smoke you can expect.
3. Their favorite bottle.
The next type of whisky most salesmen will suggest, is the one they know the most about which is usually a personal favorite. This can be a devastating waste of money. I once walked into a liquor store and without asking if I needed help, the product consultant said, “If you’re looking for a great Scotch, try the Jim Beam” and pointed to the white label on the shelf. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. It was his first day and he was genuinely trying. It turned out he doesn’t even drink alcohol, but his roommate keeps a bottle of Beam in the freezer. Another time, I was at a wedding where the only options for whisky were Ballantine’s and Crown Royal. Somehow, the bartender picked up on the fact I enjoyed whisky. “Do you want to try an amazing Scotch?” he asked me, his hand covering his mouth like it was a secret. “Sure,” I said. He stepped away from the bar and into a back room and came back with a bottle hidden behind his back like my four-year-old when she’s giving me my Father’s Day gift.
“Are you ready for this?” he said, trying to stir up some excitement.
That’s when he pulled a bottle of Glenlivet 12 from behind his back. Like the kid at the liquor store, I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. In fact, he proceeded to try and argue with me that Glenlivet 12 is one of the best whiskies ever made. I suppose he’s entitled to an opinion. Glenlivet isn’t necessarily a bad whisky. But it’s certainly not the best.
So how can you walk into a liquor store and find a whisky that’s right for you?
A Shelf of Possibilities
Most liquor stores that aren’t part of a local grocery store will have a relatively large selection of whisky. In most cases, they will have the whiskies clearly labelled by style. There will be a section for bourbon, a section for Canadian, a place for Irish whisky and of course, a throne for the Scotch whisky.
Seeing so many bottles can be a little overwhelming. Most of us will immediately go for our phones in search of reviews and recommendations, but that only gives us the most popular choices. Sure, you’d probably have better luck asking the elderly gent beside you for a suggestion than the kid behind the counter, but he might be partial to Islay whiskies that you find too strong.
So here is how you can find whisky as you start your journey.
- Do some research ahead of time. Instead of reading customer reviews, read critic reviews like the ones we publish here or articles in other leading magazines. Understand, though, that these articles are written by people like myself who try new whiskies every day and make a living tasting them. In most articles, the whiskies recommended are geared towards seasoned whisky aficionados. Always seek out articles intended for beginners.
- If you’ve tried a whisky in the past that you liked, consider something else from the same region. The flavor profile will be unique, but the strength won’t generally be significantly different.
- Read the labels. Look for words that give you an indication of strength and flavor. If the label indicates, it’s a smoky or peaty whisky you can expect something fairly full bodied. If it advertises it as being gentle or light, that’s a good bet it’s a great whisky for beginners. Even little things like whether it was aged in American Oak casks or Sherry casks can give you an understanding of the flavors you can expect to find. If you are going to research the bottle, instead of looking for reviews from customers saying the liked it or hated it, look at the descriptions of the nose, palate and finish to determine whether you will enjoy it.
- Push yourself. There is no such thing as a bad whisky. Don’t be afraid to buy a bottle you won’t like. It just means it’s a great whisky to serve to friends or to trade for another. When you first begin building a whisky bar, try to find bottles that aren’t all from the same region. I often suggest new whisky drinkers avoid the strength of the Islay drams at first, but many of our readers contend that it’s the strength of the peat and the smoke that got them hooked. Don’t be afraid to explore.
- Visit whisky bars and festivals. Most critics like myself avoid these places like the plague, but when you’re new to the dram, it can be a great opportunity to sample a selection of whisky you may otherwise not have the chance to try.
- Keep notes. Buy yourself a notebook (click here if you like a double width book) or download one of the many whisky apps such as libations for your phone or tablet. Make sure it is suited to Whisky so you can record peaty flavors on the flavor wheel, otherwise, it is pointless for Scotch. Every time you try a new whisky, take some notes if you enjoyed or even if you didn’t. Most apps offer the ability to take a picture of the bottle which makes it that much easier to identify when you’re looking for it in store. If you do need help to find a bottle, you can show the image to the clerk and ask for their help finding it, rather than having them recommend one.
Asking For Help
At some point, you may want an opinion, and as much as I argue that opinions can’t be trusted, sometimes it’s nice to know what others recommend.
If you do feel the desire to ask for help, do so by using very specific phrases. Instead of saying “can you recommend a bottle of Scotch?” try saying “I really like this whisky. Can you recommend something similar to it that’s under $100?”
When they do offer a suggestion, probe. Ask why they recommend it, if they drink it themselves and what they like about it. These three questions can give you a lot of information. Here are a few examples:
Why do you recommend it?
Because it’s very similar to the other one you like and it’s from the same region.
This tells you that they understand the basics and are giving you advice they believe is solid)
Do you drink it yourself?
Actually no, but my father-in-law does, and he’s from Scotland. He drinks Scotch every night and is part of a tasting club.
This shows you that it’s quite possibly a very good whisky, but it’s enjoyed by someone who has been drinking Scotch for quite some time. Be careful to ensure it’s not a dram you’ll find overpowering.
What do you like about it?
I love rum, and this bottle of Balvenie reminds me of the sipping rums because it has a lot of similar flavor profiles.
They’ve given you a clear indication of what they enjoy about the dram. If you also like rum, you might want to try it. On the other hand, if you can’t stand rum, you may want to avoid it.
Take the information they give you and then probe some more. If you don’t provide them with the information they need, how can they possibly recommend something you’ll enjoy?
Stick with safe zones.
If you’re new to whisky, consider sticking with the highlands and lowlands at first. The label should indicate where the whisky is distilled. If you don’t recognize the location, pull up a map on your phone to check. In general, the highlands and lowlands are some of the best drams for beginners whereas the Islays can be a little strong and almost medicinal for many people who haven’t developed their palate.
Start Small & Try Many Whiskies
When whisky goes on sale, it usually means it’s a promotion or they’re overstocked and trying to get rid of some stock. Many people assume that this means it’s not a good whisky, but the term good is another word for popular. My nephew just started getting into whisky and made the mistake of buying some older, more expensive whiskies that he saw in my bar or thought would impress me.
What matters the most is what you like, and every person’s taste buds are different. Therefore, you have to try to understand what kind of characteristics and flavors your like. There is no right or wrong!
Therefore, when you are building a collection, instead of spending $100 on one bottle, consider buying two less expensive bottles so you can try more for the same price. Once you’ve found a specific distillery, you can then start investing in some of their more expensive bottles. I have many bottles of whisky in my bar, but most of them are quite random. It’s fairly easy to tell which are my favorites when you see multiple bottles from the same distilleries.
Also, once you know that you like distinct aromas, it will become easier for you to verbalize what you like and dislike. For example, maybe you enjoy peaty whiskies the most, or maybe you hate strong smoke aromas. You simply have to figure out what you like, and whether a bottle is on sale or not has absolutely no impact on your tastebuds.
Buying whisky doesn’t have to be difficult. Most liquor stores will even let you sample a few drams to see what you prefer. As long as you do your research, take every recommendation with a grain of salt and are willing to try new things, you’ll find that buying whisky can become just as fun as drinking it. What are your favorite bottles and what would you recommend to a new whisky drinker?