23 July, 2020
How to Shop for Whisky
I get asked all of the time: “How do I shop for a good whisky?” The short answer: it depends. It’s like asking a bookworm how to pick out a good book. It depends on what you’ve already read and what’s available in the store. It depends on the genres you like and your mood. It depends on recommendations from other bookworms.
We probably agree that reading is a relatively non-intimidating activity. Whisky, on the other hand, has a reputation of being an exclusive boys club. But, did you know women are actually better at tasting whisky than men (maybe this is why they don’t want us in their exclusive club)? We can pinpoint the different tasting notes in whisky because we are traditionally baking and cooking and enjoying perfumes and candles, and therefore are exposed to more scents and flavors than men. It’s unfortunate the whisky’s “boys club” stereotype exists, but I’m hoping to change that perception and that, after reading this, you will feel confident picking out a whisky to try.
Step 1: Know your palate
If you’ve never had or enjoyed a whisky before, you might be thinking “this lady is crazy, how would I know that?”, but stay with me here. Think about the flavors of your go-to desserts, wines and coffees and the scents of your favorite candles. Do you go for rich and decadent or light and fruity? Do you like bitter chocolate or vanilla and honey? What about smoky and earthy? Floral and perfumey? Does oak, sandlewood or pine strike your fancy? Believe it or not, you can find all of these characteristics in whisky.
Luckily, most whisky labels will outline the tasting notes. For example, a typical peated Islay Scotch will probably say “smoky, dark chocolate and black pepper,” whereas a Speyside Scotch might mention notes of “fruits, honey and cinnamon.” If you’re choosing between the two, you should consider whether you enjoy s'mores at a bonfire or berry granola at brunch.
Step 2: Ask for recommendations
Don’t be afraid to ask someone working at the liquor store about specific whiskies or the different types of whiskies on shelves. Many of them are familiar with, and probably have tried, the whisky you’re asking about. They can be an excellent resource to help find something you’ll like.
I recommend finding a liquor store with helpful staff that you can become a regular. It’s like finding your favorite good coffee shop. The barista knows your order, and when there’s a new coffee drink on the menu, they’ll suggest it if they think you’ll enjoy it. The same thing happens when you find “your” liquor store. Keep in mind, it can take a few tries to find the right shop for you. And if you find yourself in a store that is not all that helpful, you have a handheld computer in your pocket that will give you details and reviews of any whisky you’re curious about.
Step 3: Take your time
To this day, I have never been able to walk into a liquor store and purchase a bottle (or two or three) in less than 30 minutes. I find it necessary to take time to survey what's available and narrow down my selection. Even when I have a very clear idea of what I’m there to buy, there are other bottles that may catch my eye. For me, it could be a whisky that I’ve never seen or heard of, or it could just have a label I think is cool (yes, I have purchased whisky because I thought the label was pretty). I allow myself to take the time to read the labels to decide if it would be something I’d like to try.
Step 4: Have fun
Yes, it’s cheesy. But there’s a lot of joy in picking out a new whisky, bringing it home, sharing it with friends and appreciating all the nuances. Remember when we had to buy CDs? You could read about the band on the cover, look at the artwork, imagine based off the genre what the album sounded like, but you couldn’t always sample the tracks. You have to make a judgement based off of the information you have. It’s rare to be able to try the whisky in the store, so there’s always an element of unknown. But the anticipation is exciting. Once you’ve made your choice, just like music, there’s a chance you may not like it right away, and that’s okay. Your appreciation for its symphony may grow with time.