Filling Out Your Whiskey Shelf
By Andrew Owen
One of the most common questions I encounter is from people who are just getting into whiskey, or have decided to expand their horizons after drinking only the same couple whiskeys. The question is often phrased, "What are some good whiskeys for a beginner?" "I'm new to whiskey. What should I start out with?" "I've always been a bourbon drinker but I wanna try scotch. Where should I start?" If you really catch the enthusiast bug, you'll soon realize that you thrive on having a variety of whiskeys to choose, because you've discovered that NOT ALL WHISKEY TASTES THE SAME!
That's right, even though every whiskey shares a fundamental identity - grain, yeast, water, and time in oak - there is a surprisingly vast spectrum of whiskey profiles. Even within the bourbon industry, a bourbon made in Clermont can taste drastically different from one made in Bardstown. At this point in your whiskey journey, you aren't so much concerned with finding the *best* whiskey and never drinking anything besides it; instead you are much more concerned with exploring every kind of whiskey. Kind of like an adult Pokemon game. "Gotta catch 'em all" right? (you can scoff at that analogy but deep down you know you resonate with it!)
So now we have reached the main point of this article. How do I fill out my whiskey shelf (Don't kid yourself, someday it will probably turn into a cabinet. Or closet. Or garage.) so that it represents the different common whiskey types? Let me propose to you the same method I use when choosing which whiskey to buy next: Shelf Slots. When I look to buy a whiskey, I'm always looking to fill a specific shelf slot to make sure I have each category adequately represented. There are a plethora of whiskeys that can fit into each slot (some can fit into multiple) so it will be your job to explore, but I'll lay out the slots as well as some of my favorite examples of each.
Slot 1: The Mixer
This is your most basic bourbon (or rye) that you use for mixing cocktails or pouring on the rocks for friends who have no idea what they like. You're looking for a value pour here, but something preferably at least 100 proof that can hold its flavor as ice dilutes it.
My favorites: Old Granddad Bottled in Bond, Wild Turkey 101, Knob Creek Rye, Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond.
Slot 2: The Low Rye (or wheater)
This is your sweeter sipping bourbon. Rye tends to impart spicy or floral notes. The less rye you have in the mash, typically the sweeter the bourbon will be. Exchanging the rye for wheat often results in a sweeter bourbon as well.
My favorites: Buffalo Trace, Col. EH Taylor Small Batch, Rebel Yell 10 year single barrel, Weller 12 year, Henry McKenna 10 Year Single Barrel.
Slot 3: The High Rye
This is your spicier bourbon. By spicy, we aren't talking tabasco sauce. High rye bourbons often have a "baking spice" profile. Think cinnamon and nutmeg. If you like snickerdoodles or spice cake, try some high rye bourbons.
My favorites: Russell's Reserve, Four Roses Single Barrel, Old Forester 1920, Elmer T. Lee, Blanton's, Old Granddad 114.
Slot 4: The Tennessee
Without getting into the eternal argument of "is Tennessee whiskey bourbon?" (and it is, by the way), having Tennessee represented on your shelf is still appropriate, I think. Tennessee whiskeys are usually very high in corn content which makes them quite sweet, and the charcoal filtration they undergo can give them slightly smoky undertones.
My favorites: Jack Daniels Single Barrel Barrel Proof, George Dickel #12
Slot 5: The Barrel Proof Bourbon
For when you want to look ultra manly, or burn off a fine layer of skin from the inside of your mouth. In all seriousness, barrel proof whiskeys have the highest potential for maximum flavor, and many well made ones will actually have little burn.
My favorites: Bookers, Maker's Mark Private Cask, 1792 Full Proof, Four Roses Single Barrel Barrel Proof, Knob Creek 120 Proof Single Barrel.
Slot 6: The Rye
Rye whiskey seems to be the hot step-sister of the American whiskey scene right now (pardon that semi-inappropriate analogy). Despite their current popularity, ryes can really vary and some extra due diligence is needed to make sure you know what you're getting yourself into. Some taste like spicier bourbons, while others taste like you just walked into a greenhouse or stuck a pine cone in your mouth.
My favorites: Pikesville, Knob Creek Rye, Rittenhouse Rye, High West Rendezvous.
Slot 7: The Irish
Irish whiskey is in a renaissance of sorts, but the current market is still flush with too many watered down, chill filtered, and just bland blended whiskeys. Irish whiskey done right can be absolutely phenomenal, but those bottles can be few and far between.
My favorites: Redbreast 12 Year Cask Strength, Teeling Small Batch
Slot 8: The Islay
If I could only drink whiskey from one region for the rest of my life, I'd likely pick Islay. The little island off the west coast of Scotland is home to 9 distilleries and a surprisingly varied assortment of whiskies. Despite what you may think, not all Islay's are peated smoke monsters. Nonetheless, this shelf slot is for what Islay does best: peat.
My favorites: Laphroaig quarter cask, Bruichladdich Port Charlotte, Ardbeg 10 year, Kilchoman Machir Bay, Lagavulin 16.
Slot 9: The Islander
Islay is not the only whisky producing island around Scotland. Most of these other islands only have one or two distilleries on them, and they make some of the most unique whisky in the world, due to the unique climate or topographical features of each island. Many will combine inherent tropical fruit and maritime notes with peat peculiar to the island. Note that for convenience sake, I include Campbelltown in this slot, although its technically a peninsula.
My favorites: Springbank 15 year, Highland Park 18 year, Arran 14 year
Slot 10: The Talisker
While this should technically be in the island category (Talisker distillery sits on the isle of Skye) Talisker gets a slot of its own. Don't ask questions, just go get yourself a Talisker.
My favorite: Talisker 10 year, Talisker 18 year.
Slot 11: The Sherry Bomb
Now into the mainland of Scotland, and specifically the Speyside region, you'll find many whiskies aged full or partial term in fortified wine casks - most notably, sherry or port. These can be some of the most decadent whiskies around, with dense, sticky notes of raisin, plums, fig, and holiday spices.
My favorites: GlenDronach 12 Year, Glenfarclas 25 year, Glengoyne 21 Year, Tamdhu Batch Strength, Bunnahabhain 12 Year.
Slot 12: The Classic Speyside/Highlander
Here we are looking for a single malt that showcases well aged whisky in its purest and most unadulterated form. No wine cask or peat to override the more subtle characteristics of the malt and its surrounding environment. Whiskies in this slot will display notes of honey, vanilla, white fruits, oak, and florals.
My favorites: Balvenie 12 year First Fill ex-bourbon Single Barrel, Clynelish 14 year, Oban 14 year, Glencadam 15 year, Glenmorangie 18 year.
Slot 13: The Crowd Pleaser
You could call the last two slots optional (hell, you could call them all optional). The crowd pleaser is the scotch you give your guests who know nothing about scotch so they don't drain your high end stuff. But this shouldn't be rot gut. It should still be something you can pour for yourself when you want a nice easy sipper with minimum thinking required. I prefer blended scotches here, as I've found a few blends in the $30-45 range that are vastly superior to single malts in the same price range.
My favorites: Compass Box Great King Street Artist's Blend, Glengoyne 10 Year, Arran 10 Year, Compass Box Oak Cross, Monkey Shoulder.
Slot 14: The Splurge
This could be any style of whiskey, but you deserve to treat yourself to a splurge bottle every now and then. This can fall into whatever price range you personally consider a splurge. Believe me, whiskey is way better at being high priced than you are at having too much money to spend. Find something special TO YOU and enjoy it.
Some of my favorite splurges have been: Compass Box Flaming Heart 15th Anniversary, Springbank 19 year Fresh Port Cask, Wild Turkey Decades, Lonach Bunnahabhain 25 year.
One important thing to note here, is that there are so many options available at any price point for each slot. If you have questions about how to fill a slot within a certain price range, let me know! And please know, this is a beginner's guide to building a comprehensive portfolio of whiskeys on the shelf. I'll admit, my current whiskey cabinet looks nothing like this anymore (it's got about 60 slots at this point, with multiples in a most slots). But fear not, overwhelmed beginner. There's a vast world of whiskey at your fingertips. Let this help propel you into it with enthusiasm!
All thoughts and opinions expressed are original to the author of the review or article. We are in no way paid to express any specific opinion about any specific company or product.