How to Get Into Whisky Without Looking Like a Total Wanker

It's possible.
iStock / South_agency

To most people, whisky is simply a brown liquor that’s best mixed with Coke, thrown back as a shot or added to some kind of cocktail. To others, it’s a vast world full of different flavours, varieties and arguments about how they should be best enjoyed. Tell someone on the latter end of the spectrum that your favourite whiskey is Jack Daniel’s on the rocks and there’s a decent chance they’ll turn up their nose in disgust.


And that’s the thing about getting into whisky — the associated snobbery is both offputting and unwelcoming. How can I get into something if the people already in it will laugh at me? Or worse, how can I get into it without looking like a pretentious twat to everyone else? Well, luckily for you, it’s totally possible.

Here are a few things I wish I knew before I started exploring whisky that’ll keep the snobs off your back and anyone at the bar from thinking you’re a bit of a tosser.

Learn some of the basic lingo

There’s a lot of jargon in the whisky world and if you really wanna understand the spirit, there’s no way around it. Luckily, it’s not that hard to pick up once you understand the basics and it’ll save you from looking like a fool when ordering at a bar.

There are entire articles about this one point alone, so I won’t delve into specifics and turn this into something far longer than it needs to be, but I will absolutely point you in the right direction.

The video below is by a channel called Modern Rogue. It features Daniel Whittington, co-founder of The Whisky Marketing School, running the hosts through a lot of the basic concepts, from the difference between single malt and blended malt (the world-renowned Johnnie Walker is the latter), to why there’s sometimes an ‘e’ in the word whisky. (Note: I’ll be switching between these spellings according to the type of whisky I’m talking about. American and Irish use the ‘e’, most others don’t.)


Believe it or not, YouTube is actually a great place to learn a lot of the basics, so don’t be afraid to dive into the related videos after watching this one.

Learn what you like

Just as understanding the lingo will help you talk the talk, understanding how the main categories of whisky differ from one another will help you figure out what you like and what you don’t. Diving blindly into a heavily-peated scotch if you’re not into a smokey punch in the face is gonna be a bad time for your mouth.

Obviously, the best way to figure out what you like is by trying a wide variety of whisky, and the best way to truly understand how they differ from one another is to try them side-by-side. Hitting a whisky bar is a good way of doing this, but having a few bottles on hand you can come back to also helps.

Here are a few entry-level options I’d recommend checking out across some of the main categories of whisky.

Bourbon Whiskey

The whiskey casual drinkers probably have the most experience with. It’s an American whiskey that’s made from at least 51% corn and is usually sweet, with notes of caramel and vanilla. Maker’s Mark or Buffalo Trace are great places to start that also won’t break the bank.

Maker's Mark


Scotch is one of the biggest categories of whisky and contains a number of sub-categories within it, all with varying characteristics that are common in those regions. Legally, whisky can only be called Scotch if it’s produced entirely in Scotland, among a few other requirements. We’ll cover two notable regions.

Speyside Scotch — The region with the highest density of distilleries. Known for Scotches with a lot of fruity notes, many are matured in sherry casks. In terms of an easily accessible, approachable and affordable Speyside single malt, I’d suggest Glenfiddich 12.

glenfiddich 12

Islay Scotch — Islay is a group of islands off the coast of the Scottish mainland. Scotches from this region are usually (but not exclusively) heavily peated, which gives them a smokey, almost medicinal quality to the nose and palate. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but those who like it tend to really like it. In my opinion, Lagavulin 16 is the best Islay scotch I’ve tried so far and is a slightly friendlier entry into the category compared to something like Laphroaig 10, albeit, quite a bit more expensive.

Lagavulin 16

Irish Whiskey

Made in Ireland, as the name suggests, Irish Whiskey is often characterised by notes like shortbread, vanilla and caramel, among others. My favourite whiskey is an Irish — Redbreast 12 — and let me tell you, it’s a fantastic dram. If you’re looking for something a little cheaper, Teeling’s Single Grain is a great entry point into the category.

Teeling Single Grain Irish Whiskey

Japanese Whisky

With roots in Scotch Whisky, Japanese whisky has developed a reputation for being incredibly well-balanced and nuanced in its flavours. It can get pricey really quickly, but Suntory’s The Chita is a reasonably-priced bottle that’s great quality.

Suntory The Chita

Learn how to drink it

Snobs will tell you the best way is neat (in a glass on its own), but honestly, there are no rules. If you’re new to whisky and find the alcohol burns a bit much, then start out on the rocks (with ice) and work your way from there.

What I will say, however, is don’t mix anything worth more than a bottle of Jack Daniel’s with Coke (or any other soft drink for that matter). Look, I’m not your dad or anything, and I don’t wanna tell you how to live your life, but mixers dull down the flavour of whisky so much that you’re really just wasting money for no good reason beyond that price point.


All of that being said, I do think you will get the most out of whisky when you drink it neat. This doesn’t mean doing shots, this means sipping it and actually experiencing the flavours.

This video is one I highly recommend checking out and will guide you through how to drink whisky neat, among other ways. The most useful piece of advice I was given when starting out was to take the first sip like you’re sipping a really hot coffee.

Save the nerdiness for home

When you really start to get into whisky, the temptation to really nerd out over it is strong. All I’m saying here is that you don’t need to get weird about it in public. No one wants to see someone vigorously nosing a dram of whisky at the bar and shouting flavour notes into the ether.

Don’t be weird. Save it for home.

Just… Don’t be a wanker

Finally, just don’t be a pretentious twat about it. Be welcoming to newcomers. Teach them instead of laughing at them. One of the things I enjoy most about whisky is showing people how good it can actually be beyond a shot glass or mixed with Coke.

As Daniel Whittington said in one of those videos, “The best whisky is the whisky you like to drink, the way you like to drink it.” Remember that and you’ll be just fine.

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