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Whiskey for beginners: everything you need to get started

Whiskey for beginners: everything you need to get started

So, you want to try whiskey, eh? Excellent choice! And you’re in good company. Interest in distilled spirits continues to trend upward for both craft alcohol enthusiasts and distillers alike. As popularity for brown spirits continues to boom across the U.S., it’s natural for things to get confusing, particularly for those who are just beginning to dabble. What is whiskey made from? Is one way to drink it better than others? How can I slowly start to acquire a taste for whiskey? Because there are many complexities when it comes to whiskey, this complete and comprehensive guide will teach you all of the basics you need to know, as well as some standard whiskey drinks you can try. Without further ado, here’s your whiskey guide for beginners.

How whiskey is made 

Just three ingredients are needed to make whiskey: water, barley (or other types of grain) and yeast. The kind of grain used varies with the different types of whiskey being made, but all whiskeys need a small amount of malted barley to begin the fermentation process. The water you use for whiskey is often considered the most important factor in making a good whiskey. Clean, clear and free of bad-tasting impurities like iron are the driving factors in selecting water for whiskey. Because of the importance of water in how whiskey is made, a large number of distilleries are located next to a river or lake.

Different types of American whiskey

The U.S. government requires that all whiskeys, whether it’s bourbon, rye or Tennessee, include the following characteristics:

  • Made from grain mash
  • At least 80 proof when bottled
  • Aged in oak barrels (unless it’s corn whiskey)

Popular types of American whiskey are bourbon, rye and Tennessee whiskey. What separates bourbon from rye? And how does Tennessee differ from the two?

Bourbon 

  • Made from at least 51 percent corn
  • Overall taste is similar to toffee or a spicy oak

Rye whiskey

  • Made from at least 51 percent rye grain
  • Overall taste is very dry, spicy and grainy

Tennessee whiskey

  • Made in Tennessee from at least 51 percent corn, filtered through sugar-maple charcoal
  • Overall taste is clean, smooth and the closest to bourbon

Blended American whiskey

  • Usually only 20 percent straight whiskey and less quality than the above three
  • Overall taste varies by brand

Three Ways to Drink American Whiskey

If you want a taste that is just straight up booze, ordering your whiskey neat is the ticket. If that’s not your speed, there are three other ways to savor whiskey. Turn yourself into a connoisseur with these taste-testing rules for drinking. Even though there are many different types of whiskey to taste, these ways of drinking it can be applied to any kind.

On the Rocks

If you must add ice, bigger is better. Small cubes or chunks of ice will melt quickly, diluting your whiskey faster. A cube or two of fresh ice lets you enjoy the evolution of flavors as the ice melts. 

With a splash of water

There’s a reason water is a key ingredient in how whiskey is made. A splash of water releases hydrophobic (water repellent) elements in the liquor, which allows more aromas to come to the surface. At the same time it also lowers the alcohol content giving you more flavors to taste. 

In a cocktail

Novice whiskey drinkers may like this option the best as it eases them into acquiring a taste for the bold spirit. Trying a classic cocktail is also preferred for people who simply don’t like the taste of the whiskey by itself. 

Whiskey cocktails for beginners

Because the world of whiskey is constantly expanding, the list of the best cocktails to try also continues to grow. These are the tried-and-true cocktail recipes that have been around for ages and contribute to a well-rounded whiskey experience, perfect for beginners!

The Old Fashioned

Did you know the Old Fashioned is the country’s very first cocktail? It was born way back in the early 1800s in Louisville, Kentucky. However you like to enjoy yours (bourbon or rye, sugar or syrup, fruit or no fruit), the recipe has a boozy, whiskey flavor with the right hint of sweetness. 

  • 2 oz. rye whiskey
  • 1 tsp simple syrup
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Dash of water or club soda
  • Slice  and/or peel of orange

Directions: Combine the rye, simple syrup, bitters, water or club soda. Add ice and stir for 30 seconds. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass, twist the orange peel over the drink and then lightly brush the rim before dropping it in. 

The Boulevardier

No stranger to a Negroni? Then this recipe will look familiar. You’ll swap out gin in favor of bourbon and have the exact same drink. If you don’t enjoy an aggressively boozy cocktail, then you might want to sit this one out as a Boulevardier is assertive (and delicious). 

  • 1 oz. bourbon
  • 1 oz. sweet vermouth
  • 1 oz. campari

Directions: Combine all three parts into a mixing glass with ice. Stir thoroughly. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass and serve either neat or over ice.

The Whiskey Sour

If you’re new to whiskey, a whiskey sour is a great drink to start with. The lemon juice and syrup mellows out this beginner-friendly concoction, making it a crowd favorite when it comes to acquiring a taste for whiskey. The egg white adds texture vs. strong flavor making it optional for this whiskey cocktail recipe.  

  • 3 oz. bourbon
  • 2 oz. lemon juice
  • 1 oz. simple syrup
  • Dash of egg white 

Directions: Pour all ingredients into a shaker with plenty of ice. Give it a good shake. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass filled with ice. Pro tip: Add two ounces of club soda and you’ve got a John Collins cocktail. 

The Manhattan

This classic whiskey cocktail originated in, where else, New York. Winston Churchill’s mom was hosting a political party at the Manhattan Club in the 1870s when a guest suggested this genius mixture of spirits, or so the story goes. All we know is the Manhattan is the perfect recipe for beginners to learn the whiskey-soaked ropes. Plus, the recipe itself couldn’t be simpler: two ounces whiskey, one ounce sweet vermouth and two dashes of bitters. 

  • 2 oz. rye whiskey
  • 1 oz. sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

Directions: Pour all ingredients in a mixing glass with plenty of ice. Stir for 30 seconds. Strain into a coupe glass, neat, or into an Old Fashioned glass with ice. Garnish with a cherry (optional).  

In our humble opinion, the best way for beginners to enjoy whiskey is to try different types of small back whiskey. That’s where RackHouse Whiskey Club comes in. We’ll ship small batch craft whiskey made in the United States to your door so you can conveniently sip on the brown stuff and decide which is your favorite. You’ll go from a novice to a pro in no time at all!