The Beginner's Guide to Whisky

We get it. Whisky can be daunting.

There are so many 'rules', different brands and complicated jargon that it can be hard to know where to begin. At The Whisky Shop our mantra is 'unlocking the mystery of whisky' and we put it into practice every day. We help you tell whisky from whiskey, single malts from blends, Highlands from Lowlands, and much more.

But the most important thing is that you find something you like. And part of that is just knowing where to start. Read our quick guide for beginners and you'll be ordering like a pro in no time.

noun /ˈwɪ
A spirit distilled from grains, usually barley, corn, rye or wheat. Most legal definitions require a minimum time spent in wooden casks (3 years in the UK) and a minimum alcohol content of 40% by volume.

The Region

Whisky is often categorised by the place it was made. This is because different regions often produce different styles or flavour profiles of whisky.

Many other countries produce whisky, including England, Wales, Canada, India, Taiwan, Australia, France, Italy, Sweden and Israel, with new distilleries opening around the world every year.

whisky or whiskey?
Both spellings refer to the same thing, but just like colour and color, the UK and USA each have their own preferred spelling. In general whisky is produced in the UK, Canada, Japan, India and Europe, while whiskey is made in Ireland and the USA. There are exceptions (like Maker’s Mark from Kentucky, USA that takes the UK spelling) so don’t get too hung up on spelling!

The Style

This is where most get confused. Single malt, blend, blended malt, grain, bourbon, rye, single pot still, vatted malt, pure malt... the list is seemingly endless and utterly confounding.

All these styles of whisky are simply made up of different proportions of a specific type of grain.

Aside from these main styles of whisky, there are whiskies made from rye, wheat, and even quinoa!

There are a couple of outdated terms that still crop up every now and then, that you should look out for: 'vatted malt' and 'pure malt' simply mean blended malt, i.e. a blend of whisky from more than one distillery, produced from only malted barley; Canadian whisky is sometimes labelled 'rye whisky' even when produced from something else because historically the majority of Canadian whisky was produced from rye.

Whenever you see the word ‘single’ on a bottle of whisky, that simply means it is the product of only one distillery. So a ‘single malt’ contains whisky produced from malted barley, at just one distillery. A ‘single grain’ whisky can be made from a variety of different grains, but must be produced at just one distillery.

The Taste

Whisky is such a diverse spirit, produced in the four corners of the globe, from many different grains, matured under numerous variable factors, all contributing to the eventual flavour, that it is practically impossible to say "I don't like whisky" – you just haven't yet found the whisky for you!

Whisky can be broadly categorised by four main flavour components.

Most whiskies fall somewhere in these four categories, often sharing attributes from more than one.

When it comes to single malt Scotch whisky, each of the traditional whisky regions of Scotland have their own typical flavour profiles (but there are always exceptions!).

The Serve

Now you know all about whisky, what do you order at the bar?

Traditionally whisky has been served on its own ('neat') or with a drop of water, or with ice ('on the rocks'). However, as with any great spirit, whisky holds its own in some world-famous cocktails. Never let anyone use the words "can't" or "don't" when you reach for a mixer.

noun /dræm/
[Mainly Scottish]
A small measure of whisky. Not strictly defined but usually a single measure, double measure, or a ‘house-pour’.
See also hauf /hɑf/

The Mythos

Since every bottle of whisky takes years to create, whisky lovers have developed a unique appreciation for their favourite tipple. From rare old releases that have been maturing for decades to limited releases that explore a different side to a beloved distillery – there is a whisky out there with the potential to change your outlook on life.

Keep exploring

Whether you're a novice or knowledgeable about our favourite tipple, we've created a whisky club to help you continue unlocking the mystery of whisky.

Join The W Club today to begin enjoying exclusive tasting events, access to members-only bottlings, offers in-store and online all month long, advanced access to The Whisky Shop events, Cask Committee opportunities (choose our next single cask!), a subscription to Whiskeria magazine, priority notice of rare and limited releases, special members-only competitions and more!