If you’ve been searching for a whiskey guide, you have arrived. Let’s get your training started. Welcome! Right now, you’re going to begin the journey toward becoming a whiskey master. Ah, the best master of all, girls and boys. And the best journey of all.
We welcome Justin Nierengarten @bourbontraveler back to our whiskey scene today. He’s a frequent Prestige blog contributor. We’re always thrilled to hear from him. If you’re ready to get started with this whiskey guide, we are, too. We were born ready.
The Ultimate Whiskey Guide – with Justin Nierengarten
The following guide will teach you how to become the resource that friends and family contact for recommendations in whiskey. They’ll turn to you when ordering drinks, buying bottles, or just trying to solve some of life’s great mysteries, such as: “What is bourbon exactly?” The guide will also enhance your own whiskey experience. And you can’t beat that.
When it comes to whiskey, there’s a never-ending abyss of information available across all mediums. While making my way through endless print and digital information, I have compiled a list of the most reputable and reliable resources. These are the ones that have helped educate me in my own personal journey. Today, I’ll share much of this with you.
Types of Whiskey
The all-encompassing portfolio falling under the umbrella of “whiskey” is vast. But, just to name a few, it includes:
- Rye whiskey,
- Wheat whiskey,
- Canadian whiskey, and
- Japanese whiskey
For the sake of keeping things concise, we will primarily focus on American whiskey. And more precisely, bourbon and rye.
The Whiskey Truth
Let’s stick to reliable information coming directly from the source. There are countless people in the whiskey business who love sharing knowledge with new connoisseurs. These pros present information in the form of books, podcasts, blogs, social media posts, and old-fashioned person-to-person communication.
Once I’ve covered all the ways to become an informed drinker, I will share some hints and tricks for developing your whiskey tasting palate. Last, I plan to share some insider tips on buying bottles, developing relationships, and obtaining some of those hard-to-find bottles.
Let’s Get Educated
In the interests of full disclosure, I am not the type of person that sits and reads books as a hobby. But I am curious. In wondering what exactly was in my whiskey glass, I picked up several books that are actually pretty easy, fun reads with information regarding history, production, laws, and tasting notes.
Whiskey Reading List
I read these books over the course of several years. It’s not like I’m saying you should rush out and scoop them all up. My recommendation? Choose one book, look up reviews, and read the foreword on any book selling outlet. Then dive right in. You won’t be sorry.
1) American Whiskey, Bourbon, & Rye | Clay Risen
This was the first book I purchased as a novice. It sparked my curiosity and showed me that there is so much to this ever-expanding world of whiskey. It gives a quick overview of some history and defines some of the confusing lingo.
The primary content includes specific whiskey profiles with full descriptions and tasting notes. It sent me on the ever-embarrassing Pappy Van Winkle search. We have all been there, walking in and asking for the good stuff. Knowing what I know now, I wish I could tell “former me” to get more facts before swinging for the fences.
2) Bourbon Curious | Fred Minnick
This one is by Bourbon country resident Fred Minnick. Minnick has written articles for multiple magazines and has other non-whiskey books on the market as well. He also judges several different categories at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Bourbon Curious is best described as a step-by-step guide to becoming a “savvy drinker.”
3) Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey | Fred Minnick
Minnick authored this one, too. This book is an amazing historical reference, discussing events such as the Bottled in Bond Act, Prohibition, and the downfall of the whiskey market in the late 20th century, as well as the recent bourbon boom.
4) Bourbon Justice | Brian Haara
This one is by Louisville local Brian Haara. Haara is a lawyer in Louisville, most recently defending Castle and Key’s right to use the Old Taylor namesake vs. Sazerac, who owns the right to the name. His book delves into the legal side of whiskey–from lawsuits to patents, to how some of these laws still play a role in our current judicial system.
The Internet Realm of Whiskey [Podcasts & Blogs]
The next great resource to optimize is none other than the Internet. Countless amazing blogs, social media accounts, and podcasts give superb information for absolutely no cost. My following recommendations are not discrediting other digital resources. In my opinion, they’re simply the best resources currently available.
1) Bourbon Pursuit | with Kenny Coleman & Ryan Cecil
This is a free podcast started in 2015 by Kenny Coleman and Ryan Cecil. Both Kentucky natives, they have a reputation for bringing on amazing guests. Over the course of the show, they have interviewed almost every master distiller in the state of Kentucky, plus brand ambassadors, authors, master tasters, liquor store owners, chefs, bloggers, etc.
I highly recommend going into the archives and starting from episode 1. Coleman and Cecil are very relatable and always ask the exact questions that I myself would have wanted to ask. You’ll catch Fred Minnick on there as a co-host as well.
2) Bourbonr | with Blake Riber
If you have made it this far into the article, you are aware of blogs. There are hundreds of whiskey blogs, all of which have some unique information to offer. But some blogs stand head and shoulders above the rest. Bourbonr is one of them. It’s written by Blake Riber from Florida, and he maintains a great community atmosphere. The primary benefit of this particular blog is crowd-sourced maps of release dates of limited-edition whiskey, primarily from Buffalo Trace.
3) Breaking Bourbon | with Eric, Nick, and Jordan
The team at Breaking Bourbon consists of three members in New York state: Eric, Nick, and Jordan. Each year they formulate a bourbon release calendar. This calendar contains nearly every special, limited-release whiskey for the current and upcoming calendar year. Typically, it gives the anticipated release date, as well as expected manufacturer-suggested retail cost and an approximate number of bottles. I use this calendar regularly when trying to budget and plan my approach to acquire allocated bottles.
Social Media & Whiskey
Far and away, the easiest way to access essential whiskey information: using social media. Do it now. On your Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram account, follow every resource you can think of.
I would start by following the authors, blogs, and podcasts I mentioned in this article. Beyond that, follow distilleries, bars, liquor stores, etc. These are free resources, and they’re only a click away. I started by following every single resource I could imagine and find. Then I gradually dialed it back. Think about what information you actually use or enjoy before cutting down on some of the accounts you follow.
The best and most memorable way to retain information is to learn hands-on by visiting a distillery. No matter where you live, you should be within an hour or two drive of a distillery. This distillery doesn’t have to be a large, industrial facility such as Jim Beam or Heaven Hill. All distilleries, large or small, are using the same process to reach that final, beautiful goal.
Tour guides are amazing sources of information. They give detailed talks on production, history, aging, bottling, etc. Also, at some smaller distilleries, you may be able to have a conversation with the master distiller. You should definitely take advantage of these experiences! Ask every question you can, no matter how vague or specific.
What I have found in my traveling over the years–during many distillery visits–is how much the employees take pride in their product. They love discussing all the offerings and are more than happy to answer any and all of your questions.
Pro Tour Tip: If ever touring Buffalo Trace, keep an eye out for tour guide Freddie Johnson. He has generational family ties to the distillery, and his stories are fabulous. He will change your life. You will love whiskey even more than you thought you could.
Time to Taste
If you’ve followed this guide, you’ll be learning all there is to learn about the production, history, and release of whiskeys. Now, we will transition into tasting. This seems like a very straightforward section, but here are a few tips for developing a mature palate.
Below 100 Proof at First
When first learning how to taste whiskey, I would suggest keeping it below 100 proof for the first several months. Jumping directly into high proofs or barrel proofs will be sensory overload if you haven’t been exposed to lower-proof whiskeys first. Once you have reached a point of being able to enjoy the full gamut of proofs, you should start to taste different types and styles of whiskey.
Backtracking slightly… The singular most important part of tasting whiskey is deciding what you actually like without knowing what you are actually drinking. This is called “blind tasting.” Have friends or family fill glasses with whiskeys. You should have no knowledge of the contents. Then conduct side by side comparisons.
This will be one of the most surprising experiments you participate in. Personally, I like a lot of lower-cost whiskeys. Some whiskeys on the market that are deemed “premium” or “rare,” I couldn’t care less for!
Head to the Tasting Bars
Once you develop a preferred type of whiskey (whether it’s a proof range, specific grain, or an age range), you can go to some tasting bars to try some whiskeys you do not own. Bartenders or employees at tasting bars are great at guiding you to specific whiskeys to fit your specific tastes.
FOMO, or “fear of missing out,” is a very strong driving force behind the purchasing habits of many whiskey drinkers. This is the drive to purchase every special release bottle based simply on the possibility of not being able to obtain one in the future.
An Important Lesson
I experienced a spell where I would try to acquire every single allocated bottle hitting the market. My loss is your gain, friends. This is very unnecessary. Special release bottles are hitting the market so rapidly, it is impossible to obtain every bottle.
Also, many distilleries are limiting production of certain products simply to drive up demand–not because the whiskey tastes better. That being said, I still enjoy searching for special bottles that I have previously tasted or owned. I look for those I know fall within my optimal tasting profile.
My primary recommendation when it comes to obtaining more rare bottles is to either enter your state lotteries or attend lotteries at large stores where everyone has the same chance of winning.
Find Your Home Bases
The ultra-premium bottles make up a very small percent of the market. The mid-level bottles are great bottles to set your sights on because they are relatively inexpensive and also somewhat obtainable. I recommend visiting multiple stores in your area of the country. But try to focus most of your purchases at one or two specific small to mid-sized stores.
Visit these stores frequently and always greet the employees. Strike up a conversation. Just like the tour guides and bartenders, typically employees in smaller liquor stores are willing to have in-depth conversations about whiskey or just life in general. I have benefitted firsthand from developing relationships with my local liquor stores’ employees. They may give you a heads-up on specific shipment dates. They may even store a bottle in the back room with your name on it.
Pro Buying Tip: Hopefully, you have developed relationships with some store employees. Realize that most of these people also are part of the search for great bottles. Feel free to crack open a new bottle and pour them a sample. Or take them a sample (in a 2-ounce sample bottle) from your personal collection. It’s a nice gesture that goes a long way.
Finally, I want to touch on the proper storage of whiskey. This is often overlooked. Whiskey should be kept in a relatively climate-controlled environment, out of direct sunlight, and upright. If you live somewhere that receives extreme heat in the summer, make sure not to keep bottles in your vehicle for very long. Many great bottles have been lost to overheating and cork popping.
Feeling Closer to Becoming a Whiskey Master Yet?
I’m hoping these whiskey guide tips and tricks have you well on your way to becoming an ultimate whiskey master. Once you’ve developed a strong grasp of what actually goes into the production of your whiskey of choice, you are ready to hit the ground running.
Taste as much as you can taste, buy as much as you can afford, and swap samples with friends when the opportunity presents. At this point, expect to start getting calls and texts from family and friends asking questions that you yourself may have been asking only recently.
Always remember to give honest advice. Don’t give a good review simply because you are “supposed” to. Lastly, remember there is no wrong way to drink whiskey. Neat, rocks, splash of water, or in a cocktail: as long as you are drinking it, you are part of the worldwide family. Cheers.
Thanks to @bourbontraveler (AGAIN!)
We feature him for a reason, y’all. He’s a Louisville man, so we’re partial. But most importantly, his passion and generosity are on point. And he understands the whiskey newbie. We appreciate his whiskey guide wisdom and direction. We won’t forget it! Follow him on Instagram if you haven’t already.
Catch Justin in one of our best articles out right now: Best Craft Distilleries: See America’s Top 10. He takes us on a U.S. tour as he discovers some of the country’s most exciting craft distilleries.
Keep Sharing the Whiskey Guide
Offer up some more whiskey advice in the comments below. We’re always trying to welcome the new kids to the family. But we’re relying on our community of whiskey veterans to step in and help us do that.
Yes, keep sharing. And keep spreading the whiskey word, folks. New or old in this game, your voice, preferences, and experience are part of what makes all of this so much fun.
Thanks for being part of the Prestige fam.