Start Here – Whiskey Guide for Beginners

Why is it called the Water of Life?

All distilled spirits were originally referred to as acqua vitae, which is Latin for “the water of life”. This translates to uisge beath in Scottish Gaelic, which, over time, was shortened to uisge. That word evolved to become whisky in Scotland and Ireland (due to the pronunciation).

To ‘e’ or not to ‘e’

You will see whiskey spelled two ways: whiskey and whiskyWhisky is the Gaelic spelling and whiskey is the English Americanized spelling. While we refer to whiskies with the ‘e’, many distilleries stick with the traditional Gaelic spelling, without an ‘e’. At Whiskey Watch, we honor the way distilleries wish to have their brand represented when describing the many different whiskies from around the world. 

Tips on Finding a Whiskey That’s Right for You

We suggest adopting the phrase “my new favorite” because if you’re a whiskey drinker, you’re probably always trying new whiskies. This means that you, like us, will probably always have a “new favorite” whiskey. Not only is that okay, and that’s very much encouraged around here. 

We all go through phases. We all have changing palates and changing moods—even tastes that change with the seasons! A whiskey that is right for you one year may not be as exciting the next. 

So keep trying, keep tasting, and keep reading.

Flavor Profile

Whiskey is a broad term that describes the overall category of bourbon, rye, Scotch, Irish whisky, Japanese Scotch, American whiskey, and so on. Whiskey means you are dealing with alcohol made from fermented grain. 

Whiskey is typically aged in casks but does not have to be (such as with moonshine and white whiskey). Think of whiskey as similar to the category of wine, while you may want a glass of wine, you must then decide if you want a red wine, white, rosé and then what grape, region, or age from there. Whiskey is no different. 

Under the umbrella of whiskey, you have flavors that vary from sweet and fruity to smoky and earthy to spicy and strong. Unfortunately, there is no clear indicator of the tasting profile on most bottles. The good news is, we can give you clues to look for, which will help you understand what the bottle in your hand is going to taste like. For example, the region the whiskey comes from will give you a clue about how it tastes, and so will the mashbill and age. 

Know your palate and you’ll be able to direct your sights.

Grain Content and Styles

Different grains make for different flavors. Corn and wheat usually make for a sweeter and softer drink. Rye is stronger and spicier. Barley tends to be earthier but can really morph depending on the techniques used to distill and age the whiskey.

Aging Casks

Like grain, the casks a whiskey is aged in have a significant effect on the resulting flavors. Sherry casks will add a sweeter hint. Rum casks tend to add a thicker, molasses flavor. Charred oak casks add smoke and caramel. 

Look for the cask information when you’re thinking of purchasing your whiskey, it is often on the bottle and will help you decipher what the flavor profile will be like.


Peated or non-peated, chill filtration or no chill filtration. It’s easy to get caught up in all of the explicit details of a particular bottle. Every step is important in crafting a bottle of whiskey, which is what makes trying them all so much fun! We suggest keeping a journal to help keep yourself organized. This will not only remind you of what you liked (and didn’t like) it will help you make smarter purchases down the line. 

What does Bottled in Bond mean?

You will see the term “Bottled in Bond” on a few whiskies as you’re navigating the whiskey waters of the world. This means that the whiskey was bottled accordingly to the federal regulations put forth by the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. Like many federal laws concerning beverages and food, this was to ensure higher quality and safe products.

Those regulations are as follows:

  • The whiskey in question must be produced in a single distillation season by a single distillery. This is not guaranteed if not marked Bottled in Bond.
  • The whiskey has been aged in a U.S. bonded warehouse for a minimum of four years.
  • The whiskey must be bottled at 50% ABV. 


Just like wine, different locations create different whiskey flavors. This is perhaps most notable in Scotch. Islay Scotch creates what most would associate with the “classic” peated Scotch. A non-peated single malt will likely come from Speyside. In order to be categorized as a Scotch the whisky must come from Scotland and be distilled from grains, water, and yeast. It is aged at least three years in oak barrels, bottled at a minimum strength of 40% abv. Scotch is peaty (also referred to as “smoky”) because peat is burned to dry the barley. 

Japanese whiskey is varied. While the mineral-rich local water is only one of the reasons why this whiskey stands out amongst others, all the other ingredients are imported. Japan does not have the space for grain fields like many other countries do, so they have no choice but to import the barley they need to create whiskey.

Irish whiskey isn’t like Scotch, despite the countries being neighbors. Most Irish whiskey distilleries do not dry their barley with peat, which makes it lack that signature Scotch taste. 

Canadian whiskies, like Scotch and Irish whiskey, must come from the country they are named for. Furthermore, they must also be aged in wooden barrels for at least three years—though the cask material, charredness, or previous tenant does not matter in the Canadian whisky world. However, the barrels must be smaller than 700 liters. Due to the more flexible guidelines here, Canadian whisky can have a lot of different tastes.

While bourbon was invented in America, it does not need to be made here to fall under the category. Bourbon must have a mashbill of at least 51% or more corn, the rest of the mash does not matter. It also must be aged at least two years in virgin, charred, American oak barrels. The corn and aging process softens bourbons and the corn especially when paired with a high-wheat content, makes for a sweeter, softer bourbon. 

Like bourbon, rye whiskey can come from any country. It also must be aged at least two years in charred, virgin, American oak barrels. Rye must have a specific mashbill as well, of at least 51% or more rye. Like bourbon, the remainder of the mash does not matter. Rye offers more spice and heat to the mash, making rye whiskies spicier than others. 


Alcohol content varies among whiskies. 

If You’re New to Whisky

I envy you. You’re about to start on the most decadent journey of your life.

You’re going to get to experience the rich spice of a Japanese whisky, the campfire vibes of an Islay, the kick of an American Rye, the smooth sip of a bourbon, the sweet notes of a Speyside…all for the first time.

I’m sure you’re wondering where to start.

1. Know thyself

The best person to judge what kind of whisky you like is you.

Your local liquor store owner can give you suggestions, but you know exactly what you like.

Don’t be afraid to say you don’t want to start with a Rye if you know you hate strong liquors. But don’t feel like you have to start on the sweeter end either!

2. Know your palate

There are a few categories that will encompass almost any whisky you find.


Most Bourbons and some Tennessee and even Canadian whiskies are noted for sweet flavors. If the base grain is corn, it’s likely to be sweeter.

  • A safe place to start: A Bourbon like Four Roses or Wild Turkey


Full of notes of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. These usually come from sherried casks.

  • A safe place to start: Yamazaki 12 Year, Teeling Single Malt, Macallan most years


Dried orchard fruits or even fresh apples and pears are the key notes in these whiskies!

  • A safe place to start: A light Speyside like Glennfiddich, A Japanese Whisky like Nikka


A Scotch! They are full of earth, wood, leather, even notes of fire and grass. Combine all of that with some fruit and spice…absolutely divine.

  • A safe place to start: Glenlivet or Macallen


Both Irish and Canadian whiskies are known for being particularly smooth, easy to drink, and perfect for sipping.

Strong Spice with a Kick

Most Rye’s are considered strong and very spicy. I have them separated from “spice” since you shouldn’t go in expecting nutmeg or vanilla. This is a strong grainy flavor.

  • A safe place to start: Rittenhouse Rye


Smoke flavor can be polarizing. But it’s something everyone needs to try at least once in their life!

You’ll really only get smoke in a peated-Scotch, usually from Islay. These are whiskies that have been dried over a fire made from peat, blocks of soft earth and plant matter. It adds a lovely campfire-aroma to whisky.

But there are a few Bourbons or other whiskies aged in charred barrels that have just the faintest hint of smoke.

There are a few versions to try (according to Whisky Advocate)


Maritime flavors like salt and seaweed

  • A safe place to start: Laphroaig 10 Year


Pepper, Dried Apples/Pears, Cinnamon

  • A safe place to start: Talisker 10 Year


Sweeter notes like honey or toffee and notes of fruit

  • A safe place to start: Highland Park 10 Year

Me? I’m a spice-girl. (No puns intended.) I love rich, fall flavors like nutmeg, cinnamon, and drying orchard fruits.

My boyfriend really prefers the medicinal flavors. (I guess there is no accounting for taste?)

But you don’t have to stick to just one.

I’ve been known to enjoy a sweet, fruity Speyside on occasion. It all depends on my mood. And whether or not it’s bathing suit weather!

3. Be willing to experiment

Once you find your favorite palate, test around and see if you can find what distilleries or flavor profiles you are most drawn to.

I can guarantee you’ll find at least one “go-to” whisky you can always ask for at a bar.

But after that, shop around!

Try something you normally would never imagine liking. After all, there’s really only one way to know for your that you don’t like something.

And who knows, you may discover that you’re secretly a lover or all things Rye. Or maybe Bourbon is more your style.

You’ll never know if you don’t branch out!

Common FAQs

Where should I start if I know nothing about whisky?

Good question! My best advice is to taste-test. Go to a bar and order a glass of something in a flavor profile that interests you. If you like it, congratulations!

If you don’t like it, try a different glass or different flavor profile until you settle on something that makes your taste buds sing!

Tips on where to start:

My final tip, maybe don’t start with a scotch. Work up to it. But if you hate every whisky you’ve ever tried…do try a scotch before you give up forever.

(Also, feel free to ask the bartender to help you out. They love to share their knowledge and help you find something you’ll like. Just, maybe don’t do it on a busy night!)

What if I find most whiskeys too strong for my taste?

I can completely sympathize. I find some whiskeys below certain price points too harsh to really enjoy.

On a budget, the way to reduce strength is to add ice. The water will dilute your whisky and make it easier to drink. It also brings out flavors you might otherwise miss.

Another option, if you have the budget, is to purchase a higher-end whisky within your flavor profile. Some higher-end whiskeys are so full of other flavors you hardly notice you’re drinking alcohol at all! (Just be sure to taste the whisky at a bar before you go purchasing a whole bottle!)

Why is whisky sometimes spelled “whiskey”?

The real difference in the spelling comes from location. Scotland, the makers of most of the single malt scotch in the world, spell it with no “e.” Japanese whiskey also leaves out the “e” since much of their techniques were brought over from Scotland.

But Ireland and the U.S. will often add the “e.”

There is no real difference in composition or taste that determines “e” or no “e,” other than the obvious differences according to the region!

What’s the difference between Whisky, Bourbon, Scotch, and Rye?

You’ve probably heard the phrase “all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon.” Well, there’s a reason.

In short, they are all whiskeys.

All it takes to be considered whiskey is a distilled beverage made from fermented grain. (I know, I know, that doesn’t sound great, but bear with me.)

To get the specific designations, each region has its own requirements.

This is best condensed in a short list:

  • Bourbon – made in the USA from corn
  • Scotch – made in Scotland from barley
  • Rye – made in the USA from rye

Tennessee Rye, Kentucky Bourbon, Single Malt Scotch, Irish Whiskey are all iterations of these basic principles. They get their special names from location, obviously. But also, the slight differences in grains used, techniques applied, and even the casks they age in.

The specifications above are definitely simplified for clarity. Look for a more detailed analysis on our site!

What does “neat” mean?

A whisky served “neat” means the whisky is poured alone into the glass. No ice. No water. Just pure gorgeous liquor.

In some cases, you can say “straight” or “straight-up” instead of “neat,” but those terms have other meanings as well. (For example, a martini straight up is a chilled martini.) It’s generally best to use “neat” and avoid confusion.

What does “on the rocks” mean?

A whisky served “on the rocks” just means it’s poured over ice. This is an excellent serving method if you want to take the edge of your whisky and making it smooth to sip.

It’s also a great way to bring out some of the subtler flavors hiding in the background.

You can vary the amount of ice from “heavy on the rocks” to “just one rock.”

And some bars will serve your whisky over a giant rock, which is slower to melt and doesn’t dilute your whisky as quickly.

Can you serve whisky with food?

Absolutely. As with wine, whisky pairs well with food, but you need to match up certain flavor profiles. Lighter, fruitier whiskeys pair better with fish or chicken or even pork. Heaver, richer whiskeys pair well with steaks or sausages.

Should you serve whisky chilled?

Generally, no. Don’t chill whole bottles of whisky.

The subtle flavor profiles in whisky require it to be stored at room temperature.

However, you can serve it over ice! Cooling the whisky in your glass is one way to reduce the strength of the alcohol. Water also brings out and highlights certain flavors that you can miss when you drink it neat!