What Does Whiskey Taste Like? A Beginners Guide


Whiskey is one of the most diverse spirits. It can be made in a number of ways, and depending on the region it is made in, its flavor can vary quite a lot.

For a beginner whiskey drinker, you might not be able to pick up on certain flavors that everyone else is. So, in this article, we are going to look at what whisky tastes like.

Not all whiskeys taste the same. In fact, their flavors vary quite a lot. However, the general flavors you will get from whiskey is vanilla, Oakwood, toasted grains, toasted nuts, and smoky undertones. That is a very broad way of talking about the taste of whiskey

In this article, I want to be as specific as possible, so I will start off by telling you what the different single malt whiskies taste like. We will then move on to bourbons.

From there, we will discuss Irish and Tennessee whiskey. As a bonus, I will recommend 3 whiskies that every beginner should try.

What Does Whiskey Taste Like?

What Does Whiskey Taste Like

I am not a huge fan of giving answers that are not specific. However, when a question such as this gets asked, it is almost impossible to give a specific answer.

There are so many different types of whiskey, and there are so many factors that go into what they will taste like.

If I really have to give an answer that is broad enough to cover all of these factors, I would have to say that whiskey has hints of vanilla and toasted grains with smoky undertones.

It is also smoother than most other spirits, and that is why it is often consumed on the rocks or neat.

Now, let’s get into the factors that will change the way whiskey tastes. Some factors might impact the flavor more than others.

However, there are a few factors that we need to consider when talking about the flavor of the whiskey.

  • The wood that the whiskey matures in. 
  • What ingredients go into it: Barley, wheat, rye, corn, these are some ingredients used.
  • What region of the world is it from?
  • The climate plays a big role.
  • Is The Whiskey Peated?

What Does Peated VS Unpeated Whiskey Taste Like?

What Does Peated VS Unpeated Whiskey Taste Like
  • Peat is caused by the smoke generated from malting the whiskey ingredients
  • A peated whiskey has strong smoky or mossy flavors
  • An unpeated whiskey is a lot smoother to drink but not as flavorful.

It is very simple to answer what Peat does to the flavor profile of a whiskey. First, we need to talk about what it actually is.

During the process of malting the ingredients such as barley, there is a lot of smoke released. The smoke releases a lot of chemicals, but it also creates a Peaty flavor in the whiskey. 

So a peated whiskey will taste a lot smokier than an unpeated whisky. It is pretty much as simple as that.

What Does Scotch Single Malt Whiskey Taste Like?

What Does Scotch Single Malt Whiskey Taste Like

Single malt whisky is often referred to as Scotch single malt. It is the first in this article because it is my favorite whiskey.

Single malts are usually made in Scotland, and depending on the region that they are made in, this can significantly impact the flavor.

As we have already discussed peated vs. unpeated whisky, it is important to remember that most, but not all, single malt whiskies are peated.

So, we will not focus on Peat versus unpeated whiskey.

We can actually give you quite a broad answer of how single malt Scotch whiskey tastes depending on the region it was made in. These regions include:

  • Speyside
  • Highlands
  • Campbeltown
  • Lowlands

There are more regions, but focusing on them will basically turn this article into a single malt article.

1. Speyside Single Malt

Glenfiddich

Speyside single malt whisky is any single malt whiskey that is made near the river Spey in Scotland.

If a whiskey is not made in this region, it cannot call itself a Speyside whisky.

Some of the flavors of a Speyside whiskeys include:

  • Fruity 
  • Nutty
  • Smooth and gentle on the palate.
  • Sometimes you get hints of spice.

Some Good Speyside Single Malt Whiskeys

  • Balvenie 12 or 17 years old
  • Glenlivet Cellar Collection (Premium collectors whiskey)
  • Glenfiddich

2. Highlands Single Malt

oban whisky

Highland single malt whiskey is made in the Highlands of Scotland.

The Highland covers a large area, but the climate throughout the area is pretty much the same, and therefore, not many changes in terms of flavors when it comes to where the whiskey was made within the Highlands.

There is one major characteristic that a Highlands whiskey has apart from anything else. For now, let’s talk about what flavors you can expect from Highlands whiskey.

  • Salt: The saltiness depends on a few factors but generally, the closer to the ocean that the whiskey is made, the saltier it will be.
  • Smokey undertones: Remember, we discussed Peated whiskeys.
  • Fruity
  • A hint of vanilla.

Notable Highland Single Malt Whiskeys

  • Oban 14-year-old. This is my favorite whiskey.
  • Macallan Fine Oak 17-year-old
  • Glenmorangie

3. Campbeltown Single Malts

Campbeltown Single Malts

Campbelltown is an area of western Scotland. It is basically the Peninsula of western Scotland, and just from that, we can start to tell what kind of flavors these types of whiskies will have.

Remember, they are close to the ocean, so you might have hints of salt.

This area used to be one of the largest producers of whisky, especially single malts.

However, the number of distilleries located in this area has declined over the years, but they still manage to produce some of the nicest whiskies you will have.

In order for a whiskey to be called the Campbelltown whiskey, it needs to be made within the borough of Campbelltown.

Campbeltown whiskey flavors include:

  • Strong salty undertones
  • Sweet fruity flavors
  • Slight hints of citrus
  • The whiskey might taste strong at first but becomes easy on the palate after a few sips.

Notable Campbeltown Whiskeys

  • Springbank 15-year-old
  • Longrow Tokaji Wood Finish
  • Glen Scotia

4. Lowland Single Malt

Auchentoshan Three Wood Single Malt

The Scottish lowlands refer to a southern central part of Scotland. These areas tend to be very green and floral.

So, when we are talking about lowland whiskey, without even tasting it, we can deduct that a lowland single malt whiskey will have more floral aromas, perhaps even flavors.

Because there is less air coming in from the ocean, you will also notice that you don’t have the salty undertones that you get with most other Scottish single malt whiskies.

This makes most lowland whiskies a lot smoother than other single malt whiskies.

  • Floral aromas and flavors: I can best describe these as “green flavors.”
  • Sweet fruity flavors
  • Smooth and gentle on the palate
  • Toasted grain

Notable Lowlands Single Malts

  • Auchentoshan Three Wood Single Malt
  • Blandoch Andela
  • Rosebank Special release 21-year-old (premium whiskey)

What Does Bourbon Taste Like

Bourbon Whiskey

Bourbon whiskey is actually one of the most popular whiskies in the world. It is a whiskey that was developed in the United States of America, and unlike most other whiskies, it uses one specific ingredient, and that is corn.

Almost all bourbons will have two very distinct flavors. these are:

  • Vanilla
  • Cedar Oak undertones

Bourbon whiskey is also generally aged in wooden barrels. This contributes significantly to the different flavors that you will get from drinking bourbon whiskey.

If you are a beginner whiskey drinker, I highly recommend that you drink bourbon to start off. See, bourbons are a little bit sweeter than most other whiskies. This helps beginners to easily accustom their palate to whisky. 

Bourbon whiskey comes in three different types, and we are going to look at the flavors of each of these whiskeys. These types of whiskeys include:

  • Traditional Bourbon
  • Rye Bourbon
  • Wheat Bourbon

1. Traditional Bourbon

Traditional Bourbon

Traditional bourbon has three main ingredients. These are fermented grain, yeast, and water. The grain is first fermented and then mashed up before the yeast and water are added.

It is important to note that at least 51% of the ingredients will be corn.

The whiskey is distilled and then aged in oak wooden barrels. Traditional bourbon whiskey flavors include:

  • Vanilla
  • Sweet Caramel
  • Cedar oak Undertones
  • Hints of smoky flavors.

2. Rye Bourbon

Rye Bourbon

To make it simple to understand rye bourbon whiskey, just take everything we spoke about when speaking about traditional bourbon and add rye into the mix.

When you do this, it plays a significant role in the dynamics of the flavors and how they change. 

When rye is added to bourbon whiskey, it adds substance to the drink, and you will start to get hints of spicy flavors that come through.

You will notice this as soon as you sniff the whiskey because it will hit your nose first.

Because of the rye, this type of bourbon is not the smoothest to drink. However, it can be one of the most flavorful whiskies.

3. Wheat Bourbon

Wheat Bourbon

Again, all you have to do is take everything we know about traditional bourbon and then add wheat into the mix.

When wheat is added to traditional bourbon whiskey, it changes the flavor profile quite a lot. You start to get hints of nutty flavors; most predominantly, you will start to get a toasted grain flavor profile.

Wheat bourbon is generally easier to drink than any other bourbon because it is smooth on the palate.

Notable Bourbon Whiskeys

  • Angel’s Envy Bourbon Whiskey
  • Rabbit Hole Dareringer
  • Makers Mark
  • Virginia Gentleman

What Does Irish Whiskey Taste Like?

Irish Whiskey

Most whiskeys are made from malting certain ingredients such as barley. However, Irish whiskey does things a little bit differently.

Before we get into it, it is important to note that for a very long time Irish whiskey was the most popular alcoholic beverage in the world, at least in terms of spirits.

Slowly the popularity of Irish whiskey has declined over the years. I can’t put my finger on why this is because, in my opinion, Irish whiskey still tastes great.

For beginner whiskey drinkers, it is a great option for you as it is one of the smoother whiskies available. That leads us into its taste.

Irish whiskey is made from a blend of malted and unmalted barley along with other grains. Therefore, it is a lot smoother on your palate than most other whiskies.

Here are a few flavors that you can expect when tasting Irish whiskeys.

  • Vanilla
  • Hazelnut
  • Oakwood
  • Peat
  • Slight undertones of spice. The spice is not overpowering.

You get a few variants of Irish whiskey, which include malt Irish whiskey, grain Irish whisky, and blended. The most popular out of all of these is blended Irish whiskey.

Notable Irish Whiskeys

  • Jameson: Almost anyone will have heard of Jameson Irish whiskey. 
  • Tullamore Dew: The second most popular Irish whiskey in the world is Tullamore Dew. You can find our review of this whiskey in this recent article.

What Does Tennessee Whiskey Taste Like?

Tennessee Whiskey

When looking at Tennessee whiskey, you will notice that it is darker than most other whiskies, and this is for good reason. It all has to do with the way that the whiskey is made.

Not only does this contribute to the color of the whiskey, but it also significantly contributes to the flavor that you will get.

Tennessee whiskey has to go through a process of being filtered through charcoal; it is also stored in charred barrels made from Oak.

All of this gives the whiskey its darker color, but it also gives it a few flavors that are trademarks of a Tennessee whiskey.

One more important thing to note is that, like bourbon, Tennessee whiskey is also made with corn.

Here are some of the flavors you will get from Tennessee whiskey.

Just before we jump into it, it is important to note that different Tennessee whiskeys will have different flavors but these are the general ones that you will pick up from most Tennessee whiskies.

  • Smoky flavors
  • Cedar oak
  • Caramel/syrup: Some people will describe the flavor as either one of these.
  • The whiskey is smooth due to its filtering process.

Notable Tennessee Whiskeys

  • Jack Daniels lineup of whiskeys: Much like with Jameson, almost everyone will know about Jack Daniels.
  • Gentleman Jack: Part of the Jack Daniels family, Gentleman Jack goes through its filtering process twice. This makes it one of the smoothest Tennessee whiskeys available.
  • George Dickel Rye Whiskey: This is a great whiskey if you enjoy spice undertones.

What Whiskey Do I recommend For Beginners?

Bourbon Barrels

I love this question. I have three recommendations for what whiskey a beginner should try. I will start off by being biased and by being very specific. 

Oban 14-year-old Or A Speyside Whiskey

As I have already mentioned in this article, Oban is my favorite whiskey. It may not be the cheapest out there, but it is also not that expensive.

Generally, Speyside whiskies are better for beginners but trust me, give Oban a try.

In my opinion, Oban will be one of the best whiskeys for you to try because it has a robust set of flavors but is also relatively smooth. So, it won’t taste like water, and it won’t be too harsh on your palate.

Gentleman Jack or Jack Daniel’s

Gentleman Jack is a smooth Tennessee whiskey with a robust set of flavors. The double filtering process works wonders in removing harsh undertones from the whiskey. Your next best option is Jack Daniels.

Bourbon

Due to its availability, I will always recommend bourbon to beginners.

You will get all the flavors that we spoke about in this article, and because it’s not one of the smoothest whiskeys available, it is a good whiskey to help you judge whether or not you actually like whiskey.

Final Notes

Wow, that article was pretty in-depth. My goal, however, was to help the different types of beginners.

You might be in an environment where you mostly have access to single malts or where you have access to mostly bourbons.

In each of these cases, I wanted you to have a better understanding of not only the whiskey but especially how it tastes.

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