Whiskey 101: What Beginners Need to Know

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Beyond the fact that whiskey is golden brown and burns when you drink it, how much do you actually know about this spirit? Can you tell the difference between Scotch whisky and the American stuff? Or between bourbon and rye? What about a neat pour—what exactly does that mean?

You’ve probably picked up bits and pieces of whiskey knowledge from a crowded bar or two, but it’s time to set the record straight. To find the purest knowledge, you need to connect with the best teacher. And we could think of no one better than Johnnie Walker Master Blender Jim Beveridge (and yes, that’s his real last name). We recently picked his brain about one of the manliest spirits you can stock in your liquor cabinet.


Men’s Journal: Most guys are familiar with either bourbon or rye. What’s the difference between the two?

Jim Beveridge: To me, the big difference will be in the kind of wood in which the whiskey is matured, because bourbon whiskey has to be matured in American oak casks. Bourbon whiskey will have lots of woody flavors. Rye whiskey tends to be lighter, doesn’t necessarily need to be matured in new casks, and has less woodiness. When you get into Scotch whisky, the flavors tend to be quite pronounced. There’s less flavor coming from the wood compared with bourbon, for example.

MJ: What about a difference in flavor between American whiskey and Scotch whisky? 

JB: Essentially the flavor is coming from the cask. With bourbon, for example, the first impression would be some fruity-type notes, which have come from the whiskey being matured. Then there’s this very distinctive sweet woodiness.

If you were then to do the same test with Scotch whisky, well, it would depend on the whisky. Let’s say it was a Johnnie Walker blend, then you would not only have some sweet woody notes, you would also get layers of different kinds of fruit.

Editor’s note: To determine the flavors present in a whiskey, you can drop a bit into your palms and rub them together until the liquid evaporates. The scents that are left behind will give you an idea of what ingredients were used in the whiskey’s creation. 

MJ: What’s a “blended” Scotch whisky?

JB: Johnnie Walker Black Label, for example, is a blend of whiskies from between 35 and 40 different distilleries. You can see how that alone says it’s a blend of a lot of different flavors. Ryes tend to be a bit one-dimensional. It’s a nice dimension, but not a lot of flavor diversity.

MJ: How would you suggest guys drink whiskey?

JB: The flavors are best revealed when there’s water present. You can add water to your whiskey, or you can add ice and let it melt. If you drink it neat, having water on the side and on your palate will also help release the flavors as you sip.


MJ: What exactly is a neat pour?

JB: Neat means straight from the bottle and into the glass.

MJ: How can you discern the good stuff from the great stuff?

JB: At the end of the day, you will have to taste it in order to form your own opinion, but if you’re starting at the very beginning, it’s all about having confidence in the people who make the whiskey. For example, Johnnie Walker is a whisky business that’s almost 200 years old, and it has a huge heritage of understanding how to produce great whisky. All of that rationale is kind of built into the bottle before you even open it.

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