Few people love whiskey after their first sip. Whether it be the smokey heat of peat, the stinging bite of alcohol or myriad mysterious “brown” flavors, whiskey is an acquired taste like black coffee or Vegemite. After constant exposure, however, it can become a much-loved spirit. This was my experience with whiskey, from disdain into appreciation. My whiskey palate continues to mature, and I’ll never forget the drams that turned me into a “whiskey guy.” In order of my experiences, these are the bottles that got me to love whiskey.
The Macallan 12-Year-Old Sherry Oak Cask
My dad is a (The) Macallan guy, and he passed his love of the Speyside scotch to me. From what I recall, my first experience with whiskey ever was a taste of the classic Macallan 12 Year. And I hated it. The taste reminded me of what rubbing alcohol smelled like, and it was nauseating. I winced and told my dad it was “fine.” When I revisited The Macallan, after a time of shooting whiskey rather than sipping it, I realized why my dad was so into his scotch. The Macallan was smooth and velvety with flavors of baking spices and candied fruits. It burned, but not like the bottom-shelf swill in college dorms; instead, it was a warm heat that smoldered like a hearth in the middle of winter. Now I’m a Macallan guy, too.
Hibiki “Japanese Harmony” Blended Whisky
My first taste of Japanese whisky was in Japan. A bar offered a trio whisky flight from inexpensive to top-shelf. I don’t recall what the extremes were, but the Hibiki was the mid-tier option, and it stuck with me the most. The Suntory staple was soft with floral and fruity notes, two flavor profiles I didn’t know whiskey could take on. Back in the states, Japanese whisky’s popularity was still on the rise. I scored a bottle of the Japanese Harmony blend for $50, and even after finishing it, I’ve kept the bottle — there’s no denying Hibiki whiskies are some of the best-looking bottles on the market.
Suntory Whisky Toki
As much as I love Hibiki, I wanted a Japanese whisky that was more economical. Toki is a bit harsher than most other Japanese whiskies, but it still makes for a light, refreshing dram. It has a honey-like sweetness with a few citrusy notes offset by savory spices. Though, Toki is less of a sipping whisky than it is a mixing spirit. It’s the perfect whisky for a highball, and Suntory has masterfully branded it as the go-to spirit for the refreshing cocktail. There are literally bars in Japan (as well as some in the States) that have a Toki Highball machine that pours the cocktail on draft.
Four Roses Small Batch
Before I started at Gear Patrol, I had never tried bourbon before. Now my bar cart is primarily bourbon, and it started with this bottle of Four Roses (which I mixed up with Four Roses’ Small Batch Select). Regardless of its "Select” status, I was hooked on the bourbon’s mild spicy punch and sweet oaky flavor (and price tag) immediately. I was never a fan of caramel, but as a bourbon tasting note, I concede. I’m still a newbie in the world of bourbon, but I’ve since found myself buying more of the sweet stuff.
As far as I’ve come since my first sip of Macallan, I’m still not big on peat. The idea that scotch will “put hair on your chest” is as outdated as it is sexist. The Laphroaig 10-Year-Old is a classic Islay scotch with a bold peat punch, and it’s not for me. Last year, when Laphroaig announced it was releasing a 16-year-old expression aged in ex-bourbon barrels to mellow out the smoke bomb, I figured this version of the scotch might suit my tastes. And I was very right. The whisky is spicy, oaky and floral-like with a pleasant bite. The extra six years of aging took the edge off the original 10-year-old, and those six years made all the difference for my palate.