Setting up a whiskey bar is a long-term, gropingly pursuit through darkness, which should be undertaken methodically. Short parenthesis: randomly choose the bottles does not belong to the «methodical» category, even if this lack of reflection does not prevent you from having beautiful surprises. However, given the price inflation of distilled malt juice, you should rather reread Sun Tzu and Clausewitz before you knock on the door of a liquor store owner. Wondering which of the two basic strategies to adopt: find what you like and, from then, set out to discover; or, on the contrary, create a small range and then deepen into what you like. Shall we develop?
Do not try to collect a representative assortment of malt’s world map on your spirit shelf – a classic Speyside, a peaty Islay, a bourbon, an Irish pure pot still, a blended, one or two whiskeys from around the world, etc. What is the point if you do not appreciate the peaty whiskey or the bourbon, let alone the Irish? When it comes to choosing a whiskey from all around the world… It is a broad undertaking since there are as many similarities between the Swedish and the Indian single malts as are the common genes between scallops and seagulls.
Build a small stock of maximum half a dozen bottles and peak them according to their aromatic profile: a peaty, a fruity, an herbaceous, a spicy, an iodized, a cereal juice, an intense woody…
Thus, do not jump without a parachute: begin from what you like, and only then head for the adventure. If you appreciate the peaty-smoky taste, and you made your malt debut with a peaty Islay, get to know the other peaties of the island. Then, gradually go search the peaty elsewhere: among the jewels of Cambeltown (Springbank, Longrow), in Orcads (Highland Park, more iodized), in Speyside (the peaties at Benromach, BenRiach, GlenDronach…), in Highlands (Ardmore, delicate), in Japan (Hakushu, Yoichi, Chichibu), in the rest of the world…
A little originality ? Pick them from independent bottlers rather than choosing an official version. And, when traveling, begin to be interested in something other than this compact group of lichens that in the long run will prevent you from tasting the rest !
The same approach applies if you are unable to resist the bourbons, which then will lead you to the Irish whiskeys (and vice versa) and next to the woody and spicy scotches (Ballantine’s Hard Fired, some of the Dalmores, some of the Auchentoshans…).
Build a small stock of maximum half a dozen bottles but, instead of choosing them based on outdated geographical criteria (a Speyside, an Islay, a Japanese, an American bourbon…), choose them according to their aromatic profile: a peaty (I will not list them again), a fruity (Glen Grant, GlenDronach, Aberlour matured in a sherry cask, Tamdhu, Yamazaki, Kavalan, Redbreast…), an herbaceous (Aultmore, Glen Elgin, Glen Keith, Hakushu…), a spicy (take a look above, and add the Irish single pot still whiskeys), an iodized (Old Pulteney, Highland Park, Bowmore…), a cereal juice (Bruichladdich), an intense woody (the Knob Creek bourbons, Bulleit, Elijah Craig…), etc.
Getting started, we naturally turn towards tastes that are quite extreme, easily identified (peaty malts, whiskeys strongly characterized by being matured in sherry casks, bourbons that exude a sense of chips …) or towards the somewhat sweet fullness that finds its way into the throat without GPS (Irish, greedy fruity, …).
Do not panic if you missed it: it is not because you do not appreciate a malt that, to you, «tastes bad». Put the bottle aside, come back six months later, or a year later, when your palate will have been sharpened
Having gained a bit more experience, you can organize differently your approach keeping close at hand: your favorite all-purpose whiskey; the whiskey that takes you from a state of a nervous breakdown to a mode of «ultimately the apocalypse will not happen today» (an overpriced bottle so as to make sure you will never exceed the prescribed dose); a special whiskey for special occasions, but life is too short to never get it out; and finally a blend for your friends who love to downgrade it by adding cola. The first will always be, without a doubt, the same, but do not hesitate to switch the others.
It is not a bad idea to master the basics. You have not learned to read with The Brothers Karamazov but by saying Yes-Yes, so why starting with overpriced bottles, difficult to perceive, and which you do not really appreciate? Cragganmore 12 years old, Laphroaig 10 years old, Ardbeg Ten, Nikka From the Barrel, Aultmore 12 years old, Aberlour 12 years old non chill-filtered, Benromach 10 years old 100 Proof, Redbreast 12 years old, Springbank 10 years old, Caol Ila 12 years old and many others can be found without effort, will not cost you too much and promise you good times. Moreover, the majority of these bottles can be also found in experts’ personal bar.
Whenever you are given the chance, taste the very special whiskeys that are available to you: they will mark you, they will set benchmarks and sometimes push the last bar back into your ladder. Do not panic if you missed it: it is not because you do not appreciate a malt that, to you, «tastes bad». Put the bottle aside, come back six months later, or a year later, when your palate will have been sharpened. The evolvement of your taste is always a good sign. Should the opposite occur, relax, it is only whiskey.
At last, no need to hoard bottles, like those book lovers who stack books, preferring them to reading. It is said that what we believe we possess, possesses us. It is better to develop a palate by increasing the raids at friends’ bars or at tasting salons before investing less but in a better way. Otherwise, trying out the suggested tasting packs offers several small-doses so as to wide your horizons.