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Bartenders Tell Us The Best Whiskeys For Novices

They say that all journeys begin with a single step. So why would your journey into the world of whisk(e)y be any different? If you’ve been meaning to purchase your first bottle of whiskey, fall — with its cool days and chilly nights — is a great time to take that first step (or sip).

Do you really want to spend the rest of your days drinking vodka or hard seltzer? Expand that palate, friendo!

We understand that the idea of trying something new (especially whiskey) is difficult. For the uninitiated, the thought of perusing the aisles at your local liquor store (or scrolling through a website) in search of a beginner bottle seems daunting. Lucky for you, we can always count on the experts for help. So we asked some of our favorite bartenders to tell us the one whiskey they always give novices.

Glenlivet 12 Single Malt Scotch

Marta De La Cruz Marrero, food and beverage supervisor of Burlock Coast in Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Glenlivet 12 Year. It imparts vanilla notes and gives the whisky its distinct smoothness, which — for a novice — is easier to drink.

Buffalo Trace Bourbon

Drew Reid, bartender at W Aspen in Aspen, Colorado

Hands down, Buffalo Trace. This is as traditional as traditional gets and is the baseline I would start anyone off with. It is smooth and very easy to drink and explain to anyone. Buffalo Trace is also one of the best starter classic cocktail bourbons.

Tullamore D.E.W. Irish Whiskey

Meredith Barry, executive beverage chef of Angad Arts Hotel in St. Louis

Tullamore D.E.W. Irish whiskey. Because who doesn’t like sweet Irish honey and butter? And it was my first whiskey, so it’s a bit sentimental.

Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon

Benjamin Burch, bartender at The Nolen Bar in San Diego, California

Elijah Craig Small Batch. It’s 94 proof so it still has a bit more punch to it, but it is affordable and just downright delicious. It is also much more oak-forward on the flavor than other distillers’ entry-level options like Buffalo Trace, Basil Hayden’s/Knob Creek, or Wild Turkey. So the way they react to that helps me give them suggestions on where they can go from there.

Rittenhouse Rye

Robert Björn Taylor, bartender and assistant general manager at ARRIVE Hotels and Restaurants in Austin, Texas

To answer this question, I like my well to be whiskies you can drink on your own and mix well into a cocktail. So, I always serve my well first. They tend to be high proof. Wild Turkey 101 has been a go-to as well as Old Grand-Dad, Old Overholt, Rittenhouse, and Evan Williams white label. With a cube of ice, these can be enjoyable sippers. For an extreme novice, I’ve poured Longbranch to great reception as well as Bulleit. There are those that don’t like their spirits hot and that’s understandable.

Woodford Reserve Bourbon

Tommy Ergle, bar manager at Dr. BBQ in St. Petersburg, Florida

There is no other bourbon that I will suggest to someone that’s new to the “ bourbon scene” besides Woodford Reserve. Woodford Reserve is a full-bodied bourbon that is incredibly smooth-tasting with its flavors of cinnamon, walnut, and allspice — incredible to drink on the rocks and absolutely perfect to mix in a cocktail.

Basil Hayden’s Bourbon

Mig Feliciano, head bartender and mixologist at the iconic Hollywood Roosevelt in Los Angeles

Basil Hayden’s Bourbon is a great choice for a novice. The honey and heather flavor gently suggests the idea that it will put “hair on your chest,” while slipping into a warm hug from a good friend you’ve been socially distancing from.

Incredibly smooth and great with just one ice cube.

Savage & Cooke Second Glance Whiskey

Jerry Shaffer, food and beverage manager at Embassy Suites Napa in Napa, California

Second Glance (Savage & Cooke) because it’s exciting and racy — with five years in American oak finished in cabernet wine barrels. There’s a great storyline behind the product.

Uncle Nearest 1884 Whiskey

Jeremy Allen, bartender at MiniBar in Los Angeles

Uncle Nearest 1884– it’s mellow and mild, it’s a big step up from Jack Daniel’s and the brand is named for the original precursor to Jack, a slave and master distiller Nearest Green. The story isn’t really related to the actual present-day whiskey, but the whiskey is good, and it’s a black-owned whiskey that isn’t made by Drake (though Virginia Black is pretty good for a celebrity spirit, for what it’s worth).

Maker’s Mark Bourbon

Hayden Miller, head bartender at Bodega Taqueria y Tequila in Miami

Maker’s Mark has a nice balance between the heat and roundness from the wheat. Mixes easily in a highball but can translate well with just some ice or splash of water.

Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon

Damian Langarica, head bartender at a.bar in Philadelphia

Wild turkey 101. I believe this whiskey is sometimes overlooked. It’s a great bourbon that — even at its high proof — you still get a lot of different flavors and aromas.

Plus, it’s a great bourbon for the price.

Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or Single Malt Scotch

Stephen Potter, lead bartender at The Kitchen by Wolfgang Puck in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Most people I encounter are familiar with American whiskey, but few are acquainted with scotch. The first bottle I turn to anytime someone is interested in expanding their palate has to be Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or. This Highland scotch actually spends some time in American bourbon oak casks, helping open the door for beginners. The smooth fruity notes of this single malt make it easy to appreciate.

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