5 Whiskies To Get Started With

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5 Whiskies To Get Started With

When I started taking an interest in whisky, I walked into my local Dan Murphys and stared at a wall of bottles for a good thirty minutes, looking for that one new bottle that was for me just right … before going home (again) with a carton of beer.

Without someone to guide you in the journey, buying that first bottle of whisky and discovering what you like can be an expensive process.

This story originally appeared on March 3, and has been retimed so everyone has some handy advice for what to grab since we’re all stuck inside anyway.

I still have bottles in my collection that I purchased 7 years ago and never finished because they just did not suit my tastes. This can then become even more confusing when trying to compare whisky online to what’s actually available in Australia.

So on that note, I’ve picked five whiskies that I enjoy which for the most part can be enjoyed by all, and which are readily available to buy in Australia (well, mostly … whisky supply is at times more fickle than Aussie internet during the rain).

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You will only find whisky of the ‘whisky’ variety in this list (those mainly from Scotland, Japan & Australia etc). Since I do not drink very much whisky of the ‘whiskey’ variety (whiskey mainly from Ireland and the USA), fans of Bourbon and Irish Whiskey will not find this list particularly useful.

Suntory Toki ($70)

When considering how to best kick this list off, I realised that I couldn’t help but begin with anything other than a whisky from Japan, the country responsible for my love for whisky.

Suntory Toki is a blended Japanese whisky, made up of a combination of whiskies from three Suntory Japanese distilleries (Yamazaki (malt), Chita (grain), and Hakushu (malt)). They’re the same three distilleries behind the well known Hibiki (which for non-whisky fans, is the whisky Bill Murray was promoting in the movie Lost In Translation).

However, whilst the origin of the components of this whisky are similar to Hibiki, the end result is very different. For starters, this whisky hasn’t been aged in barrels for a minimum of 17 years, unlike the ‘$800 a bottle’ of whisky in Bill’s movie.

Toki is a great way for people who are new to the world of whisky to start their journey. It has a relatively light taste that is not overpowering, and the increase in Hakushu’s lightly peated malt whisky in this blend compared to that of the Hibiki, helps to provide a lingering flavour that both whisky lovers and novices can equally enjoy (‘peated’ whisky is dried over burning peat, which gives it a smoky profile).

Not only that, but Toki is one of the cheapest Japanese whiskies readily available in Australia.

If you are introducing someone to the world of whisky with this bottle, try offering them their first taste in the form of a highball. The whisky highball is personally one of my favourite drinks, and it is very simple to make (tall glass filled with ice, 3 parts soda water to 1 part whisky… add a slice of lemon if you really want to). Even with a cabinet of 60+ different whiskies at home, a Toki highball still makes up a large portion of my whisky consumption.

Johnnie Walker Green Label ($85)

Johnnie Walker would have to be one of (if not the most) well known Scotch Whiskies in the world. For that very reason, it is sometimes looked down upon by whisky elitists, most commonly due to the fact that the majority of its products are blended whiskies (those made with both malt barley and grain whiskies).

Often, new whisky fans will be tempted to judge a whisky based only on two factors: its age (theoretically the older the better), and whether it is a ‘single malt’ (whisky that is made with malt whisky from only a single distillery). This is often misguided, and in the case of Johnnie Walker Green Label, it’s a real shame for those who miss out.

Green Label is what is actually known as a ‘blended malt’, which means that it consists only of malt whisky, but that this malt whisky can be from different distilleries. It’s aged for at least 15 years, and contains no grain whisky (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Johnnie Walker has access to malt whisky from amazing distilleries all over Scotland, so it’s easy to understand how a combination of those whiskies can themselves be great when blended together by masters of their craft. If you aren’t sure what type of malt whisky to begin with, this one is very much a safe bet, and I consider Green Label to be one of the best ‘bang for your buck’ whiskies available in Australia, particularly when you can find it on sale (often down to $70 a bottle).

I enjoy Green Label either neat (without ice), or with a single large ice cube. You can enjoy it any way you want, but I personally feel that mixing this with anything else might be a bit of a waste.

Lagavulin 16 Year Old Islay Single Malt Scotch ($120)

Entry number three on this list could be any of a number of entry level whiskies from the Scottish region of Islay (pronounced eye-la). Islay whiskies are known for their peaty, salty and medicinal tastes, but don’t let my description turn you away. If you can acquire a taste for these beautiful whiskies, you are in for a real treat.

Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Laphroaig are three of the best known Islay distilleries, and each of their ‘cheaper’ single malts deserve to be enjoyed. For those of you familiar with the TV show Parks and Recreation, Lagavulin 16 is the whisky regularly enjoyed by character Ron Swanson (so much so that Nick Offerman, the actor who plays Ron, just recently put his face and name to a limited edition Lagavulin whisky in conjunction with the distillery).

As much as I would love everyone to want to go and buy a bottle of this whisky for their home collection, if you have never had an Islay whisky before, it may be worth trying before you buy. You can usually find at least one of Ardbeg 10, Laphroaig 10, or Lagavulin 8 or 16 at your local bar, and whilst a nip might set you back 1/6th the cost of a bottle, if you really don’t like it, then you have saved yourself in the long run.

I would normally enjoy Lagavulin 16 neat, but if you want to tone it down a little, drinking it over a single large ice cube is totally fine.

Lark Classic Cask Single Malt ($170)

This is the first Australian whisky, from Tasmania’s Lark Distillery. It gets its name from Bill Lark, often referred to as ‘the Godfather of Australian Whisky’. Until the early 90’s, it was actually illegal to distil spirits in ‘small’ quantities (i.e. those used by most startup distilleries).

Bill’s petitioning, along with others, have opened up the way for many now well known Australian distilleries, including the likes of award winning Tasmanian distillery Sullivans Cove. It is incredible to see how many Australian distilleries have popped up since those laws were changed, and we very much have Bill Lark to thank for that.

Another thing we have Bill to thank for, is the Lark Classic Cask. This single malt is what I personally consider a quintessential Australian whisky, and should be a part of every Australia’s whisky collection (should you have one).

It is easy to enjoy and should appeal to almost any whisky lover’s taste buds. If you have ever found yourself getting tempted to drop money on a bottle of the increasingly hard-to-find Yamazaki Single Malt, but have not yet tried the Lark Classic Cask, then I would compel you to take a detour via this Australian whisky first.

This whisky makes a great gift (particularly for yourself), and is something that I think would be appreciated by any Aussie whisky fan. For me, this whisky is certainly best enjoyed neat.

Bakery Hill Peated Single Malt Cask Strength ($210)

We’ll finish the list with the best and most expensive of the five, a cask strength version of Australian distillery Bakery Hill’s ‘Peated Single Malt’. Cask strength whisky, as the name suggests, is bottled at the same alcohol content as the whisky was found at when it finished maturing in the cask.This means a higher alcohol content, usually more flavour and certainly a little more ‘kick’.

Not only is this Peated Single Malt one of the best Australian whiskies available, but it won Jim Murray’s ‘Southern Hemisphere Whisky of the Year’ in his 2020 ‘Whisky Bible’.

As an Australian peated whisky, it brings with it some of the smokiness of the Islay made whiskies (like the Lagavulin earlier in this list), but without the salt and medicinal-ness that Islay is known for. This whisky is sweet (but not too sweet), with an amazing finish (the lingering taste at the end), and was one of the best whiskies I tasted across the entirety of last year.

With the recent success of Australian whisky distilleries across the last half a decade, including Sullivans Cove picking up worlds best Single Malt back in 2014 for their French Oak, the price of Australian whiskies has certainly started to move in an upwards direction. At $220 a bottle (instead of the $500+ that some Aussie whiskies are currently seeing), this single cask, single malt, would make a terrific addition to any collection, or a great gift for any whisky lover you are trying to impress.

Best enjoyed neat, though you may also want to add a couple of drops of filtered water to open up this cask strength whisky.

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One more thing.

If you’re still saying “all of these whiskies are just too expensive,” and you just want something to sip every now and again, then do yourself a favour and pick up a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label. It’s sub-$50 – probably the cheapest whisky I regularly drink – and for the price you really can not go astray.


Ben Green is an Australian host and esports commentator. You can follow him on Twitter, where he spends more time talking about whisky than esports.

Comments

  • Or, if you’re new/cheap, grab a Jamesons. It’s everywhere, and it’s smooth and mild. And if you want something with a bit more depth, the caskmates versions aren’t much more expensive but can add some interesting flavours.

    Also, Melbourne-based Starward has a few light-and-tasty versions of reasonable price, now.

    • I think I actually have a bottle of Jamesons that my mum gave me about a year ago (it was part of a hamper she won in a raffle but she didn’t want it). I just stuck it away in the pantry somewhere and forgot about it. I might have to dig it out…

      • Completely agree with the Starward! Best bang-for-your-buck Australian whisky.
        For another good cheapie, Monkey Shoulder at around $50 a bottle is a banger that surprises me every time I have it.

  • I second the Lagavulin 16 recommendation, and please consider trying Caol Ila 12, Glenlivet Nadurra, The Macallan and Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or.

    • I’ll third this. I barely drink any more, but Lagavulin was the shit, when I did. Other scotches (especially the JWs) are just pisswasser by comparison.

  • Sort of related, but there should be separate ones on Australian gin and vodka. The white spirits we’re making locally is sensational, and really well priced too.

    Tasmania especially has some banger vodka – Hellfire Bluff did a really nice one, and there’s a sheep’s whey vodka too which is awesome.

    • I could get behind a gin one, for sure. 78 Degrees (from the Adelaide Hills) is our usual, but there are so many good ones to try. We also splash out for a bottle of the Four Pillars Christmas gin each year. As novelty gins go, that’s a really nice one, although pricey.

    • I just came back from Tassie, Sullivan’s Cove have a cellar door special aged in American Oak Port casks that made me weep.
      Especially when I realised it was $400 a bottle and not available through the website.

    • Brisbane Distillery makes some absolute tip top Gin, and as a bonus their bottle design is stunning. Archie Rose in Sydney also has some absolute crackers, the new Harvest 2019 Poorman’s Orange Gin is beautiful. As an aside, Archie’s also make brilliant whisky, their Rye Malt Whisky rightly picked up World’s Best Rye at the London World Whisky Master’s last year.

      Definitely shop local people, we make some absolutely brilliant stuff down here

  • I’ve only recently dived down this rabbit hole properly. I purchased a bottle from Duty Free in 2012 doing no research whatsover, and ended up with Laphroaig Quarter Cask. I’ve since discovered that I don’t enjoy whisky that amounts to being punched in the face with a lump of charcoal, and didn’t touch any whisky of any sort of years since.

    I recently decided to give it another go and did a lot of reading and chatting with friends more knowledgeable than myself, and ended up at the other end of the scale, and I’ve found I’m quite enjoying Starward “Two Fold”, Auchentoshan 12YO and Glenfiddich 12YO.

    • I was the same with whisky.
      It was the Japanese whisky that really got me into whisky because of how clean it tastes and it doesn’t smell like a campfire. 🙂

  • I find the Glenmorangie 10 to be a good drop at a decent price.
    It has a hint of peat just to give you the taste but doesn’t punch you with it.
    And it’s pretty smooth. It’s also quite common.
    I really wish I had he cash to grab a Yamazaki 12 when it was at stock at Dan Murphys though.
    It still remains my favourite whisky.
    A good second I have found is the Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky.
    Full bodied but smooth and thankfully not the price of the Yamazaki. 🙂

  • If you’re just starting off on whiskey my advice would be to avoid the Islay malts initially. Give them a run down the line, but probably not the kind of thing to try first. Doubly true if you’re tasting a bunch of different whiskeys at the same time. The peat flavour tends to stay on your palate for a while so best to taste the peaty ones last.

    • I think it’s worth trying early (in your whisky-drinking career, not a tasting session – you’re absolutely right about that!) at least once. I actually got into whisky mostly through Ardbeg, loving the rich earthiness of it, and worked my way back to the more subtle Speyside and highland malts. Agree that it’s a turnoff for many and I wouldn’t recommend buying a bottle straight off, but it’s worth getting a dram at a bar some time.

  • Lagavulin 16 is definitely NOT a whisky to get started with, unless you want to turn the person off whisky forever. It’s super heavily peated and unless you are used to peat it will taste like an ashtray. You need to ease into peated once you are more familiar with whisky.

    You should also avoid cheap and nasty whisky like Johnnie Walker red for a first experience as that trash may taint your opinion of all whisky.

    It’s also important to remember there are many different types of whisky, but the main 4 are Scotch, Bourbon, Irish, and Canadian. Aussie and Japanese tend to be variants that lean towards the scotch variety, but are not allowed to be called that. Its best to try each and see which you type you prefer.

    For a bourbon i would recommend one of the Buffalo Trace family ($50+) to start with and move up from there. Avoid white label Jim Beam, or anything else under 40% that pretends to be whisky. Bookers is amazing but pricy ($100).
    There tends to be two types of bourbon, rye focused (most of them) and wheat focused (makers mark, weller, pappys) so make sure to try both.

    For Canadian, Canadian Club 20 ($80) and Crown Royale ($50+) are great ones to start with for Canadian whisky. Avoid the NAS CC.

    For Irish, Regular Jamesons is trash. So is proper 12. I would recommend a Teeling for Irish.

    If you are after a good cheap blended scotch, i recommend trying naked grousse ($50).

    Aussie whisky, the two listed in the article are both amazing. Sullivan’s Cove is amazing too, but too expensive. Starward ($70+) is another great value one.

    Japanese i recommend starting with the Nikka Coffey Malt ($130), or if you can find it try the regular NAS hibiki harmony. There are some amazing Japanese ones like Yamazaki, but the pricing just gets out of hand.

    Once you are ready for the single malt scotch’s, I recommend the Glendronach 18 ($170) and the Glenmorangie 18 ($130).

    If you think you are ready for peat, i recommend the Laphroig Lore and the Bruichladdich Octomore range, but it starts getting a bit pricy.

    • Someone who’s just getting started into whisky shouldn’t be starting with $100+ whiskies, especially something like the Coffey Malt. Hibiki Harmony is super smooth and easily drinkable, but it makes more sense to give something like Toki a shot first, then maybe upgraded to one of the blended Mars whiskies, and then maybe go for Hibiki Harmony. But depends on how much disposable income you have, I guess.

      I’d still argue for the Ichiro’s single or double distilled; they’re available through duty free now, and the double is still one of the nicest things I’ve ever drank.

      • they could, but they should go to a tasting night at anyone one of the amazing whisky bars dotted around the country.

        It’s hands down the best way to try a ~$170 per bottle whiskey without the financial investment.

      • Toki is already $70, and tbh is really only good for highballs – that’s what is was made for.
        Fork out the extra $50 and get a decent bottle.

      • The Coffey Malt is cheaper and easier to find these days though than the Hibiki’s.
        Although all of them become pretty scarce quickly.
        I get what you saying about starting expensive but I never liked whiskey until I tried some of the expensive ones. Well expensive as in over $100.
        It was really the smoothness of the Japanese whisky’s that started my love for it and from there my palette expanded.

  • I just picked up a bottle of the Lark, lovely drop. I like the start people on Arbelour 12, really accessible and fruity, like a Christmas pudding.

    • I like the start people on Arbelour 12, really accessible and fruity, like a Christmas pudding.

      That’s next on my list, especially coming into winter.

    • I’ve heard good things about Lark. Haven’t pulled the trigger because of the price but I think it will be next on my expensive whiskey buy list.

    • Agree 100% on the Arbelour 12. My whisky shelf is pretty full, but there is always a bottle of this on there – just never for very long.

      It’s one of the best ‘easy drinking’ whiskies around.

  • The Dubliner Irish Whiskey Liqueur is a delectable cheat way to get people into whisky if they need sweetening up first.

  • Sorry everyone, the best and cheapest blended Scotch whisky is undoutbedly ‘TEACHER & SONS’ which advertises itself as ‘high in peated malt’. This whisky is smooth, tasty AND affordable.

  • Hi Ben, I just wanted to say that I appreciate the Bakery Hill Peated Cask Strength Whisky link to my website (spiritofthemaker.com.au). I’m a fledgling business promoting and supporting our amazing Aussie distilleries and it heartens me to read the comments by your readers showing great appreciation for the creative spirit expressions that our distillers excel at. If it’s not inappropriate for this forum I’d like to offer your readers $10 off any purchases. Use the code gamers10 at checkout. (It’s case and space sensitive). Rock on guys. Debbie

  • 5 to get started with / Lagavulin and a $210 drop; pick one or the other. either the price or the smoke will get most people offsite. sometime $50-100 is a good starting point; and something with a little smoke; not smack you round smoke to get started. I really enjoy glenmorangie for starting and redbreast 12 for something fancy.

  • I can’t argue with most of that list, but I think johnny walker has to be one of the most overrated drinks around. On a couple seperate instances friends have bought a bottle of blue label for a special occasion, and all that tried it were thoroughly dissapointed. In fact I’d say many cheaper brands of whisky around the $50-70 range actually taste better. Perhaps the extra premium line of JW is decent, but if a $300 bottle is bad, I wouldn’t be surprised if their $1000+ ones weren’t much better either.

    • The green isn’t too bad. I wouldn’t buy bottle – there is far better at that price – but if you get a chance to try it, don’t turn your nose up at it 🙂

  • And thank you Kotaku for running this post, even if it is a little Zombied.

    Commenting on it has filled all my internet ads with whisky adverts. It’s awesome!

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