Guide: Navigating the pricey seas: a buying guide for whisky beginners

Whenever I talk to someone new about my whisky hobby and go over my collection and experiences, I usually start with a very important disclaimer.

The absolute best time to get into whisky is 5 years ago.

It sounds like a joke, but I very much mean that. With ever-increasing prices, dwindling stock, NAS releases, and the “good stuff” becoming next to impossible to find, I don’t envy new whisk(e)y drinkers who are just starting the “exploration” stage of this hobby. Not only are the choices overwhelming but the sticker shock of some of these price tags is enough to scare many people away.

Here are some tips that can help you navigate the choppy, expensive seas of the whisky shelf at your local stores.

storeshelves

There is still value out there

I took a look at the prices of a nearby large liquor store in my area and found plenty of decent releases at the $59.99 and under price point including but not limited to:

  • Clynelish 14
  • Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve
  • Glenmorangie Original and Quinta Ruban
  • Craigellachie 13
  • Balvenie Doublewood 12
  • Aberlour 12 Non-Chill Filtered
  • Glenfarlcas 12
  • Highland Park 12
  • Old Pulteney 12

In a world where you see tons of super aged releases out there, don’t forget that all those “entry level” 12 year old releases that are often dismissed still deserve your attention and respect. Someone put some alcohol into a barrel and it stayed there for OVER A DECADE before being shipped around the world to reach you. That kind of time and dedication should not be taken lightly. Look for bottlings at 46%+ alcohol by volume for that extra, non-chill filtered goodness. Many of the releases mentioned above fit the bill.

Shop around

Depending on where you are in the world, the prices from store to store can vary wildly, even with a single expression. In the United States, things get even tricker on a state by state basis. Some states (like mine) have minimum state pricing that sellers can’t drop below. Other states are control states and have the final say in all liquor sales including price and availability. We won’t even talk about Canada (just know that things are bad there). On the plus side, some states like MA have no sales tax on alcohol which could really add up on a large purchase.

On the online side of things, many states will allow ordering spirits through online retailers. I’m not lucky enough to be in one of those states, but large online shops like Binnys and K&L Wines have a great selection and will ship booze right to your doorstep.

Try before you buy

These days, I don’t often buy a bottle of whisky that end up regretting after I try it. This is mostly because over time, I’ve learned what I like and don’t like and use that experience to make smart purchases. If you’re new to whisky, you may not know your taste preferences yet. The problem, of course, is that it’s hard to know what you like until you try enough expressions. Sure, you could go to a bar and pay for drinks with an 800% markup but that’s going to drain your wallet pretty quickly. There are a few different ways to get samples. One is through online retailers. Master of Malt is the first place that comes to mind. They’ve been doing samples of really great releases for many years and it gives you a chance to try things you might not otherwise be able to find/afford. The other way is through sample trading. There are places online where you can make this happen but because it’s illegal in many states and countries, you’ll have to find those places yourself.

Location Location Location

There are some whisky producing countries that are putting out good releases at relatively cheap prices these days. Some of them are from Scotland, others from the US (single malts, not bourbon), and others still from India. I can’t speak globally here but these are the three main countries I can think of that are readily available in the United States at good prices. Asia-Pacific countries are another story. Austrailia has some great stuff but it’s impossible to get here. Japan and Taiwan? Don’t even think about it. I like Yamazaki 12 well enough but I didn’t even buy more when the price was still $49.99. I’m not paying over $100 for it now. The whisky hasn’t suddenly gotten twice as good. Hype and hype alone has driven the price to unnecessary levels of inflation.

In Summary

Be smart, patient, and careful about your whisky choices and even a beginner in this hobby can find great bottles and excellent value in their local stores. Good luck out there!