How to get into whisky, with Blair Bowman

Blair Bowman

The world of whisky can be daunting, with so many styles, flavours and brands available. Blair Bowman, Founder of World Whisky Day and author of The Pocket Guide to Whisky, which will be published on World Whisky Day this year, tells us how newcomers can get started and about his own introduction to whisky.

Was there a light bulb moment when you knew whisky was for you?

My first experience of whisky was when I was very young on a camping trip with my dad. I was about 12 or 13 and he gave me a taste of whisky from his hip flask – I think it was Highland Park and I just thought it was horrible. My light bulb moment came in the summer before leaving to go to university. I remember having a Laphroaig with friends in Edinburgh on a lovely summer’s day and finding it really interesting and unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. Several weeks later, I arrived at Aberdeen University and decided to set up a whisky society with two postgrads – I’d tried Laphroaig and wanted to discover what else was out there.

What advice would you give to newcomers trying to enter the world of whisky?

A great way into whisky is in a long drink. Whisky with ginger ale is one of my favourites or another delicious combination is Lagavulin 16 with Coca-Cola. I’m also enjoying Talisker Dark Storm with rhubarb soda at the moment – Crawston Press does a great one and it just works brilliantly. These are good ways of getting people to try whisky as there is still a whisky element but it’s not as powerful. I find that people are often put off by whisky because of its strength, particularly when they are used to drinking beer or wine. Long drinks are also simple and easy to make. You don’t need to be a cocktail wizard – all you need is some ice and a mixer.

How can newcomers find the right drams for them?

Have whisky in long drinks first and start to think about the base spirit, so for example, mix two different whiskies with ginger ale and see what you prefer. One of the best ways to discover new whisky is to order two drams in a bar – ask for recommendations of whiskies that are contrasting and very quickly you will find out what you like and don’t like. Then start going on journeys. My Pocket Guide has a tube map where every line is a different flavour profile and every station is a different distillery. So you can discover the flavours that suit your palate and once you have these reference points, whether your favourite whisky is Glenfiddich or Glenlivet for example, you can see what whiskies are related to them in terms of profile and go on a journey around that area of the map.

Can you recommend one dram for a whisky newcomer?

In the book, there are three ‘starting point’ stations on the map for those who are unsure of where to begin. These are Johnnie Walker, Glenfiddich and Highland Park. We also have a section called the ‘easy loop’, which has recommendations of easy drinking whiskies that you can’t go wrong with, whether you are drinking them mixed or neat. There are a few blends on there, as well as easy entry-level whiskies like Benromach and Tamdhu.

Is there anything else newcomers can do to get into whisky?

One thing I’ve heard about is that in companies everyone pays a small amount each month to buy an interesting bottle of whisky and then they meet to try the whisky. You could do the same with friends. Set a budget and buy an interesting bottle that everyone can share. It is much more enjoyable when you are learning about whisky with other people and sharing the experience, rather than doing it on your own. And don’t be put off – don’t force yourself to try and enjoy peated whiskies, for example, if they are not to your palate as there are so many other flavours.