If you’re just getting into whiskey, it can be intimidating to go into a bar and order something new. Whiskey—not unlike wine—is steeped in tradition, and there’s so much to learn, from the way it’s made to all the minute differences between scotch, bourbon and everything in between. But there are even a few easy ways to look like you know what you’re doing the next time you order. Here, six ways to fake your way to pro whiskey status.
Learn a Few Key Whiskey Words
You don’t need to know everything about whiskey to hold a decent conversation about it at your local bar. By familiarizing yourself with some key terminology, you’ll already be ahead of the curve when it comes to whiskey knowledge. Here are a few helpful phrases to know:
- Mash bill: This refers to the mix of grains used to make whiskey—essentially, a recipe—and most often refers to American whiskeys like bourbon and rye. Bourbon must contain at least 51 percent corn in its mashbill, and rye whiskey must contain at least 51 percent rye grain.
- The difference between whiskey and whisky: If you’ve ever seen whiskey referred to as “whisk(e)y” before, you may have wondered what the hell it meant. Well, it’s relatively simple: Scotch, Japanese and Canadian whisky are spelled without an “e.” Everything else (for the most part) gets an e.
- Bottled-in-bond: Occasionally you’ll see “bottled-in-bond” on the label of a bottle of bourbon or rye. It references the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 and is a sign of quality through government oversight. It also requires a whiskey to be 100 proof.If you spot this on the label, don’t hesitate to snatch it up.
Practice the 4 S’s: Swirl, Sniff, Sip, Swish
Only a novice whiskey drinker will order a glass of neat spirit and throw it back in one go. Good whiskey deserves more in life than that (though we’re not opposed to a shot every now and then). To make it seem like you know what you’re doing—and to really get a good idea if you like a whiskey or not—commit some time to getting to know it. First swirl it around a bit in your glass and take a couple of sniffs. Once you’ve considered the aroma, take a sip and swish it around in your mouth a bit. Then proceed to sip slowly and see if you can pick out any specific flavors. The more you taste this way, the more you’ll notice differences and learn what kinds of whiskey you like. Bonus points if you learn the Kentucky Chew.
Learn How to Pronounce Bruichladdich (brook-LADDY)
While you could just order The Macallan or Balvenie for the rest of your life as a way to avoid butchering the name of a highly respected scotch brand, you could also take a few minutes to learn how to pronounce all those intimidating Gaelic names properly—here’s the 101 on a few of the more difficult ones. Don’t worry, it took us a few times to say Bruichladdich just right, too.
Bone Up on Your Tasting Notes
Oh, you missed that subtle note of hay in your bourbon? And you didn’t get wet stone on your palate from that Islay scotch? Don’t sweat it. It can take years of practice to be able to pick up every little flavor in a glass of whiskey. If you do want to extol the virtues of a particularly delightful glass, however, it’s handy to know where on the flavor spectrum whiskies tend to fall (though, in all honesty, they’re all over the map). To avoid looking like a newb, stick to failsafe words like leathery, woodsy, spiced and smoky. If you’re feeling adventurous, throw out some more involved flavor notes like buttery toffee, caramel-flecked, honeyed and dried fruit.
Order with Confidence
You don’t have to order Pappy Van Winkle or a super fancy pour of scotch to look like you know what you’re doing. And don’t get tripped up on whether or not to order something with ice or not—do what you please. Whatever you order, even if it’s a standard Jameson or Jim Beam, all you have to do is order with confidence and no one will suspect your amateur status.
Know When to Shut Up
Whiskey pros know that their education is never finished. So if you’ve tried a few bourbons and think you’re an expert, take a moment to check yourself—there will always be something you haven’t tried. The best way to learn as much as possible is by asking your bartender questions and chatting with fellow whiskey lovers. If you waste your time preaching whiskey to fellow drinkers, you’ll most likely be outed as an amateur and, even worse, an obnoxious drinking companion.