Whiskey Journey: Where Do You Begin?

You’ve planned a nice dinner with 2 or 3 other couples, your friend invites you to a whiskey tasting, or even worse, you’re at a tailgate with “the enemy” and every single one of them knows a lot more than you do about whiskey. It’s natural to say to yourself, “How the Hell do they know so much?”

We’ve all been there, but when did they cross that invisible line from novice to seasoned? The short of it: there is no correct blueprint to get to veteran status. It’s an organic approach that happens naturally. Otherwise, you’ll risk sounding like a particular Kentucky based blowhard who uses other people’s lack of experience at their expense for laughter and clicks. Someone who genuinely loves whiskey will embrace your journey in the exact way a genuine person would embrace your own chosen path in life. If you like Jefferson’s Ocean, by God you better drink as much as your heart desires and share your love for it with everyone. Who cares what someone else thinks? It’s your palate, not theirs. It’s your wallet, not theirs.

The truth is, we all have a different journey. If you grew up in a more conservative household, you more than likely didn’t try whiskey, and certainly didn’t like whiskey, until your mid to late 20’s. That is not my story though I tried whiskey much earlier; Guilty! I began drinking whiskey with the Gamecocks. I had a great time at the University of South Carolina in the early 2000’s, and before every football game I would go to Green’s or J&F Bar and Supplies to buy a new bottle of whiskey under $40. Without knowing it, I was falling in love with the true essence of whiskey: Sharing and Fellowship. Even as a broke college student with no knowledge of even how whiskey turned brown, I was excited to share the little bit I knew about my new bottle with others. I wanted to find a new label to show off at the next game. It couldn’t be a label even someone like me knew about. It had to be unique but at that time, the internet wasn’t what it was, so online reviews weren’t available. You bought it because of name/brand recognition, or because it looked like a fancy bottle. I knew I crossed the bridge from beginner to the next level when I brought a bottle that everyone knew was a little bit better than the others after we tasted it. The bottle was called Ridgemont Reserve. Today it is sold under the label: 1792 and has fantastic value for any novice. Just yesterday I saw a store pick 1792 Single Barrel (also known as SiB in the whiskey world) for $42. This bottle drinks like an $80+ whiskey, so trust me when I say that it has great value.

Having a love for whiskey, and now a taste for one, I took to education. Remember how I mentioned that I didn’t know how the whiskey got its brown color? That’s because I assumed it came out of the still brown, not clear. That made me dive into the history of charcoal filtering, non-chill filtering, and aging whiskey in different species of oak barrels from American white to French. Somewhere along the line you start to read about ingredients: Corn, Rye, Barley, wheat, peat, etc. Throughout this journey, you start ordering a Rye at the golf course after a round, or a finished port bourbon after a nice steak dinner. It’s only then that you begin to unwrap a treasure trove of the types of whiskey you crave and when you crave them. You begin to know when you want a particular whiskey. I personally like to start with a low-proof bourbon if I know I am going to have 2 or more in a sitting. Low proof (90-105 for me) does not mean lack of flavor, but it does typically mean it’s not as “hot” or as spicy as an Elijah Craig Barrel Proof or Blue Run Cask Strength. As the night progresses, my palate tames the proof naturally. This, along with salts and fats from food, allows for higher proof whiskey to be enjoyed immensely. It’s my opinion that the best flavors you can possibly get from the best whiskey will be in a higher proof bourbon. You may not get the same pleasure in the early afternoon with a high proof bourbon without having a bite to eat vs a post meal dram.

The last thing I want to discuss is flavors. We’ve all heard someone smell or taste whiskey and say they smell vanilla and cherries, or leather and tobacco. You may say to yourself, “I’ll never be there.” I must be honest and say it took me 10+ years to really care. I enjoyed whiskey the way I wanted to enjoy it, and I basically had 4 tiers: Bad, Mixing/cocktail whiskey, smooth, and phenomenal. One day out of the blue you’ll drink a Jack Daniels and taste Banana or Banana Bread off the rip. You’ll open a bottle of wheated Maker’s Mark private release and taste not just cinnamon, but Big Red chewing gum. Make those mental notes and find out what the mash bill is. Find out how long it has been aged, and if you’re super nerdy, what warehouse it was in and how high it is in the rick. Heat works an oak barrel like you wouldn’t believe, and the very same whiskey on the very same rick in two separate barrels will come out completely different on the bottom level vs the top. You can begin to pinpoint what you love and why you love it, and before you know it you have completed your own self-taught apprenticeship. You didn’t go to school or take classes, you learned by experience, and there is no book or online course that can make up for that. It’s not even close.

In closing, choose your own whiskey path. Learn from and teach others but know that no two people will be the exact same. You may desire a Pappy Van Winkle because it’s unattainable, but is it even in your wheelhouse of flavor if you forked over the hundreds to get it? Maybe it’s the best you’ll ever put in your mouth…. maybe it’s an oak bomb you wished you traded away for 20 bottles of phenomenal whiskey that doesn’t carry the brand weight. The unspoken takeaway here is this: get out in the community and invite friends over to your house and engage in conversations over whiskey. Meet with them 6-12 times a year and ask them to bring a bottle you think no one will know. You will find it not only fun, but therapeutic and rewarding all at the same time. Perhaps that is when one of your buddies brings the elusive Pappy over for you to taste. It’s at that time you’ll understand the hype or be glad you can now stay away. Either way, it’s your story and you’re the author.

Stay tuned to the Gamecock Bourbon Society events page so that you can start your whiskey journey with us! We will always provide outstanding whiskies from across the country of the highest quality.

It’s up to you to find your sweet spot, and the only way to do that is to get out there and practice!

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