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What Makes A Good Whiskey? Answered (2023 Updated)

Last Updated on January 2, 2023 by Lydia Martin

As taste is subjective, several characteristics distinguish good whiskey from regular whiskey.

But the big question here is, what makes a good whiskey?

From quality ingredients, distillation method, aging, flavor complexity, smoothness, and more, let’s look into the main points of making a perfect whiskey.

All About Good Whiskey

Man Pouring Bottle of Whiskey on a Glass

A good whiskey solely depends on a drinker’s preference. Once a bottled whiskey meets your expectations, you probably consider it a “perfect whiskey.” 

However, what you distinguish delicious and smooth, may not please other drinkers. 

Generally speaking, the best whiskey has a better quality, rich flavor profile, is properly aged, and is smooth, which usually comes from premium brands.

Factors To Consider 

Premium Ingredients

Corn

Corn is the major ingredient in making bourbon whiskey. This grain produces cream, honey butter, and toasted marshmallow notes. 

“If I cannot drink bourbon and smoke cigars in heaven, then I shall not go.”

— Mark Twain, American Writer

Other whiskeys utilize other grains in their blend. So when choosing a whiskey, consider the flavor profile you want to experience. 

Rye

Whiskey made from rye grain delivers bold, spicy, and nutty flavor. 

In creating a quality rye whiskey, the spirit must contain at least 51% rye mash and be aged in American oak barrels.  

Rye can be blended with corn or other types of grains to make another spirit, like bourbon. 

Malted Barley

hand holding malted barley

Malted barley is commonly used in making Scotch whisky– blended with peat. It is usually aged in port wine to sherry barrels to reduce the punch. 

So it gives a fruity and spicy character combined with the smoky taste of Scotch whiskies.   

Wheat

Whiskeys made from wheat deliver a soft, mellow, and sweet taste. Typically, wheat whiskey expressions feature flavor profiles of honey, vanilla, and toffee. 

Whiskey Type

There are different types of whiskey [1]. The different types are made from varying processes– using different types of barrels, grains, etc., creating distinct flavor notes, finish, and aroma.   

Aging Process

wooden barrels on a rack

Length of Aging

It must be two years at the minimum to age bourbon based on the requirement. But some whiskey expressions are aged beyond that with 10, 12, 15, and 18 years aging.  

Wood Selection

  • New Oak 

New oak barrels haven’t been used to store any liquids yet. So, the wood flavor in the whiskey becomes more pronounced. 

Bourbon is usually aged in this type of barrel. But there are expressions using charred oak barrels.

  • Used Bourbon Barrels

Ex-bourbon barrels are reused to age other whiskey/s like some of the best Scotch, be it a single malt Scotch or a blended one.  

  • Used Sherry Casks

Ex-sherry casks impart dried fruit flavors. Besides, whiskey aged in these barrels should have a drier note.

  • Ex-Port Barrels

Like ex-sherry casks, used port wine [2] barrels impart wine relishes for better quality and tasting notes. This barrel gives off the dried fruit flavor. 

Distillation Method

Distillery Equipment

The distilling method contributes to making a bottle one of the best whiskeys. This factor may include the type of barrels used and how long this process takes place. 

Some whiskey grains are double-distilled and triple-distilled using oak barrels or wooden casks. Double-distilled whiskey creates balance flavors, while triple-distilled produces complex flavors. 

Aroma

A good whiskey should have a captivating flavor and aroma that will make you want to drink it again and again. 

What you pour into your glass should be an experience leaving you with a feeling of awe and utter astonishment.

Using high-quality ingredients, such as top yeast and pure water, the whiskey has the potential to be incredibly good. 

However, that doesn’t mean that it’s the best. It’s still not enough to make the best whiskeys; it’s also important to have a character that can enhance the experience.

Flavor Complexity 

pouring liquor on a  glass

The complexity of flavor profiles in a whiskey sets apart the good whiskey from ordinary spirits. 

Usually, good whiskeys are spirits you can sip on their own or with a splash of water, while there are whiskeys you would rather enjoy mixed in a cocktail. 

While some flavors don’t sound like they’re good on their own, when combined with other flavors, it creates great-tasting whiskey. 

It’s also normal to start with whiskeys that have a fruit flavor instead of a stronger-flavored bottle.

In searching for a good whiskey, trying different flavor profiles is important.

Flavor Families of Whiskey 

Flavor FamilySub-Categories
Feinty Leathery, Tobacco, Plastic, and Sweaty 
FloralHay-Like, Fragrant, Leafy, and Green House
Woody Toasted, New Wood, Old Wood, and Vanilla
CerealMalt Extract, Husky, Cooked Mashed, and Yeasty
PeatyMedicinal, Smokey, Mossy, and Kippery 
SulphuricRubbery, Gas/Coal, Vegetative, and Sandy
Winey Sherries, Chocolate, Nutty, and Oily
Fruity Citric, Fresh Fruit, Dried Fruit, and Cooked Fruit

Originating Region 

Whiskey comes from different parts of the world. The top whiskey-making regions are the US, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and Japan. 

These regions have different laws and processes in making their expressions, delivering varying notes, flavors, finishes, and overall experience. 

FAQs

How to drink a good whiskey?

You can drink a good whiskey neat, straight, on the rocks, or in cocktails, depending on your preference.

There’s no definite way to drink whiskey– either good or bad. 

How do you know if whiskey is good or bad? 

You can tell a good whiskey if it has the flavor complexity and premium ingredients, and is properly aged and distilled, with the right smoothness and balance. 

Is a good whiskey always expensive?

Good whiskey isn’t always expensive, and it really depends on your preference.

You can find affordable ones that you can find a perfect whiskey, but you can expect premium ones to be better in quality. 

Final Thoughts 

A few factors are involved in making a perfect whiskey, but what’s important is that you like it and will definitely guzzle it.

An ideal whiskey isn’t about how it’s made; it’s all about what you prefer. 

Only you can tell an excellent whiskey, and it’s regardless of its geographical origin, aging and distilling method, and many more.

You can consider one as an ideal whiskey as long as it suits your standard, specifically your taste buds. 

References:

  1. https://www.britannica.com/topic/whiskey 
  2. https://www.britannica.com/topic/port-wine 

Lydia Martin

Lydia Martin hails from Redmond, Washington, where you’ll find some of the best cocktail bars and distilleries that offer a great mix of local drinks. She used to work as a bar manager in Paris and is a self-taught mixologist whose passion for crafting unique cocktails led her to create Liquor Laboratory. Lydia can whip up a mean Margarita in seconds! Contact at [email protected] or learn more about us here.

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