“Keep your friends close, but a bottle of whisky closer,” says country singer Granger Kelly Smith. But not all whisky is created equal, so how do you choose the right companion? Here are the top factors that make a good whisky.  

Whisky Type 

Each type of whisky has a distinct flavour and personality, such as: 

  • Single malt whisky: the highest quality whisky made with 100% malted barley in a single distillery
  • Single cask whisky: a limited edition whisky, usually a few hundred bottles, from a single barrel
  • Blended malt whisky: malted barley whisky from two or more distilleries 
  • Blended whisky: average-quality whisky made from barley, wheat, and corn 
  • Single grain whisky: prepared using either corn or wheat, but not barley
  • Blended grain whisky: prepared using either corn or wheat from two or more distilleries 

Look at the ingredients on the bottle to help you anticipate the whisky’s taste. 

Whisky Age 

The general rule is that the longer a whisky ages, the better its flavour. Young whiskies are under five years old and usually sold without an age statement on the bottle. The average whisky age is ten years. Older whiskies, over 20 years old, tend to have richer flavours and a higher price tag. 

Whisky Flavour 

Whisky comes in five main flavour profiles: 

  • Fruity whisky: citrus, tropical, or orchard notes such as lime, banana, mango, apple, dates, raisins, and figs 
  • Spicy whisky: warming or fiery notes such as cinnamon, nutmeg, chilli, and jalapeño 
  • Smoky whisky: rich, earthy, or woody notes such as oak, peat, bourbon, and coffee
  • Sweet whisky: confectionary notes such as chocolate, vanilla, honey, toffee, fudge, marshmallow, and cream
  • Floral whisky: light, delicate, or leafy notes such as jasmine, rose, pine, green tea, and fresh hay

Ultimately, whisky flavour depends on its production process, from the distillery’s location to the fermentation, ageing, and type of cask. All these qualities give whisky that much-loved multi-layered flavour and aroma. 

Whisky Strength

Water before bottling is standard for most whiskies between 40 and 50% ABV to improve the taste. You can drink it straight or add water or ice if the whisky is too bold for your taste. But some cask-strength whiskies have no water added, meaning a much higher alcohol content (over 51%) and more robust flavour. 

Whisky Region

Some believe that a distillery’s location affects its character. Others say that defining whisky by region is a marketing tool. However, you’ll find that Scotch whiskies from the Highlands have smoky or earthy flavours, while sweet or fruity whiskies come from Speyside distilleries. Irish whiskeys also tend to have lighter flavour and aroma than Scotch whiskies. 

A Good Whisky for Every Palate 

With all these factors at play, a good whisky is what you make it. There are plenty of whiskies to choose from, whether you want to warm up on chilly nights, celebrate with a hearty toast, or gift a precious bottle to a dear friend. To know what makes a good whisky, taste it neat first to experience its full character, and keep an open mind. You may find your favourite whisky in unexpected places!