4 Steps To Becoming A Better Whisky Shopper
June 1, 2016 –––––– Lew Bryson
Before you can do anything else with whisky, you have to buy it, and that's where a lot of people go wrong. They pay too much, or get the same old thing they always get, or they get what a reviewer said to get, or they go to the wrong store, or they buy something expensive that's way out of their comfort zone without tasting it first. If you've done this (or if you think you may have done this), don't worry: we can help.
The ancient Greek aphorism works pretty well on buying whisky. Don't buy what the crowd's buying (if you've heard of “supply and demand,” one very good reason should be clear); figure out what it is that you actually like, and pursue that. Self-confidence is one of the most important whisky-tasting tools to develop, and as always, tasting widely is the best course of action.
You'll likely find during the process that you like a range of whiskies, not just one, and surely some of them are not currently in the Hype Box. For instance, I was overjoyed to realize that I like the sweet punch of younger bourbon; there's plenty of that to be found! Given the huge variety of whiskies, there's got to be some that you like that not many others are drinking, and you'll have the added pleasure of discovery of these off-the-beaten-path brands.
There may also come a point where you ask yourself: do I really have to have the very best, most expensive examples of a class? Well, do you always fly first-class, drive a Bentley, and wear tailored suits? There are very good whiskies that cost a fraction of the top brands, and you can enjoy them more often. (Check out our Fall 2015 Value Issue for some suggestions!)
Work the Angles
Sometimes buying whisky is like buying groceries; you need to be a bit savvy. If you really like Glenmorangie Original, for instance, did you know it comes in a 1.75 liter bottle? Yes, and it costs less per dram in bigger lots, just like laundry detergent! Like grocery stores, liquor stores will put whiskies on clearance, and that's always worth a look. If the price is good enough, consider just snapping up all of them.
Get to know your retailer and what they offer. Liquor stores often have loyalty cards or clubs that may save you on every bottle, get you pre-release discounts, put you in the running for allocated whiskies (at lower prices than the secondary market), or notify you of one-day promotions by email or social media (see more on this here). Don't overlook the special appeal of stores that do not have online sales; new bottles won't disappear in a five-minute flash of electrons. Make friends at several stores; the personal touch works on both sides of a sales transaction. Check liquor stores when you travel; the selection varies, and tax rates or market supply may make for significant price differences.
Try Before You Buy
More old advice, if a bit less elevated, but eminently useful; try a sip of the whisky before laying out for a whole bottle. You can always go to a whisky bar, and a helpful bartender can be your best friend, but there are other ways to go about it. For one, hit the bar (or liquor store) when the brand ambassador's there; they'll be able to answer questions, and there may be free samples or discounts. The better liquor stores often have open sampling bottles; show them you're serious and you can try a few. If you go to an event like WhiskyFest, you'll have a chance to sample from a huge variety of whiskies, often rare and expensive ones you may not even see in other places.
Many areas have whisky clubs (your local retailer might know about them, or host one). Clubs share members' own bottles, and will often buy rare and expensive bottles to share so everyone gets a taste. Clubs may get visits from the brand ambassador as well (my local club was hosting them after only a year), and they often bring along special samples (sometimes non-market ones!).
Find a Guide
There is no real substitute for trying a whisky yourself, but the sheer number can be overwhelming. That's when a reliable guide can be invaluable. You can find reviews on the Internet pretty easily. The quantity of reviews and sources online can be staggering. It's the quality of the review that matters. How do you tell what reviews work for you?
Seek out reviewers who are trusted by other people. If you see someone's reviews being quoted, or linked, or shared on Facebook or Twitter, someone else thinks enough of them to share them; another good sign.
Crowd-sourced reviews on online whisky forums or store sites can be great, because they're written by people just like you: unpaid drinkers who have no reason to write a review other than the desire to do so. But while most of them are exactly that, the anonymity of the Internet adds an air of suspicion: was that “love it!” whisky review planted by a sneaky marketer? Tread carefully, and look for consistent voices.
Read our Whisky Advocate Buying Guide, in each issue of the magazine and on our website at whiskyadvocate.com. Each of our reviewers has been reviewing whiskies for at least four years—some for more than twenty years—they're trusted and quoted by people around the world. Most of the Whisky Advocate reviewers have written at least one book on whisky, and they all are experts in what they review.
By far the most important thing to consider when searching for your trusted reviewer is this: do you find that you agree with them? Some reviewers like a heavy sherry component in their Scotch whisky; do you? Some are simply not tolerant of whiskies that stray from an expected regional or distillery style, and will downcheck a whisky for such an issue; do you feel the same way? When you find reviewers that you agree with, you've found reviewers who can likely guide you to whiskies you'll appreciate.
Then the next time you're actually at the store, looking at the bottles, think about why you're there. Do you want something tried and true, do you want to splurge a bit on a small upgrade from your usual, or do you really want to lay out the coin for something truly rare and wonderful this time? It's all up to you, and now you've got the tools to make the right decision.