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What is a Good Whiskey?

Taste is subjective, but there are some characteristics which distinguish good whiskey from the ordinary. Quality, complexity of flavor ingredients, distilling methods smoothness, ageing, and many other factors contribute to the making of whiskey “good”. However, the final most effective answer to “what is an excellent whiskey” is a whiskey that you like and drink.

Let’s examine the various factors that make one sip an enjoyable tasting experience. Hopefully, after learning what goes into whiskey making and tasting, you’ll become an authority when it comes to the question, “what is a good whiskey?”

Flavor Complexities

The complexity of flavor in a whiskey distinguishes from what is a good whiskey – whiskey you would drink on its own or mixed with water – and a whiskey you’d rather drink in cocktail.

A whiskey that has a lot of complexity could be mixed into a cocktail of course, but you’ll miss out on all the subtleties of flavor that have been carefully made to each batch.

There are a variety of things that affect the flavor profile of a really great whiskey.

How do you determine the flavors families of whiskey?

There are eight flavor families in whiskey which can be broken down into individual subcategories. Being aware of what these families are can help you to identify distinct notes in a whiskey. Here are the families and their subcategories.

Fruity – Cooked Fruit, Dried Fruit, Fresh Fruit, Citric
Winey – Oily and Nutty, Chocolate Sherries
Sulphuric – Sandy, Vegetative, Coal/Gas, rubbery
Peaty – – Kippery Mossy, Smokey, Medicinal;
Cereal – Yeasty, Cooked Mash, Husky, Malt Extract
Woody – Vanilla, Old Wood, New Wood Toasted
Floral – leafy, hay-like, Green House, Fragrant
Feinty – Sweaty, Tobacco, Plastic and Leathery

These tastes don’t seem like they are good on their own, but you’ll be amazed at the way that offbeat flavors can be blended together to make delicious whiskey.

It’s also perfectly normal to start out with whiskeys that have more of a fruity flavor or to avoid stronger whiskeys with a strong flavor. When you’re trying to figure out what makes a great whiskey, make sure to test different flavor profiles, but as always it’s about what you love!

“The Devil is in the Grains” – How to define a Flavor Profile

Although the above flavors are flavors that are present in whiskey, they’re not the components that are used in the production of whiskey. Whiskey is created through the fermentation of grain mash which can be malted or not.

Malting grain is a process which involves soaking the grain in water, which causes it to sprout. The result is maltose which is an ingredient in sugar. It provides a richness similar as chocolate or butter to the overall taste character.

Sometimes, the difference between a quality whiskey and what’s not lies in the grains. Additionally, different proportions of grains create different flavour profiles.

Some of the grains used to make whiskey are:


Barley is mostly used for Scotch whisky, and packs quite a punch. Barley is usually malted and dried using peat. The flavor of whisky made from barley is usually diminished by its ageing in old port wine or sherry barrels. This adds the notes of spice and fruit to the natural earthy smoky flavor of Scotch.


Rye offers a deep, nutty, and spicy spice to the whiskey. It can be used by itself to make Rye whiskey. It is only able to be referred to as such when it has been aged in American oak barrels, and has 51 percent Rye mash.

Rye can be mixed with other grains to make various whiskey types like bourbon.


Wheat whiskeys are largely produced by the United States. They are popular with people due to being silky and delicately sweet.

Wheat whiskeys are characterized by a variety of flavor notes, including vanilla, toffee, and honey. While they used to be not as popular however, they are getting more and more sought-after because of their sweet, smooth, and sweet characteristics.


Corn is the primary basis for Bourbon whiskey. In order to qualify as Bourbon it has to be made in America and must contain at minimum 51% corn Mash.

It’s a different drinkable ingredient and offers flavors of cream, honey, and even marshmallow that has been toasted.

Certain whiskeys are crafted with different blends of these grains in various ratios, while some are made with only one grain and others have all four! Be aware of the flavor profile you want to taste in your mind. Also, when you are choosing a whiskey, be aware of the grains the whiskey is made from.

Barrels in various types and the imparting of Flavor

When it comes time to answer the question “What is a great whiskey?”, the barrels in which whiskey ages are a big part of the discussion. The barrels in which whiskey is maturing in are crucial in providing the taste. The majority of whiskey barrels are made from oak, and they contain oils that seep into the liquid while it sits.

Sometimes whiskey – particularly Bourbon – is aged in brand new barrels, and sometimes the barrels it’s aging in were originally used for other purposes – that something else is what gives the whiskey its distinctive flavor once it’s time to be released.

New Oak Barrels

New oak barrels haven’t been used yet to store any spirits. Thus the flavor of the wood itself gets more prominent in whiskey. New oak barrels are utilized to mature Bourbon.

Ex-Bourbon Barrels

Once the barrel is made into a barrel to be used for the ageing of a Bourbon or other whiskey, it could be re-used to age other whiskeys, such as Scotch. These barrels give the fruity taste of the Bourbon that came out of them, and also vanillic flavours.

Ex-Port Barrels

Barrels that used to hold port wine have the flavors of the wine in them and are often dried fruit flavors like fig or raisin. Based on the port, the flavors can change.

Ex-Sherry Barrels

Sherry barrels are also able to impart an aroma of dried fruits that is similar to those of port wine barrels. Sherry generally has more of a dry flavor than port, so the whiskey aged in those barrels will also be drier in taste.

This isn’t an exhaustive listing of the different types of barrels used to age whiskey, but you get the idea.

What spirit was in the barrel previously held will add its own distinctive flavor to the final whiskey.

Aging Whiskey and its Impact on Whiskey’s Flavor?

We’ve been learning about the types of barrels used in aging whiskey. Let’s now take into the actual method of aging. Is the aging process the key to what is good whiskey?

Many think that the more aged the whiskey is, then the higher quality it is. In reality, whiskeys over a lengthy period of time are typically more expensive than those that are not. Age doesn’t necessarily mean the quality of the whiskey, however.

When the barrel is aging as the barrel ages, the temperature of the oak barrel changes. This causes the wood to shrink and then expand which allows oxygen into the spirits.

This may add many different flavor profiles to the whiskey. If the whiskey has been matured in oak barrels that are charred The charring serves as a filter to eliminate the strong alcohol taste. Over time the color becomes dark and develops a smokey caramel-colored body.