A guide for beginners on buying and enjoying whisky this Christmas

Sean Murphy asks for guidance on buying a whisky for that drinks fan in your life this Christmas from John McCheyne, Scotch Malt Whisky Society brand ambassador.

Published 18th Dec 2017
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

Purchasing the perfect Christmas present for the whisky fan in your life may seem like a daunting task.

Some people may feel that they may not have enough adequate knowledge of Scotland’s national spirit to be confident of choosing the best fit from the dazzling array of Scotch whiskies which now decorate supermarket and specialist shop shelves up and down the country.

Thankfully, there are people out there whose job it is to help you and also advise beginners on how to find their feet in beginning their own whisky journey.

One such man is John McCheyne, who works as a brand ambassador for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a group dedicated to whisky enthusiasts around the world, which offers selected bottlings from their private stock and premium venues in which to drink them.

Whisky Christmas

Picture: John McCheyne

Though it may sound rather ­exclusive, the society has, in fact, made it their mission to make ­whisky accessible to everyone – something John finds to be massively important in the lead up to a season in which many people will either buy or ­sample whisky for the first time.

The whisky expert explained that for them, the festivities begin in November – with the release of their monthly list – and runs through ­Hogmanay and up to Burns Night, meaning he has a lot of experience when it comes to giving people advice on buying the best bottles to get for loved ones around this time of year.

He said: “Many people play safe and buy a bottle they know the whisky ­lover in their life likes, or a brand name they recognise. We’d encourage someone who hasn’t bought whisky before to be adventurous and start by focusing on the flavours to be found in the whisky, and what it tastes like, rather than looking at things like the age of the whisky of the distillery or region it is from.

“Doing this is a good way of ­getting away from any preconceptions you may have about the whisky – for example, that a whisky from Islay will always be smoky and heavily peated, which is not always the case.”

John added that factors such as the cost of the bottle aren’t something that you need to take too much into consideration when buying a new whisky, as a higher price is not always a signifier of the spirit itself being ­better.

He said: “Price can reflect the ­rarity or age of a whisky, or a special expression with a limited number of bottlings. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you (or those you are buying for) will enjoy the flavour. In a shop, I’d suggest talking to the staff and describe the type of flavours you like.

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"You may not always be able to try before you buy, but if you know what you (or the person you are buying for will like), the retailer should be able to suggest options and talk about the differences in flavour.

“For example, with the society, our flavour profiles and tasting notes help members choose. You can also try before you buy by visiting one of our bars such as Kaleidoscope in Queen Street, Edinburgh, which is open to non-members.

"The staff will be delighted to talk through what is available and let you try something that you think might be for you. Often, that leads to guest discovering they like a style of whisky they would never have thought of trying. We’re here to help you on your whisky knowledge journey.”

When it comes to the “best method” for enjoying a dram – particularly when you are a beginner – John said that there is no “perfect way” regarding whether you should add water or ice – only the way you like to enjoy it.

He said: “It’s YOUR whisky. There will be moments when you want to enjoy your whisky in a cocktail or with water, and other moments when you would like to drink the same whisky neat.
“It’s about mood and moments, and never let anyone dictate to you how you should drink it.”

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Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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