Vodka is no longer king. Nothing against neutral grain spirits, but a lack of discernible flavor is not necessarily the only tool in the modern bartender’s speed rack, and thanks to resurgence of interest in classic cocktails, more consumers are seeking alternatives—and adjectives other than “smooth” to describe their favorite spirits.
Equal to this renewed demand is whiskey, which is less a specific kind of spirit than a grouping of many spirits whose depth, complexity and versatility make them indispensable to both professional bartenders and amateur enthusiasts. The problem is that walking into the whiskey section of even a small liquor store can be a daunting experience without a basic working knowledge of the differences between whiskies and their application in cocktails. So to get you started, here’s a rundown of the four basic types of whiskeys. Keep in mind that there are exceptions to (most) every rule, and that whiskey is a broad and detailed subject with more than its share of academic minutia; however, this primer should be more than enough to help you navigate the pitfalls of the whiskey aisle.