Johnnie Walker's whisky expert says you can tell how expensive a bottle of scotch is just by smelling it

Business Insider US
Johnnie Walker's whisky ambassador told Business Insider it's possible to tell how expensive a whisky is by smelling it.
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  • Johnnie Walker's whisky ambassador, Ali Reynolds, told Business Insider it's possible to tell how expensive a whisky is by smelling it.
  • According to Reynolds, detecting the sting of alcohol is a sign you're drinking a young whisky.
  • Meanwhile, if you can pick up other flavor notes, it's a good sign it's a more expensive bottle.
  • Reynolds suggested newcomers to the world of scotch explore each whisky region to find the one they like best.
  • He says that for a single malt, R700 to R900 is a good benchmark to start at.

From simple matters like knowing the difference between whiskey and whisky to avoiding big mistakes when buying, ordering, and drinking the liquid, the worlds of scotch, bourbon, and rye can seem complicated.

However, according to one whisky expert, knowing the difference between a good bottle and a bad one can be as simple as smelling it.

Ali Reynolds, a whisky ambassador for Johnnie Walker, has been in the drinks business for 10 years, having started out managing bars across the UK.

Ali Reynolds, Johnnie Walker's whisky ambassador.

He told Business Insider he came across Johnnie Walker when he entered a cocktail competition run by the brand's owner, Diageo, in 2015. He won the Great Britain final and traveled to South Africa for the global competition.

"I fell in love with the brand there really," he said. "It was nice to see the other side of the business - less of the late nights and more early meetings."

Now, his role as a whisky ambassador involves educating people on the spirit and "helping the brands show up in the right place," he said. Plus lots of travel.

Having always had a passion for scotch, Reynolds certainly seems to know a lot about the liquid now. Still, he had a few pointers for less confident drinkers when it comes to choosing the right bottle and the right distillery.

You can detect quality by smell alone

Reynolds, who works with whiskies costing R400 to R400,000, said it's often the case that "the more you pay, the better the liquid."

"If you're buying a good single malt, £40 to £50 plus [around R700 to R900] is a nice benchmark to start at," he said.

He added that it's possible to tell how cheap or expensive a bottle of whisky is without seeing the price tag - by simply smelling it.

"Some whiskies don't smell like they taste," he said. "You want to look out for that sting of alcohol. If that's there, it probably means it's quite a young whisky. If it has depth to the smell and you can pick up other flavour notes, that's quite a good thing."

He added that you can often pick up on leather or wood notes in whiskies aged longer.

"It's hard to tell from the color, so look for layers of flavor," he said. "If you can describe them in different ways, that's a good sign."

Keep it out of direct sunlight

Once you've made your selection, to ensure the quality of your whisky remains intact - particularly if you've invested in it - you should keep it out of direct sunlight, Reynolds said.

"If it's in a green or blue glass bottle, it should be fine no matter where, as long as it's not too warm, because alcohol will evaporate," he said. "It will lose a lot of the color, and whisky starts to bleach itself."

He added that he keeps his in a cabinet or cupboard "out of reach from everyone else."

"As long as it's not in direct sunlight or next to a radiator, it can keep for as long as you like."

Whisky has regions, just like wine

Reynolds said most people choose their whiskies by their age, which he called a "good guideline, as you have a guarantee."

However, he said that as a whisky ambassador, he doesn't think any whisky is "bad" and is a proponent of finding the right one - or the right region - for you.

Reynolds says you can get to know whisky regions like you get to know wine regions - and there are four main ones in Scotland.

He said that when he's educating bartenders, he tells them "to explore the regions around Scotland." Because of this, he added, bartenders are often the best people to ask for advice.

"Once you've nailed the four regions, they have their own distinctive character, and there's something for everyone," he said.

He added that blends, which mix different whiskies to create one flavor, are a good place to start if you're new to scotch.

"There are almost 130 distilleries producing scotch, so there's a lot out there," he said. "Explore, but know your favorite region."

There are 'ghost distilleries' all over the world

Even Reynolds is still discovering new things. Happening upon "ghost distilleries" resulted in the launch of the Johnnie Walker's Blue Label Ghost and Rare blend.

Johnnie Walker's Blue Label Ghost and Rare blend was made with liquid from three "ghost distilleries."
Johnnie Walker

"The term comes from lost but not forgotten distilleries which have closed down," Reynolds said. "The one we're focused on was in Port Ellen," a revered distillery that closed in 1983.

"They haven't made a drop since then, but there are amazing liquids sitting in casks still," he said, adding that Johnnie Walker was bottling them with the launch and "wanted to focus on amazing flavours."

Liquid from three ghost distilleries will go into the Ghost and Rare blend. But Reynolds said these ghost distilleries exist around the world.

"There are limited releases that come out in Ireland, Japan. Unfortunately, a lot are quite tragic - it might have been fires that closed them down," he said. But "whatever it might be, a lot of distilleries are open to helping make blended whisky."

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