One of the most challenging things for me when I first started to explore the world of whiskey was a lingering doubt that I couldn't taste any of the god damned things other people said they tasted.
Probably many readers of this page have felt likewise, or may still continue to feel that way. You might have had Johnnie Walker one night and Wild Turkey the next, and after each taste you think "This tastes like whiskey." Such experiences prompted me to conclude at one point in my life that any whiskey above a $25 price point was wasted on me.
Adding to that theory was having a drinking pal whose palate was really good. To me, it seemed like my friend Adam was some kind of booze wizard, able to detect a hint of “pencil shavings” from a glass of cabernet or “soy sauce” from a dark beer. Come again?
What kept this from coming across like unmitigated horse shit was the fact that, damn it, those tastes did exist in the glass. Over the last several years, I made a focused effort to try to refine my own palate in the service of being able to have the same kind of nuanced experience. There have been a few a-ha moments I wanted to share, since wonder of wonders, I think I've actually succeeded in that goal. (Hint: it will also happen for you!)
1. You may be drinking things that taste the same.
As an example: the popular Irish whiskeys, your entry-point single-malts, and your quality blended scotches are all going to be gunning for the same marketing objective: to produce an easy-drinking, unchallenging spirit that most people will like, not love.
Idiosyncratic tastes run the risk of turning someone off, or running afoul of your layperson's idea of what brown liquor is “supposed” to taste like. This is predominately why any mass-market product, be it a blended scotch or a bourbon, isn't going to rock the boat. Starting off, it might be hard to tell Jim Beam from Jack Daniel's, or to tell Bushmills from Jameson. Even differentiating Glenlivet 12 from Glenfiddich 12—the two most ubiquitous scotches out there—is not an easy task to the newcomer.
Lesson one is to try two wildly different whiskies back to back. This is why I like single malt scotches, since there's a huge variation in flavors. Even as a novice, I guarantee that if you were (for example) to sip between Ardbeg 10 and Dalmore 12, you'd absolutely be able to tell the difference. You could also try two very different categories: a scotch and a rye, let's say.
In general, you'll probably need to pay between $30 and $60 for the truly characterful bottles, but you'll probably find as I do that they are easily twice as good as Jameson or Johnny Walker Red for being twice the price.
A note here about bourbons: to me, they exist in a relatively narrow band of tastes and flavors in comparison to scotch, ryes, or other world whiskies (ex: Canadian, Japanese, or American single malts). There are exceptions, but my opinion is that you're going to have to work harder as a newcomer to sort out aromas and flavors that are unique to your bottle.
2. It's okay to cheat!
I always try to develop my own tasting notes to see what I get out of something, as the power of suggestion is a very real thing, but before you sit down with a good bottle of booze, read a little bit of the distillery's own tasting notes for the product. I find that they don't quite tend to match my own. However, when you're exploring something new, sometimes knowing that the spirit “should” taste like vanilla or apricot is a handy signpost to have.
Will you taste everything they claim to be in there? Probably not; I hardly ever do. But often, one or two of those tastes will strike me as being particularly noticeable.
3. Taste with the whisky wheel handy
By that I mean this guy, courtesy of Whisky Magazine and Charles MacLean (a pretty well-known dude).
What's interesting is that for the variety of whiskies out there, there are many common flavors and aromas that come together (or clash) to define an individual bottling. Just as a boxing match is made up essentially, of just a bunch of punches, your experience is an aggregate of several different sensory micro-experiences working in tandem.
I found it helpful to explore the wheel as a binary kind of thing. “Do I get coffee: yes or no? Do I taste grass: Yes or no?” And so on. That way you'll begin to find memorable examples of each aroma and flavor in terms of what's on your shelf. Not before long you'll begin to build your own vocabulary.
4. Have patience!
It took me a while of mindfully tasting and being a careful observer before my sense of taste (and smell!) finally kicked in and began working together—but not that long! I guarantee that this will happen for you, too: don't rush the process. Just find a few things you like, pour yourself a drink after work, and see if you can suss out what's going on with it in a quiet moment.
Turn the experience from a passive to an active one and you'll get more out of every bottle, I guarantee it.