Many people who are new to bourbon don't know where to start. Some turn to books, magazines or web sites like StraightBourbon or BourbonEnthusiast for recommendations. But it can be confusing.
I'm on record, in my book and elsewhere, as not thinking very much of rating systems. Their basic flaw is that they give a sheen of objectivity to something inherently subjective.
I had a long conversation about this with Jim Murray once and his conclusion was, "we owe it to people to give them some kind of guidance."
Here, for example, is a pitfall to avoid. Newcomers do themselves no favor by trying to find a consensus 'best' bourbon or other whiskey as if they can learn all they need to know by tasting 'the best.' Unfortunately, products enthusiasts rave about tend to be atypical and hard to appreciate if you are still learning the basics.
My recommendation for a beginner is to work your way through the leading brands from the major producers -- Jim Beam white, Jack Daniel's No. 7, Evan Williams black, Wild Turkey 101.
Compare them to each other, get to know them.
Taste them the right way. Start your journey by developing your tasting technique. I recommend tasting everything both neat and diluted with room temperature water.
Remember that smelling is a crucial part of tasting.
For the next round, pick the two or three of the first group that you liked best and figure out what that producer's step-up is. If you like Wild Turkey 101, you might want to step up to Russell's Reserve, Rare Breed or Kentucky Spirit. Which one? It doesn't really matter, though budget might play a role as Kentucky Spirit costs twice as much as Russell's Reserve.
After that you should be able to fly solo.
Most of all, resist the lure of short cuts. They're a waste of time because they don't work. You don't become a bourbon connoisseur just because you drank a bottle of Pappy 23. That's probably the hardest thing to get across to young people so I'll repeat it, because they love it when you do that. Short cuts don't work.
Okay, vets. What are your tips for beginners?