The first whiskey I ever drank was technically bourbon. It was my senior year of college, and some new girlfriends, who had already tapped out on keg beer, showed me how to drink Jim Beam and Coke. I can't remember what that first sip tasted like; I'm sure it was harsh. But I drank it and kept drinking it until finally I lost the flavor of the Beam under the sweetness of the Coke, and it was just a sugary cocktail I could down like fruit punch.

It wasn't until after college that I learned whiskey had cachet, that its taste was acquired, that it was a so-called man's drink. Which meant drinking whiskey as a woman made me tough, even if, as a former Catholic schoolgirl (who didn't imbibe until I was legal and never touched a cigarette), I wasn't tough at all. Bartenders gave me admiring looks whenever I ordered whiskey, and dates seemed both intimidated and intrigued as they sheepishly sipped their vodka tonics. I could just feel the imaginary tattoos spreading down my arms.

Eventually, I became interested less in whiskey's mystique than in its taste. I learned to drink the good stuff on the rocks or with a little water. I sipped the Lagavulin neat and found a better bourbon in Maker's Mark. What's more, I started to drink it alone. Not the alcoholic type of alone, but the connoisseur's discerning drink-after-work type of alone. I would sip a little and swish it in my mouth to distinguish the flavors — sometimes sweet and citrusy and other times like liquid fire in my throat.

The more I learned about whiskey, the more I tired of the reactions I used to relish. Now I understand the art of it — the differences in the ways they are made and aged, and their myriad flavors. Discovering whiskey is a project, and the pleasure and mastery of it — the things that seem so intimidating to a beginner — the reward. If more women turned in their cosmos for bookers, we could break the stubborn notion that this rich, moody drink is just for men. So I've prepared a primer for those of you who'd like to join me.

THE RUNDOWN: SIX WHISKEYS YOU SHOULD KNOW

Don't let anyone tell you that adding water to whiskey is a mistake — it opens up the aromas so you can take in the smell before you drink it.

SCOTCH

WHAT IT IS:
Usually, it refers to Scotland's famous single malts, not to be confused with the blended Chivas your grandma drank with soda. Single malts are made from malted barley, and typically aged from three to 30 years.

IT TASTES:
Earthy and smoky, since Scotch makers burn a soillike material called peat while they're drying the grain.

TRY:
Auchentoshan, Dalmore

BEST FOR:
Sipping with your boss after you've made VP.

HOW TO DRINK IT:
The way Scots dress under those skirts: au naturel. Ask for it "neat," meaning straight up, or with a few drops of water.

IRISH WHISKEY

WHAT IT IS:
Made in Ireland, it's a blend of different grains such as barley, wheat, corn, oats, or rye — kind of like the seven-grain bread of dark spirits. Producers are required to distill their brew three times before bottling it.

IT TASTES:
Mild and smooth. Also, Irish whiskeys are rarely peated — apparently only Scots like to eat dirt.

TRY:
Jameson, Bushmills

BEST FOR:
When you and your date duck into McWhatever's on a cold, damp night.

HOW TO DRINK IT:
Blended whiskeys are better for mixing, so it's cool to drink them on the rocks or with club soda.

JAPANESE WHISKY

WHAT IT IS:
The Japanese learned their whiskey-distilling ways from the Scots; more than 100 years later, their version was endorsed by Bill Murray in
Lost in Translation
(well, kind of). Most Japanese whisky (that's really how they spell it) is actually single-malt, made from corn, millet, and sometimes rice (wheat and rye are almost never used).

IT TASTES:
Malty, smoky, and slightly sweet.

TRY:
Nikka, Suntory

BEST FOR:
When you want to show up those rye-swilling hipsters.

HOW TO DRINK IT:
The Japanese add plenty of still water to their whisky. You should, too.

RYE

WHAT IT IS:
By law, this amber potion is made from a mash of at least 51 percent of, well, rye, and aged for at least two years. Since rye is intense (think of what it adds to a pastrami sandwich), it's often blended with other grains.

IT TASTES:
Just as bitter, intense, and fiery as Sarah Silverman.

WHAT TO TRY: Old Overholt, Rittenhouse

BEST FOR:
The skinny-jean-wearing, Interpol-listening, loft-dwelling hipster.

HOW TO DRINK IT:
Rye — the heart and soul of a Manhattan — is meant to be mixed and can even stand in for bourbon when the cocktail calls for it.

BOURBON

WHAT IT IS:
Named for the county in Kentucky, it's made from corn — just like ethanol — and typically aged two to eight years in new oak casks. (Unlike ethanol, bourbon cannot be used to power your Honda Civic. )

IT TASTES:
Sweet, because of the corn, with vanilla or citrus notes. It might sound like ice cream, but it's not even close.

TRY:
Basil Hayden's, Jim Beam Black

BEST FOR:
Dames who can swig it like Mrs. Robinson in
The Graduate.

HOW TO DRINK IT:
It's best to take it neat, but bourbon goes well with Coke (not ginger ale, not Dr. Pepper, not Diet Coke — just Coke).

TENNESSEE WHISKEY

WHAT IT IS:
Also made from corn, this all-American tipple gets filtered through sugar-maple charcoal in what's called the Lincoln County Process, which originated in — you guessed it — Lincoln County, TN.

IT TASTES:
Sweet, like caramel, with a charred-wood aroma. (Even though you'll be tempted, don't pour it on your pancakes.)

WHAT TO TRY: Jack Daniel's, George Dickel

BEST FOR:
Unwinding after you've climbed off your Harley.

HOW TO DRINK IT:
With Coke, or straight up with a Bud chaser (assuming you've got hair on your chest).

What Do You Think?