There's no deadline. This is a hobby you can enjoy for the rest of your life.
jwacky it's not a matter of class, rather it's cost. The whisky is the same quality coming off the still and the ultimate retail price per bottle is determined by how long that barrel was aged, how well it aged, whether it was selected to be part of a small batch or single barrel expression, that sort of thing.
Beam, Barton, Heaven Hill, etc. all put out wide ranges of brands from three years olds (usually in a blend with GNS) to very high end stuff, all of which were the same quality when distilled.
I believe that yeasts and mashbills do make a difference before entering that barrel. If not, then Beam is using some really piss-poor barrels!:lol:
Certainly mashbills and yeasts make a difference in the ultimate flavor characteristics, but I believe I'm correct in saying the quality level is the same across the board.
Your advice to yourself is spot on. The lower/middle class of bourbon is light years ahead of the lower/middle class of beer or wine.
And lets not even get started on scotch.
You will be rewarded for you patience. If you have the cash you can buy the top-shelf stuff now and save it for when you're ready, if you have the discipline.
I don't know how many cigars you smoke in one day, but with whiskey you can start from a pour from an average bottle, and then have a pour of the top-shelf to follow up and you'll be able to appreciate it more. When you're ready of course.
I don't have much to add to the great advice already offered, but will reiterate that the point of all of this is to have fun! Kick back and enjoy the ride. Don't get too hung up on the top-shelf bottles because new ones always come along. Even after you've enjoyed the "good stuff," you'll find that several of those lower/mid-shelf bottles you enjoyed before will still be favorites. Also, make it a point to get together with other SB members at local gatherings and at the Bardstown events. They're the most generous bunch you'll ever meet and will gladly let you sample just about anything mentioned here. Again, welcome and enjoy the ride!