How to Start Drinking Scotch Whisky
Updated: Mar 22, 2019
Drinking Scotch doesn't have to be intimidating. This is a guide on how to drink Scotch and have fun doing it
At this point, if you’ve read my previous article, you’re probably tired of learning about Scotch whisky and are ready to drink it. If you’re a beginner, however, entering the world of Scotch can seem like a minefield with $100+ bottles from 100+ distillers and a dozen heckling whisky snobs questioning your every move. The world of Scotch whisky is wonderful and diverse, and the good news is you can enjoy Scotch without knowing a thing about it. In this article, I am going to give you a beginner’s guide to buying and tasting Scotch so you can easily find one that suits your palate; and avoid taking out a second mortgage in the process. But first, here are a few words of advice.
The rules for drinking Scotch…
… There are no rules.
Whisky –we’ll call them connoisseurs— may tell you that to appreciate Scotch there is a special glass you must use, a particular year of a specific brand you must drink, a certain moon alignment you must stand under while citing a poem from Robert Burns five times in a circle. That last bit might be a slight exaggeration, but if you’re a whisky novice and have ever been accosted by a whisky snob trying to “help you,” it may not feel far from the truth.
Whisky enthusiasts (like myself) usually mean well. We are uncommonly excited about Scotch and want to share our joy with you. If someone is new to Scotch, however, this can put up an immediate wall that makes people feel like they aren’t cut out for it. I want to snuff out that feeling at the door.
For instance, although you probably shouldn’t mix coke with your nice glass of 18-year-old whisky, if you’ve tried it by itself first and determined that coke is the only way you like it, then go for it (I will try not to cringe) — the same thing with water and ice. Water and ice can mute the flavors and aromas that contribute to taste, but if this is desired to cool the drink or make a particularly peaty Scotch drinkable, then that’s your choice.
Although there is no “right” way to start tasting Scotch, there are a few things that can maximize your experience.
A tulip glass or Glencairn or glass like the one above will allow you to thoroughly examine the color of the spirit and mask some of the alcoholic vapors preventing the subtler aromas from reaching your nose. This is not necessary, but it does help with the experience. For your first time tasting a new Scotch, you should also try it neat; this allows you to taste the unaltered flavor of the dram and you can always add ice or a few drops of water later if you want.
Ultimately, the best whisky is the one you like to drink. The “right” way may maximize the flavor, but you bought it and can modify your approach as you see fit. Now on to the fun part.
Picking a Bottle: 5 Great Scotches to Start With
In my previous article, I covered the various Scotch producing regions and the flavors associated with them. If you haven’t read that article yet, it’s worth taking a look before you proceed. Below are 5 Scotch whiskies that are great regional introductions and won’t break the bank.
Auchentoshen 12 Year Old – Lowlands
If you’re already a fan of Irish whiskies than the Auchentoshen 12 is an excellent foray into Scotch. Auchentoshen still employs the triple distillation method common of Irish whiskies to create a smooth and soft dram. The first thing you will notice when lifting a glass of Auchentoshen 12 is the aroma of crème brulee with a burst of citrus and the signature nuttiness and leafiness of the Auchentoshen brand. A sip reveals a marked grassiness with notes of tangerine, lime and, ginger with a hint of vanilla. You are finally left with a lingering nuttiness and a desire to take another sip.
Glenmorangie 10 Year Old (The Original) - Highlands
If you recognize any single malt on this list by sight alone, this is probably it. Popular with whisky lovers of all ages, Glenmorangie describes sipping their 10 year as like being “in an Italian garden surrounded with mandarin, lemon, apple, pear and peach trees, their fruit ripening in the sun.” On the nose, honeyed fruit and apricot undoubtedly take center stage in this delicate Highlands expression as notes of toffee and banana bread contribute to a creamy, malty mouthfeel. A sip of Glenmorangie 10 is reminiscent of walking through an Italian garden ripe with fruit while sucking on a toffee candy purchased in town with only broken Italian. The Glenmorangie 10 is available for around $35 a bottle, saving you thousands on airline tickets.
Glenlivet 12 Year Old – Speyside
One of Speyside’s definitive malts, and one of the most popular single malts in the world, The Glenlivet 12 is a must try. Like many whiskies of the Speyside region, The Glenlivet 12 is grassy and floral. Soft citrus notes of lemon and pineapple are balanced delicately against toffee, vanilla, and nutty richness that leads to a surprisingly smooth and refreshing finish. At around $40 a bottle, The Glenlivet 12 is hard to beat for the price and is a perfect introduction to Speyside Scotch. If you have a slightly bigger budget, and want added complexity from spice and dried red fruit, the Balvenie 12 Year Old Doublewood is another excellent option.
Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old - Islay
For many a young rebel who stole their first taste of Scotch from their parent’s liquor cabinet, the memory of Scotch is a vortex of smoke and peat that burned your throat and left you coughing. If this is at all relatable, then your first Scotch was probably from Islay. Some people take an immediate liking to the powerful smoke and peat. For others, Islay Scotch is an acquired taste. For those who need to ease into Islay, the Bunnahabhain 12 is a great place to start.
Compared to some of its more intense cousins, the Bunnahabhain 12 is marked by citrus and green apple on the nose with only a hint of the smoke and brine of its region. This Scotch is lightly peated with an obvious sherry influence that leads to a creamy texture on the palate, punctuated by notes of cherry and nuts, and finished with a little smoke. If you’re looking for a moderate to heavily peated Scotch, then you’re better off trying something like a Laphroaig 10. If you’re unsure about Islay Scotch, the Bunnahabhain 12 is where you want to start.
Highland Park 12 Year Old – Islands
The Islands are an unofficial Scotch producing region and flavor varies drastically from distillery to distillery. The one I chose to include here was the Highland Park 12. Not to be confused with the Highlands region, Highland Park is located on the Orkney Islands and is the northernmost distillery in Scotland. In 2004, Michael Jackson, the whisky writer, not the King of Pop, called Highland Park "the greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whisky." One sip and it is easy to see why. The nose is fragrant and light with notes of honey, heather, tropical fruit and a whiff of smoke. Syrup and citrus seep in as you take a sip and are met with wood smoke and slight peat in the finish.
The Highland Park 12 is a great Scotch to add to your arsenal and is a crowd pleaser with novices and seasoned whisky snobs alike. If you want to try an Islands Scotch with more of a bite and are a fan of Islay Scotches, the Talisker 10 is worth a try with a flavor every bit reminiscent of the violent sea storm depicted on its label.
Note on Campbeltown Scotch
If you’ve read my previous article, you’ll notice I am missing a region on this list. The reason I chose not to include a Campbeltown Scotch on an introductory article is that there is no way to introduce people to this region right away. Scotch drinkers turn to Campbeltown when they want a harder kick to the teeth than a typical Islay Scotch can deliver. They aren’t bad they’re just not for the faint of heart. If you’re at a bar and happen upon a bottle of Springbank, Glengyle, or Glen Scotia give it a shot but do not let it be your first taste of Scotch, or it may be your last.
Other Ways to Try Scotch
If you’ve read this article so far and are still hesitant about dropping $40-$60 on a bottle of something you aren’t sure you’ll like, I understand entirely. Price is the single most limiting factor preventing people from experiencing the joy of Scotch. Keep in mind that in a standard 750ml bottle there is approximately 25oz of Scotch. This translates to a little over 16 standard pours, and since you will probably only drink a glass or two a week, a single bottle can easily last you for months.
If you’re still hesitant, there are other ways to try Scotch without buying a whole bottle.
Many upscale and even some neighborhood bars stock a decent collection of Scotch. These are usually limited to the best-selling brands, but they can be a great way to experiment. Be honest with your bartender and tell them you are trying Scotch for the first time and you’ll be amazed at how helpful they can be. Some bars now have also started selling whisky flights, giving you the same freedom of choice that you would find in a brewery. Just do your research, and you may find a hole in the wall gold mine for Scotch.
Another option is to buy or order miniature bottles. Online stores such as The Whiskey Exchange and Flaviar, let you pick small samples of hundreds of different whiskies and have them delivered to your house. This can be a great way to try many kinds of Scotch without breaking the bank.
Scotch is a grand expression of humanity’s ability to create something amazing from nature. Although starting your whisky journey may be intimidating at first, it is well worth it. Anyone can enjoy Scotch with a little guidance, not just whisky snobs. In this article, I gave you a few great Scotches to start with, but there are many many more out there. Once you find one you like, branch out and try something new. There’s a beautiful world of Scotch out there waiting for you.