A Beginner’s Guide to Drinking Scotch Whisky

You think that you want to start drinking scotch, but you don’t know where to start, really. You probably have knocked back a few whiskeys and bourbons with your friends in the past, and you want to invest in a bottle for home. You’ve been told that scotch is good, but you have no idea where to start.

You’re in the right place! This article is just for you!

Here’s how to pick a bottle of scotch when you don’t know anything about whisky.

First, don’t spend a small fortune on a bottle of scotch.

Trust us, you can spend a fortune, but you shouldn’t. And you don’t have to in order to pick out a good bottle. You aren’t even sure if you’re going to like the scotch, so don’t break the bank experimenting for the first time. Expect to keep an investment in your first bottle of scotch somewhere around $40 USD.

Next, look for distilleries that are well-known.

You can find bottles of scotch from famous distilleries, as well as small start-ups. You’ll want to start off by picking something “tried and true,” that isn’t too experimental. You can find excellent beginner bottles of scotch from one of these distilleries:

  • Aberlour
  • Balvenie
  • Gragganmore
  • Glenlivet
  • Glenmorangie
  • Highland Park
  • MacCallan
  • Knockando

Finally, do some research and look for keyword terms like “smooth” and “balanced.”

Ideally, as a beginner, you want to find something that’s not too smoky and not too alcoholic. Of course, you can’t tell by looking which bottles are smoky, and which bottles will knock you over with an alcoholic punch. Some quick internet research should be able to help you out, though. Look for reviews with words like “balanced” and “smooth” “caramel” and “aged.”  Stay away from bottles that have reviews that say things like “peaty” “sharp” and “smoky.” While those qualities aren’t bad, they might not be ideal for a beginner.

Here are our excellent, affordable Scotch whisky choices for beginners.

If you just want us to pick out a few for you to consider, then let us do the work for you:

Aberfeldy 12 Year Old

$40 USD

Syrupy, with lots of vanilla and fudge and just a whisper of smoke on the finish. Master of Malt says of this one, “sweet, malty, a gentle peat but nonetheless, the mouthfeel is very clean. Vanilla, peaches in cream and subtle oak.”

Aberfeldy 12 Yrs. Old

Johnnie Walker Black Label

$40 USD

The black label takes a blend of single malt and grain whiskies and ages the blend for 12 years. You’ll get a whiff of fruit and sweet vanilla, a taste of toffee, fruit, and spice on the tongue, and a warm finish. The folks over at The Whiskey Wash describe this one as “low-proof and low-burn, there are not too many barriers to entry here. There is a strong base flavor that hits the mellow honey, stone fruit, and vanilla notes often associated with Speyside whiskies that are delicately balanced with an Islay smokiness.”

Johnny Walker Black Label

Talisker Single Malt 10 Year

$40 USD

Talisker has the aroma of peat smoke and a hint of seawater. On the tongue, you’ll get strong barley-malt flavors with pepper in the back of your mouth. It finishes very peppery. The folks over at Whiskey Reviewer describe the malt as such: “Neat, Talisker tastes sweeter than it smells. It has a heavy mouthfeel, full of smoke and iodine, with a peppery finish…with a few drops of water, the flavor opens up in new ways, with the Talisker becoming almost milky and sweeter with the pepper and peat flavors becoming more rounded.”

Talisker 10 yrs. old

Highland Park Viking Honor 12 Year Old

$55 USD

This whisky is spicy and well-rounded. You’ll notice tastes of Seville oranges, rich fruitcake, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. The distillery recommends trying this with a handful of wasabi peas. Master of Malt offers a helpful review: “Rather full with a pleasant depth. Lurking somewhere in the substratum a grilled orange lies. Notes of granary toast and green tea with jasmine. A touch of sweetness.”

High Land Park Viking Honour 12 Yrs. Old

Other great choices include:

How to pour your Scotch whisky drink, for beginners.

One important thing to remember as a newbie to the scotch scene is that everything matters when it comes to enjoying your dram. That includes being very fussy and particular about your glass choice, your ice cube, and water additions. It also includes your method for sniffing, swirling, and tasting.

First, pick your whisky glass.

Honestly, this is where your relationship with Prestige Haus is really going to come in handy. Because we’ve definitely got you covered when finding a perfect whisky glass. The shape of your glass is important because you need to consider questions like: “Is this glass going to fall over when I’m tipsy and can’t put it down straight?” (Seriously, we’ve all been there. It’s okay.) And, “Does the drink swirl well in this glass?” and “Does the lip of the glass help trap the bad vapors and let the good vapors breathe?” A well-crafted glass should be functional as well as stylish.

Your standard Scotch whisky glass is a lowball or a rocks glass. This is a short, squat glass with a wide opening. It’s usually pretty stable on the table and not prone to getting tipped over. If you use a lowball or rocks glass, be sure to pick one that’s rounded and not square. A rounded glass will better enable the swirling technique.

If you attend a scotch judging or tasting event, you’ll notice that the experts use a glass that has a stem on it. These special glasses are also short and squat. But they have a stem and a fluted opening. That opening is deliberate because it allows the drink to “open up” and release aromas and flavors. Just as importantly, it also allows the alcoholic vapor to escape without offending your nose. The stem on the glass allows for optimal swirling. A “Glencairn” glass is the choice for experts.

Avoid glasses that are made of copper, tin, wood, and other materials. These are great for some drinks and spirits, but you want to avoid them when drinking whisky straight. Elements other than glass will interact with your whisky in a way that the distillery doesn’t intend. Stick with hand-blown, lead-free, pure glass.

(If you plan to do a home whisky tasting, we recommend this delightful barrel stave whisky glass flight holder. It holds three perfect whisky-tasting glasses. Get them engraved with numbers, so you can keep track of which whisky is in which glass.)

Next, consider whether to add ice cubes to your Scotch whisky.

“Ice cubes in your drink are for wimps!” you might think to yourself. That’s actually not the case with Scotch whisky. In fact, adding water and ice to your drink has very specific purposes. You’ll often see judges add water to their whisky, although you won’t often find experts adding ice cubes to whisky. That doesn’t mean that you can’t do it, though, and you possibly should even try this in the beginning. The point of adding ice isn’t to dilute your drink, but to make it colder. A colder whisky interacts with your taste buds differently than a warm drink. It also smells different, swirls differently, and releases aromas differently than warm or room temperature drinks.

You’re probably going to see ice cubes that are made of stones, which manufacturers claim are specifically for drinking whisky. These kinds of ice cubes don’t melt and dilute your drink but do get the drink colder. Whisky stones are fine, but be careful. These stones can be made from minerals and elements that might interact badly with your dram. Your best bet for whiskey stones are ones that are made from soapstone or stainless steel.

Additionally, consider whether to add water to your Scotch whisky.

You’re not a wimp if you water down your scotch. The experts do this all the time, and for good reason. Adding water can actually open up the aroma and flavor is really great way.

Here’s some expert advice: When I first started attending whisky tastings, the bar I went to would give everyone a glass of room-temperature, distilled water in a tall, narrow glass. This glass would not have ice cubes. This single glass of water would be more than sufficient for six tastings. You would take your whisky, swirl, smell, and taste. Then, add the equivalent of an eye-dropper worth of water. Repeat the actions of swirl, smell, and taste. If you wanted, you could add another eye-dropper worth of water and repeat the actions to see how their taste profile changed. I believe if you try this a handful of times, you will notice that the water really does wonderful things to a glass of whisky, without over-diluting it and making the drink weak. (Pro tip: I actually keep several eye-droppers in my bar.)

This is an excellent guide all about adding water to your Scotch whisky if you want to get more into the weeds on the topic.

Finally, perfect your Scotch whisky tasting technique.

Now it’s time to perfect your tasting technique.

  1. First, pour a dram into your glass. A dram is less than a teaspoon—much less than a shot glass worth.
  2. Next, swirl it vigorously, and then pour it out. This will coat the sides of your glass, getting rid of mineral build-up stains from your dishwasher or tap water. (Save this sacrificial dram for cooking, if you want.)
  3. Then, pour a few ounces into your glass.
  4. Swirl gently. You want to look at the color of the drink and how the scotch sticks to the side of the glass. Is it thick or thin? Does it linger like caramel?
  5. Next, smell the drink. Don’t stick your nose all the way in, but get close enough to get a whiff.
  6. Then, swirl again, and sniff it again. Do other aromas hit you?
  7. Now, taste the drink. Try to identify the flavors in the beginning, middle, and end of the sip.
  8. Repeat with a swirl, sniff, and sip.
  9. If you wish, add a small amount of distilled, room-temperature water to your glass. Repeat the swirl, sniff, and sip.
  10. Continue repeating. You can add more water or add a whiskey stone to see how those items affect the look, smell, and taste of the whiskey.

Fine Tune your Swirl-Sniff-Sip Technique

Over time, you will probably learn that you prefer two dashes of water, or perhaps you prefer the drink warmer or colder than room temperature. This is the optimal time to play with different methods so that you can figure out what your typical preference is. (This is helpful when you are at a bar or restaurant and need to give your server instructions.)

Drinking Scotch whisky is a skill that gets better with practice.

“Practice, practice, practice,” right? The more often you sit down to practice your swirl-sniff-sip methods, the better you are going to get at discerning subtleties between different types of whiskies. With some practice, soon you’ll be able to identify a Highlands malt versus an Islay malt. What is your favorite scotch to “start off” with?