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Scotch Whisky: A Complete Beginner's Guide

BY: Editors | Jul 18, 2017

Drinking scotch whisky for the first time can be intimidating. Aside from the famously smoky flavor and burn, scotch presents those new to the drink with hurdles other spirits don't. What is scotch, really? What do the years aged mean? Which ones should I try? With more than 100 active distilleries in Scotland making the country's signature drink, there's a lot of choosing to do.

That's why we sat down with Mike Miller, a scotch pro who's been helping helping newbies figure out how to drink scotch for almost 27 years. Mike's the manager of The Duke of Perth, a pub in Chicago that specializes in single malts, each made with malts from a single distiller. (By contrast, blends such as Dewar's or Johnnie Walker mix malts from many different distillers to get a standardized taste.) All this is to say: he really knows his stuff.

Along with giving us some of the drink's basics, Mike passed along some pro tips for those looking to take their first steps into the world of scotch whisky, as well as specific recommendations on different spirits to try.

What Is Scotch?

It's a dry, smoky drink.

"Scotch has something that very few other whiskies in the world have, which is a characteristic of peatiness or smokiness. It's not super evident in all scotch whiskies, but it's sort of an underlying theme. Scotch leans [more] toward the drier end of the spectrum than the sweeter end, like bourbon or rye."

Scotch isn't scotch until it's been aged 3 years.

"It's always matured a minimum of three years in an oak cask before it can even be called scotch whisky. After that, there is no law saying you must take it to 12 years ... but a lot of people give it more time."

Lots of scotch is aged in old wine barrels.

"The traditional reuse casks have been, for years, sherry—sherry oak from Spain. The residual wine that's still in the pores of the wood actually affects the whisky during its maturation period and translates to adding things like richness and fruitiness."

Older whisky doesn't necessarily mean better whisky.

"Typically, the longer [whisky is] exposed to wood, the mellower it's going to get, but it's not always 100% true that the older the better. Many malts seem to have that sweet spot where if they go beyond that, it's almost too much exposure to wood. But if you take it to like 15 years old or whatever, that's like perfect. That's why you'll see different ages represented from producers."

How to Drink Scotch

The first time, try it straight.

"Around here, we like to tell people, if you're trying something for the first time, skip the rocks or skip the mixers, at least until you familiarize yourself with what that particular malt tastes like on its own. You don't want to just automatically throw ice in a glass and throw whisky on top of it."

Then (maybe) add a little water.

"A lot of people believe in the addition of a dash of a real nice neutral water, maybe a spring water or something that doesn't have a whole lot of mineral flavor in it. [That] helps to open the bouquet up and release some of the more subtle flavors that are in the whisky."

Attend to ABV.

"On the label, it'll always be identified how much alcohol there is by volume in that whisky. It might be as low as 40% and it might be as much as 55%–60% ... That is more alcohol than the human palate really likes to taste. So you do want to—in the case of, say, whisky that's 60% ABV—add a little water for sure."

Pick your glassware carefully.

"You probably have seen this one particular style of glass designed for whisky tasting; it's called a Glencairn glass. It looks kind of rounded at the bottom and then focuses up to sort of like a chimney, like an inch and a half [diameter]. That's real popular. I'm not crazy about that glass. I think that something that helps to focus the nose a little so that you can appreciate what's coming off of the whisky, like maybe swirl it around a bit and give it a nosing. I think a snifter works great."

Think about what you already like to drink.

"[When recommending a scotch,] I try to feel people out and see how adventurous they are, maybe quiz them a little about what they're typically used to drinking. 'What's your favorite go-to drink? Is it wine or is it beer? Do you drink a spirit? Do you like vodka or are you partial to tequila or gin?' ... If they're looking for something ... that's as innocuous as possible, then I'm going to go to the gentler, milder whiskies to start."

Suggested Spirits for Scotch Newbies

If You Want Something Mild

"If you're looking to stay light, a good bet is Glenkinchie, a nice lowland malt, or Dalwhinnie, a nice, light highland malt. Also Cragganmore is one I happen to like. It does have a great deal of stuff going on, but it's on such a subtle level that it kind of comes to you slowly."

If You Want to Be Bold

"On the more wild, adventurous end of the spectrum are malts like Laphroaig, [which is] from an island called Islay. There's only eight distilleries on Islay, but they all produce a discernible smoky quality to their whisky."

If You're Somewhere in Between

"If we were going to take it to an intermediate level—let's say that someone had an interest in that sherry maturation style—there's Macallan for sure. Also a distiller that I like a lot called Aberlour. A great value, I think: for the price, you get a really nice whisky. It's got that kind of rich fruitiness of a sherry-influenced whisky."

Related Reads

Still yearning to learn more about scotch (and other types of whiskey)? Check out some of the Groupon Guide's other reads on this soothing spirit.

The Rise of White Whiskey, AKA Moonshine

The Comeback of Rye, a New Old-Fashioned Whiskey

Beyond Jameson: Irish Whiskey for Beginners

10 American Craft Distillers Redefining Whiskey

A Skeptic's Take on Whiskey Ice Cream

Japanese Whisky: A Beginner's Guide

Scotch vs. Bourbon: The Great Whiskey Showdown

A Whiskey Run Through 10 Tennessee Distilleries