Introduction to Scotch whisky
If you’re a beginner then Scotch whisky can be an intimidating arena full of difficult-to-decipher terms and – even worse – whisky snobs. But the good news is that to enjoy Scotch you needn’t know anything about it all, as the pleasure is purely in the taste.
For many of us our first taster of Scotch was sneaking a snifter from our parents’ booze cabinet as a youngster, which was no doubt a horrific experience resulting in a burned throat, streaming eyes and fits of coughing. But now we’re all grown up it’s time to take a deep breath and try again. There’s a wonderfully diverse and flavourful world of whisky out there just aching to be discovered, and once you realise a taste for it you’ll be hooked in no time.
There’s a Scotch whisky to suit every palate, regardless of experience. So whether you’d prefer to add ice, water or soda, or mix it into a cocktail, you’re guaranteed to find a style you’ll enjoy. Here are five whiskies that will help ease you in and set you on your way.
5 best Scotch whiskies for beginners
If your dad or granddad is fond of a good dram you may already be familiar with this iconic orange-gold bottle, if only by sight rather than taste. That’s no coincidence; there’s a reason Glenmorangie 10 Year Old has remained a solid go-to by whisky lovers young and old. As a Highland single malt, from a distillery boasting the tallest copper pot stills in Scotland, Glenmorangie 10 has a sweet, creamy mouthfeel with a malty, toffee and almost biscuity character. Lemon zest, apricot and honey penetrate the nose while the palate is reminiscent of Werther’s Original toffees sucked slowly on a long hiking adventure through dew-soaked orchards. Its smooth texture and vanilla character makes this old-school dram a perfect introduction to Scotch whisky’s rich/delicate flavour camp.
For many newcomers to Scotch whisky, the rich, complex character of a single malt can overwhelm the palate and intimidate the senses, which is why blended whiskies became so popular in the first place. Over 90% of all Scotch whisky sold globally is in fact blended. The addition of grain whisky acts as a softener of sorts, smoothing out the rough malt edges with delicate vanilla and toffee flavours. The grain-to-malt ratio in a blend is down to the whim of the master blender and the style of whisky he (or she) is trying to create. In the case of Chivas Regal 12 Year Old – a whisky described as a ‘blend for grown-ups’ – a high proportion of grain lends a smooth mouthfeel and custardy character while the variety of malt whisky sourced from across Scotland spawns a backbone of ripe orchard fruits, apricots, dried banana, walnuts, honey and a hint of black pepper. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the fun of Scotch is all about single malts, particularly if your palate isn’t accustomed to them yet. Blended whiskies, such as Chivas Regal 12, offer an exciting world of flavours too and can be more approachable for a first-timer.
If a whisky were an instant gateway to the lush green hills and fresh clean air of Speyside, Glenlivet 12 Year Old would be it. Whiskies of this region are characteristically bright, bursting with fresh fruits and grassy, floral notes. As an introduction to Speyside, the most popular whisky region by far, you’d not go far wrong with a dram of this, which is understandably the best-selling single malt in the world. Zingy and juicy green apples are at the forefront of this whisky’s profile, alongside crystallised pineapple, honey, vanilla and a shot of citrus which goes down surprisingly smooth. The wonderful thing about Glenlivet 12 is that while delicious on its own, it mixes beautifully in cocktails. Try it with a splash of soda, ice and a lemon twist or even with an apple wedge as a garnish.
Scotch whisky takes much of its character from the barrel it’s been matured in, with ex-Bourbon casks delivering sweet vanilla and toffee notes and ex-Sherry casks imparting flavours of rich dried fruits and spices. For many experienced whisky lovers, there can be no greater joy than sitting by the fireside with a dram matured solely in ex-Sherry casks that’s rich with Christmas cake flavours in the run-up to the festive season. However, for novice whisky drinkers, these pours can be feisty and overpowering. A Scotch such as the Balvenie Doublewood 12 Year Old, which has been matured in both ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks, delivers the best of both worlds without blowing your head off. Honey, vanilla and milk chocolate flavours derived from the ex-Bourbon barrels combine with cinnamon, stewed orchard fruit and a subtle nuttiness from the ex-Sherry casks for a well-balanced, smooth yet indulgent dram.
Not quite ready for the single malts but looking for a smooth blended Scotch with a big personality? Johnnie Walker, the biggest-selling Scotch whisky in the world, has a range of sophisticated blends to suit every palate. Its iconic entry-level Red Label expression is best-suited to sipping in cocktails such as a highball or Johnnie & ginger, but it’s the Black Label that has forged a reputation as one of the most popular blends to sip neat. For just a few quid more, Johnnie Walker Black Label delivers richness and complexity with a smoothness that will appeal to new whisky drinkers. This dram is full of sumptuous sultanas, dried mixed citrus peel, caramel and winter spices, with a soft undercurrent of bonfire smoke that leaves a lasting finish in the mouth. The perfect pour to keep your cockles warm.
Alternative Scotch whiskies to try
If you’re a regular Scotch connoisseur, you’ll know your Glenlivet from your Glenfiddich and your Bruichladdich from your Bunnahabhain, but sometimes your glass could really do with a dash of something unusual. Scotch whisky may be one of the most tightly regulated spirits in the world, but that doesn’t mean the category is staid; there are plenty of innovative and alternative drams if you look in the right places.
Tired of single malt? Try a single grain. Bored of Islay smoke? Bring on the peated Speysiders. Here are a few unconventional Scotch whiskies you may not have tried that are sure to breath new life back into your passion for whisky.
Grain whisky has never really been considered a drink on its own merit. First established in Scotland in the early 19th century, distillers quickly found that blending it with malt whisky produced a smooth, palatable whisky. Aside from a very small handful of releases since then, grain whisky has never really been bottled for sale on its own.
That changed in 2000 when independent bottler Compass Box introduced Hedonism, a blend of grain whiskies sourced from across Scotland that has led the charge in establishing a new category for grain whisky. Despite grain’s naturally lighter style in comparison to malt, Hedonism delivers depth and complexity with buckets of vanilla cream and custard swirled with runny toffee and sprinkled with toasted coconut shavings.
It’s a real dessert dram and not only hits the mark on flavour, but breaks the mould of what we’ve come to expect from Scotch whisky.
Known as the ‘Beast of Dufftown’, Mortlach has established a reputation as the meatiest Speyside whisky, making it a perfect base malt for blends. In its almost 200-year history the Beast has rarely been bottled as a single malt, existing in the shadows behind blended brands such as Johnnie Walker Black Label. Until now.
The bottle you’re most likely to come across is the Mortlach Rare Old. The others, while wonderful whiskies, have a price point a cut above the means of most of us. Still, the Rare Old’s thick and oily texture, palate that’s chewy with juicy raisins, maraschino cherries, dark chocolate and vanilla fudge and just a hint of leather (that’s a good thing!), makes this a dram to seek out.
About Becky Paskin
Becky Paskin is a whisky journalist, drinks presenter and consultant, as well as founder of the OurWhisky festival.