We’ve created the perfect Scotch Beginners Guide to help all you Scotch newbies learn the oh-so-smoky ropes. Maybe you’re interested in getting to know the spirit before you dive in. Maybe you’ve already had your first hard introduction and are returning to give the whisky another chance (since it busted you in the mouth during the initial round).
First things first: if you’re thinking that Scotch is only for crusty, silver-haired old gents puffing on their black pipes, you’ve got to shake that image off right now. Scotch got that rep because it’s generally pretty expensive (and happens to be an acquired taste, for sure). But we’re here to tell you that you don’t have to be a pretentious snob and filthy rich to enjoy it. You can enter the Scotch world with confidence (well, at least until it puts you in your place again). We’ll tell you how and get you up to Scotch-speed along the way.
Prestige Decanters Presents:
The Scotch Beginners Guide to Semantics and Taste
Whiskey vs. Whisky
We’ll start off with our ABCs, if you will. What’s up with the different spellings? You’ve seen folks spell it “whiskey” and then “whisky,” maybe even on the same menu. Here’s the skinny: it’s all about geography. Here in the States, we produce whiskey, but many other countries spell it whisky.
What is Scotch, Exactly?
Scotch is a whisky, sans the E. It hails from Scotland and only Scotland. It’s largely made from malted barley, and it’s aged in oak–for usually at least three years. When you see those numbers after the name on a bottle of Scotch, you’re seeing how long the Scotch kicked around in the barrel. We’ll get to the terms single malt and blended later.
What Does Scotch Taste Like?
Some swear Scotch tastes similar to bourbon. Others will quickly shoot that comparison down. Its signature smokiness sets it apart. And it’s an evolution like no other on the tongue. It’s an experience in every sense of the word. You may start out with that rich bourbon flavor, but you’re soon very aware that a new kid is in town.
The magic of Scotch happens on the back end. You think it’s over (because most spirits are), but then it punches you, wrecks you in a beautiful way. That lingering smoke puts some people off, but if you’re willing to keep trying and appreciating, the acquired taste is so rewarding. It’s worth the effort, we like to say.
The Scotch Beginners Guide to Aging and Style
Does Scotch Get Better With Time?
Nah, we’re not dealing with wine here. Wine contains natural tannins because of the grapes themselves and even the barrel, so it changes in the bottle over the years. Scotch doesn’t do that. A 10-year-old Scotch that’s been kept for 100 years will still be a 10-year-old Scotch. The whisky has no natural tannins and borrows very little from the barrel. Scotch is embalmed, really. And even when you open it, if you’ve got an airtight seal, it’s not going to go bad anytime soon.
Instead, it’s all about the alcohol. Scotch is bottled at a minimum of 40 percent ABV, and you’ll find some at 57 percent and even higher. With such a high alcohol content, you don’t have to worry about many chemical reactions at all. It won’t go changing on you. Just keep it away from sunlight, of course.
Check out our liquor decanters because along with your new bottle of Scotch, you’re going to want one of Prestige’s fine, handcrafted, airtight decanters as well. They go hand-in-hand, really. (See our blog article “Why Use a Decanter for Scotch?” to learn more about Scotch, its slow oxidation, storage, and more!)
Neat, On the Rocks, or…?
If you’re out and ordering Scotch, you shouldn’t worry about what’s popular. You do you. You might swing toward “neat” (no ice) or “on the rocks” (with ice). Some purists opt for a couple of drops of water even when drinking Scotch neat, to bring out the liquor’s striking flavor. But if you’re truly a beginner, you may want to sit down and visit with ole Rob Roy first.
If you want to brave the Scotch waters with a cocktail, order yourself a Rob Roy, named after the heroic Scottish outlaw himself. It’s a whisky drinker’s delight for sure. A Rob Roy is essentially a next-level Manhattan, and it consists of Scotch, sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters. Oh, and of course a maraschino cherry.
What Do You Mean By “Single Malt?”
In short, when you read “single malt,” your Scotch is the malted barley product of a single distillery. If you encounter a blended whisky, then you’re in the presence of a combination of a barrel-aged malt whisky (so, all barley) and a grain whisky (made with barley and other grains). Those blended varieties are actually the most common on the Scotch market. The grain filler renders the bottles slightly cheaper. For more about how Scotch is made and its regions and distilleries, check out The Art of Manliness.
Whether blended or single malt, you’ll need these awesome whiskey glasses. Don’t leave without giving them a look!
Our scotch beginners guide wouldn’t be complete without this line of advice. Scotch, they say, is a drink to be learned. Thus, many suggest you should approach it with your mind’s eye and taste buds turned toward history. It’s earthy. It’s raw. It demands a sort of respect from us because it’s come all the way from the crust of creation to healing elixir, (and now) to your home bar or favorite local whiskey bar. You’ll have to return again and again to this fountain; you’ll perhaps have to “grow into it.” But when you finally understand its glory, you can say you have truly lived.
New Scotch Drinkers, Listen Up!
New to the Scotch pool? Try dipping your toes in the water before jumping from the high-dive. If you’re ready to try Scotch, here are a few go-tos: Jura 10, Glenrothes Select Reserve, Dalmore 12, and Benromach 10. For more, see The Scotsman Food & Drink’s 10 of the Best Scotch Whiskies for Beginners.
So, there you have it. The Scotch Beginners Guide that can get you started along your Scotch journey. It may be a long and even daunting path – but walk it anyway. You’ll be glad you did.
Scotch veterans, what are your favorite bottles of Scotch? Share them with the Prestige community below, and help these Scotch newcomers feel welcome.