The Ultimate Newbie's Guide to Scotch
For a variety of reasons, many a budding whiskey explorer finds scotch intimidating. Scotch has intense flavors (along with subtle ones), some varieties of it are not meant to be mixed into cocktails, and, frankly, some of the category’s sticker prices don’t exactly encourage experimentation. Beyond all that, to be even more frank, there are some whiskey nerds out there who, for all their genuine passion, kinda take the fun out of things.
And that’s the biggest shame, because scotch is definitely fun, and it should not be intimidating at all. With that in mind, I’ve created a handy three-step guide to set you on the path to transforming yourself from scotch newbie to wizened traveler—or, you know, genuine appreciator.
1. Start with cocktails
Scotch cocktails can be both delicious and a way to acclimate your palate to the smoky profile of aqua vitae by rounding it off with some sweeter flavors. A Rusty Nail, for example, mixes scotch with a honeyed liqueur made from scotch; the flavor profiles align nicely, and you can adjust the ratio to meet your needs (the traditional recipe is a 1:1 scotch-to-liqueur ratio, but a 2:1 or even 4:1 proportion may be more appealing as you get closer to drinking scotch by itself).
If you’re looking for something a little more hifalutin, a Rob Roy is a Manhattan that swaps out the whiskey with whisky. (They drop the “e” in whiskies from Scotland, Japan and Canada. Why? They just do.)
Prefer something more complex? Try a Blood and Sand, which is equal parts scotch, cherry liqueur, sweet vermouth, and orange juice. Like the other two drinks I just mentioned, it’s legit tasty. As you work your way closer to the promised land of drinking scotch neat (or with a few drops of water) channel your grandfather—along with a highball of cocktail history—and order a Scotch and soda.
Blended scotches tend to work better in cocktails than single malts, but this doesn’t make blends a lesser product. Blends are supposed to be versatile enough for cocktails; their crafters combine numerous malt whiskies with multiple grain whiskies to produced a balanced, smooth, and consistent flavor. Order them with confidence!
2. Don't be a hero
You would never dive off the 10-meter platform on your first visit to the pool. It’s much easier—and wiser—to use the ladder in the shallow end, then head for deeper water as you get comfortable. This sensible approach applies to scotch as well. Don’t plunge headlong into the category by way of the peatiest, smokiest Islay single malts on the market. You will most likely belly flop right at the start of your scotch adventure, and may decide that scotch tastes like a campfire in a glass.
No, it’s better to ease your way in. If you want start with single malts, choose one of the sweeter, creamier Highland products, a fruity Speyside variety, or a delicate Lowland scotch. Try them with a splash of water to open up all the accents. Perhaps a better move would be to start with a well-made blended scotch that draws whiskies from all over Scotland for a balanced, smooth composition of flavors.
Composed of more than 35 single malt and grain whiskies that are each aged a minimum of 12 years, Johnnie Walker Black Label is a complex blended scotch with a sizable depth of flavor. If you’re looking for an entry point to the wonderful wide world of scotch, you could do a lot worse than the historic Johnnie Walker Black Label, which strikes an elegant balance between sweet and smoky.
3. Trust a professional
The best way to gain understanding and appreciation when it comes to the spectrum of flavors in scotch is to spend a year in Scotland, traveling to different distilleries, sampling their wares and soaking up the passion of the master craftsmen who produce them.
Yeah, that probably isn’t realistic, though, is it? A cheaper, faster alternative is to go to a guided tasting. Having been to several, I can tell you they’re well worth it. The people who make and sell scotch tend to love their jobs, and they’re eager to spread that love. If your tongue hasn’t been truly baptised by the water of life, they’re the perfect guides. As they describe flavor nuances, you’ll notice those notes on your palate, and you’ll find their enthusiasm infectious.
Of course, the best guide of all is your own personal taste. So, in the end, you’d be best off sampling scotch with an open mind and making your own decisions about what’s good. The most difficult scotch to appreciate is not necessarily the best one. The best scotch is the one you decide is your favorite.