Scotch Whisky Primer for Beginners

Scotch Whisky 101 – A Beginners Guide

By now, odds are you’ve seen a few of our Single Malt & Blended Scotch articles. In the majority of them we go into great detail about how the whisky is made, the history behind it and of course, a list of some of our personal favorites.

I’ve been drinking Scotch for the last ten years and since it’s such a passion of mine, I often forget how intimidating a subject it was when I first developed an interest. Therefore, in this article I’m going take a step back and focus on a few of the basics so you don’t get too bogged down with information.

If you haven’t already seen it and want to know the history behind the dram or the production process, take a gander at our Scotch Whisky Guide, because in this article, we’re going to skip history class and move right into tasting.

Islay Tasting 2012

Islay Scotch is not recommended for Scotch beginners

What is a dram?

Chances are I’ve already confused you slightly when I referred to a “dram” in the last paragraph. The same way as you might say “I’d like a glass of water please”, when it comes to whisky you may say “I’d like a dram please”.

A dram technically speaking is really no more than a teaspoon of Scotch. To be more precise it’s 1⁄8 of a fluid ounce. Now chances are when you’re at the pub and ask for a dram you’re going to get a full ounce of Scotch. Heck, if you’re a guest in my home it may be closer to two.

The meaning of the word dram has taken on a casual tone. In most respects it’s no longer just the teaspoon, but has become the globally popular way to simply refer to a “glass of whisky”.

Drinking Scotch for the first time...

Drinking Scotch for the first time…

How do I drink a dram?

In our Scotch Whisky Guide, I covered the tasting process in depth, however, if this is your very first time trying whisky, I’m going to urge you to forget those instructions (for now).

The goal is to introduce you to Scotch in a manner that allows your palate to grow. The last thing you want to do is try a dram and be so halted by the harshness or burn that you never want to try it again.

  1. While every Scotch aficionado I know will hate me for saying this; add one or two ice cubes to the glass before pouring. The reason I say this is yes, it will mutilate the whisky by watering it down, but for your first dram that’s not a bad thing. It will lighten the harshness many complain about and will chill the whisky which will eliminate some of the burn making it easier for you to enjoy it. Obviously, as you begin to develop your appreciation for whisky, you’ll most likely want to stop icing. I should also note that when using ice it’s ideal to use an ice ball rather than cubes since it melts slower and won’t completely water your dram down. In addition, if you are using cubes, try and avoid using more than two. In other words, don’t fill the glass full of ice. Keep it to a minimum.
  2. Once you’ve poured your dram of whisky into a glass (for beginners I’m going to recommend you use a rock glass as it won’t release the same compounds you’d find with a Glencairn or Copita), it’s time to begin the initial nose.
  3. At this point bring the glass to about chin level and wave it side to side as you take a light breath in through your nose and slightly through your mouth. You may notice a little burning sensation and if so lower it slightly if needed. If you don’t get much of a nose, try bringing it up closer to your nose and doing this again. You should notice that the aromas will change slightly. I will often keep a small notebook with me where I write down the tasting notes for future reference. It’s interesting now when I look back at some of my initial tasting notes and see the difference compared to today.
  4. After you’ve nosed the whisky a few times, bring it up to your lips and allow a drop of the liquid gold to touch your lips and slowly enter your mouth. This is where most people will either love or hate it. Bear in mind that if you’ve followed these directions, your dram will be far less powerful than it’s intended so this will give you a general idea of where your palate is sitting. If you love it, keep going and let it sit on your tongue and swish against your cheeks before swallowing. If you find it too strong take a breath of air in and slowly continue the process.

While I’m sure my unconventional advice will generate a lot of comments, I would urge you not to listen to peer pressure. Whisky appreciation is a process and if you attempt to run before you can walk, you’re sure to fall.

I’m in no way suggesting you add ice or drink from a rock glass longterm, I’m simply suggesting it as a way to begin your journey, because if you ask any whisky lover, it’s one of the most sensational experiences you’ll ever have.

More than enough - The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh

More than enough – The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh

Picking the Right Bottle

I can tell you right now that if your first experience with Scotch is trying a 25 year old Lagavulin straight up, you’ll probably never try it again. When you’re selecting your first dram whether it be purchasing a bottle or trying it at the pub, choosing a Scotch will make or break your relationship very quickly. This isn’t a spirit you guzzle for the fun of it like you did tequila on spring break. For one, it’s just too expensive and second it’s not intended for that. Do you really think that the crafter spent years perfecting a whisky so you could down it like jello shots? Of course not.

When you’re selecting your first dram of Scotch my advice is to stick with a gentler spirit. The first dram I ever had was a 12 year old Balvenie Doublewood and it was pretty tough to swallow. I was out with some colleagues for dinner and everyone ordered their Scotch straight so feeling the need to fit in, I did the same. Now, Balvenie is a really wonderful Scotch and it’s not overly powerful at all, but for someone who mostly drank diet soda, it was not the way to begin. Fortunately, I did enjoy aspects of it and that’s what brought me back for a second try.

Scotch Whisky Diagram

Scotch Whisky Diagram

If you’ve never drank whisky before without mixing it in a cocktail there are two bottles I highly recommend starting out with. The first is Auchentoshan as it contains no peat. The second is Dalwhinnie as it too is a very smooth and light spirit. In fact Dalwhinnie’s tagline is “The Gentle Spirit”.

By making one of these your first introduction it should act as a warm hug rather than a noose around your neck. The burn you’ll experience will be very minimal and the aromas and flavor profile should excite you. While most bartenders will probably suggest Glenlivet or Glenfiddich, it’s only because they’re the two most popular drams in restaurants. Both are great options for second or third tastings, but for a first timer, you may find them slightly more powerful than you’d like.

When it comes to Scotch, I typically don’t like to provide tasting notes with my recommendations as the flavor profile and aroma can differ slightly for each person. However, since this is likely your first introduction to Scotch, I’ll try and provide a basic description of what you can expect from the aforementioned bottles.

Auchentoshan

Auchentoshan (pronounced ‘OKKen-TOSHan’) is a triple distilled single malt from the lowland region of Scotland. The name Auchentoshan is Gaelic and translates to ‘the corner of the field’. With most whisky from Scotland, the last stage is where they distill the mash in two copper stills (see our Scotch Whisky Guide for details). However, with Auchentoshan, it’s placed in a third still called the Intermediate Still which gives the whisky strength.

As I mentioned before, Auchentoshan is unpeated which makes it an ideal candidate for a first dram. Because it’s unpeated, the spirit is far more delicate and sweet than most whiskies and the burn many newcomers complain of is so minimal most don’t notice it.

The Auchentoshan Three Wood which is the bottle I recommend trying is matured in American bourbon casks, Oloroso sherry and Pedro Ximenez Sherry casks all of which give it a very unique flavor profile with significant complexity. It was the winner of the Double Gold medal in the category of single malts up to 12 years at the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and is this very day, the bottle I keep in my home bar that comes out for those who don’t enjoy a stronger dram.

The first thing you’ll notice with the Three Wood is that it’s very toffee and sherry heavy. The nose is sweet and fruity with hints of currants, brown sugar, coffee, orange peel and raisins. The taste mimics the sweetness of the nose almost resembling a syrup flavor. It’s quite nutty with strong hints of lemon and bursts of cinnamon. One thing I notice now but didn’t on my first try is a butterscotch flavor which I really enjoy.

The finish is very fruity where you can really appreciate the oak from the American bourbon cask. It really is a divine spirit both for the beginner as well as the aficionado. If I was you, this would be my first choice for a first try.

Dalwhinnie

As I mentioned, Dalwhinnie is known as ‘The Gentle Spirit’. It’s not a very complex whisky but has a certain crispness to it that many appreciate.

Interestingly enough, Dalwhinnie is one of my least favorite whiskies. However, I recommend it for first timers due to its lack of fullness and the fact that the flavor profile is so simple and fresh that it takes minimal effort to distinguish the various flavors. Despite my dislike for the whisky, it too takes a place in my home bar.

Dalwhinnie is also Gaelic meaning ‘the meeting place’. It’s a highland Scotch that gets its water source from a natural spring called Lochan-Doire-Uaine and its peat from the surrounding bogs.

For this dram, my recommendation is the 15 year old Dalwhinnie which was awarded an exceptionally high 95 points in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. The nose is very fresh with hints of fruit salad, apple blossom and honeysuckle. It’s full of toffee and has just a touch of smokiness that’s quite resplendent. The taste (which is the part I dislike) is quite malty, with manuka honey and walnuts. It has touches of vanilla and cereal. It too is quite smoky. The part I dislike is every bottle I’ve tried in my opinion has a fishy taste to it that really offends my palate. Fortunately, most people I’ve talked to don’t notice that so hopefully neither will you. The finish is very nutty and quite long.

Further Drams

After you’ve tried the above named spirits, do your best to try some more. Even if you didn’t like the flavor, aroma or finish of it, that’s okay and easily fixable, as like wine, every whisky will taste different. Try to separate sensation from taste as overtime your palate will become accustomed to the natural burn of Scotch. By separating sensation and flavor, you can begin to ascertain your likes and dislikes in order to influence your purchasing decisions.

In other words if you like the fruit but not the nuts look for a bottle that has more fruit than it does nuts. If you enjoyed the burn, try something a touch stronger.

Here are a few suggestions for your second and third tastings:

- Glenkinchie 12 Year

- Bladnoch 11 Year

- Glenlivet 12 Year

- Glenfiddich 12 Year

- The Balvenie Doublewood

- The Macallan 10 Year

- The Dalmore 12 Year

I really can’t recommend enough that you try and stick to the lighter whiskies for now. Further to that point, I can’t stress enough that it might be in your palates best interest to try and avoid the Islay’s (pronounced ‘eye-la’, not ‘iz-lay’) at least for now. The Islays are notoriously strong (Lagavulin is a prime example) and the burn you’ll experience may very well turn you off from Scotch forever.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had guests over that want to try a stronger whisky because I’m drinking it and end up leaving the glass half full. I mention this because a good bottle of Scotch can be quite expensive and many Scotch lovers are saddened to see their favorite bottle emptying. Out of respect for your host, try to focus on a whisky they recommend for your palate or one you already know you enjoy – that way you’re not wasting the dram.

Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 2014

Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2014

Education for Scotch Beginners

Like any topic, it’s important to educate yourself if you truly want to understand its intricacies. I highly recommend taking advantage of beginner tasting classes, just google it and you will find some local offerings. Don’t forget to keep a notebook on hand to write down your experiences with various whiskies.

When you’re at a pub or bar, ask the bartender for advice. Mention what you enjoy and don’t enjoy in a whisky. If they’re competent they’ll be able to help lead you in the right direction.

When you’re at the liquor store, seek advice. If the clerk asks to help, take them up on the offer. Introduce yourself and talk about various bottles before making your decision. Try and shop at times where the store is likely not busy and bring your notepad so you can show them where you’re at in your journey. A good whisky advocate is like a consigliere in that they’ll counsel you and help you develop your palate.

At my local liquor store, the managers know me quite well and even email me or call me with new additions to the store. When I go in they often open bottles for me to taste and may spend a full hour with me simply discussing our shared passion for whisky.

Also, take a look at Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. For under $20 you get a lot of information but always bear in mind – the only thing that counts is what you like.

Conclusion

I hope you’ve found this installment helpful. There is such a wide range of information that can be shared on this topic so I will try my very best to answer any questions you may have. Stay tuned for future installments where I’ll delve deeper into the world of whisky, not just focusing on Scotch and bourbon, but on whiskies from regions around the world.

Did you enjoy this article? Check out our other spirits and cocktail guide.

7 replies
  1. Duncan King
    Duncan King says:

    I notice you don’t say anything about adding water… I think it’s very important that beginners shouldn’t be afraid to add some water to their dram. The experts take if for granted, but in my experience, a lot of beginners worry that it’s “wrong” somehow… Nothing could be further from the truth. If a dram is a bit too fierce for you, a few drops of water can make it much more approachable. The important thing is not to add too much too quickly – you can always add a little more, but once there’s too much, there’s nothing you can do about it. A small water jug, possibly with a teaspoon or eyedropper, is an essential part of any Scotch drinker’s toolkit.

    • J.A. Shapira
      J.A. Shapira says:

      Hi Duncan,

      Excellent point my friend. The reason this was left out was because it’s mentioned repeatedly in the Scotch Guide which we linked to. This introduction for beginners is really only to carry them through their first or second dram. After that, all the information they’ll need is in the Scotch Guide. Glad you noticed that though and pointed it out. I concur that a drop of water is essential for many drams. Not only can it tame the Scotch but it can actually open it up and release new flavors. Here’s an interesting (and inexpensive) example of what I mean. Buy yourself a bottle of Ardmore Traditional Cask which is a non-chill filtered Highland Scotch. Try the first taste neat but on the second add a splash of water. At full bottle strength you’ll notice full rich mouthfeel which burst of creamy peat tang and hints of vanilla. However, when you add that drop of water, the flavors dramatically increase and change to ripe fresh sweet fruit and then finish with that tang of peat. This is just one example, but since Ardmore is quite reasonably priced, it’s a good one to test the waters with.

      Thanks for reading!

      J.A. Shapira

  2. James Logan
    James Logan says:

    Excellent article I like that you have encouraged new users to add some ice, Scotch can turn off many new drinkers not only with its taste, but with the snobbish attitude many display around it. After drinking Scotches for over 25 years it still puts me off if a bartender gives a snooty attitude when I ask for water or even ice, not all Scotch even some single malts are from a fine casks. I prefer to have my good Scotches at home or at a bar which has an extensive scotch selection and tasting night. When I am at an event in a hotel conference room and order a scotch from one of those mobile bars I am not looking for a Scotch experience just a social drink no attitude required. That is my rant so on another note I would like to see an article on Martinis and please include the Manhattan in that mix as it is my favorite social drink.

    • J.A. Shapira
      J.A. Shapira says:

      I’m so pleased you enjoyed the article. I think that an installment on classic cocktails would be a fabulous idea. I too enjoy a well made Manhattan. Have you had the pleasure of enjoying an Old Fashioned?

      • James Logan
        James Logan says:

        Yes have had the Old Fashioned and the Rob Roy. I tried a lot of the Old Mr Boston Official Bartender Guide back in the early 1980s when I worked as a bartender. I was expected to be able to both make and recommend drinks to customers, a skill I found was lost, but I am glad to see is making a comeback with some of today’s generation. I find that some younger bartenders are again learning the skill of good drink making and not just twirling bottles around for a clown show, thanks “Cocktail.” Sometimes history repeating itself is a good thing.

  3. Hristo
    Hristo says:

    Taste is something quite personal and subjective.
    Some people love liquorice candies, others would spit the candy on the moment they try it.
    That is why I would like to disagree with one aspect of the article – the choice of first whisky.
    I would recommend for a beginner to avoid buying a bottle for the first tasting and go to bars with a good choice of whisky and simply try different types of whisky(maybe on different evenings) and see which whisky would be love from the first sip.
    To be honest – I really enjoyed Laphroaig 10y.o. even as an absolute beginner and I have built a strong preference for peated scotch(Laphroaig, Talisker, Lagavulin, Ardbeg) and for old Irish blends(18y.o. Jameson, 16y.o. Bushmills, 15y.o. Redbreast). At the same time the Auchentoshan tripple wood and the Balvenie 16y.o. triple wood were my worst whisky purchases ever. Did not enjoyed them at all. My best friend also disliked them even though we have different taste for whisky.
    So do not forget – taste is very personal and subjective. Simply try many different whiskies and do not give up if the first several are a disappointment. The whisky world is so rich, that I am sure there is a taste for everyone to fall in love with.

Comments are closed.