What You Need to Know About Drinking Scotch

If you’re new to the world of Scotch, it can be hard to know where to start. And when you don’t know your Glenfiddich from your Glenlivet, it’s a little intimidating to find a good starting point. While you can always opt for a famous cocktail, you won’t regret spending the time to brush up on the basics and learn a little bit about drinking Scotch. To help you out, here’s what you need to know in order to start enjoying the occasional glass of Scotch.

Scotch: The basics

Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Need to know the basics of drinking Scotch? Read on to learn how to sip Scotch like a seasoned pro. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Scotch is the signature spirit of Scotland, a country that’s home to 115 licensed distilleries. Put simply: If you’re drinking Scotch, it comes from Scotland. The origins of this malt or grain whisky go back to the 15th century, when monks began distilling the spirit. Scotch is aged for at least three years, though often longer, in oak barrels. Generally, it’s distilled twice (unlike Irish whiskeys, which are distilled three times).

Scotch is often identified by the region where it was produced: Islay, Speyside, Highlands, Lowland, or Campbeltown. Each region has its own characteristics. Whiskies from Islay, such as Lagavulin and Laphroaig, tend to have a strong peat flavor, according to Master of Malt. But single malts from Speyside tend to taste lighter and sweeter. Today, the Scotch Whisky Regulations Guidance 2009 govern how Scotch is produced, bottled, and marketed.

Whiskey or whisky?

man drinking whisky
Confused about whether you should spell it “whiskey” or “whisky”? You aren’t alone. | iStock.com

Whiskey (with an “e”) is a broad category of spirits made with fermented grain mash. If the liquor comes from either Scotland or Canada, it’s generally spelled whisky (without the “e”). But American and Irish whiskeys tend to keep the “e.” The Kitchn explains, “No matter how you spell it, whisky/ey is an umbrella term for a type of spirit distilled from a mash of fermented grains.”

Nonetheless, the publication points out that “American and Irish liquor producers (and copy editors) tend to favor the spelling WHISKEY, while Canadian, Scottish, and Japanese producers (and copy editors) tend to favor (or should I say, favour) WHISKY.”

Need a quick way to remember the difference? Countries that have e’s in their names, including the United States and Ireland, tend to spell it “whiskey.” But countries without e’s in their names — Canada, Scotland, and Japan — tend to spell it “whisky.”

Types of scotch

bottles of scotch whiskey
You can choose among many types of Scotch at the bar or liquor store. | Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Ready for a drink yet? Let’s take a look at the different types of Scotch you’ll encounter when you head to the liquor store or bar. Scotch is actually an umbrella term that includes several subtypes, including single malts and blends. The Scotch Whisky Association recognizes the following categories:

Single malt: A whisky made with water and malted barley and produced at a single distillery using pot stills.

  • Example: Glenlivet 12

Single grain: A whisky made with water, malted barley, and another type of grain. Like single malts, a single-grain Scotch is produced at just one distillery.

  • Example: Cameron Brig

Blended malt: A combination of multiple single malt whiskies from different distilleries.

  • Example: Monkey Shoulder

Blended grain: A combination of multiple single grain whiskies from different distilleries

  • Example: Compass Box Hedonism

Blended Scotch whisky: A combination of at least one single-malt Scotch with at least one single-grain Scotch.

  • Example: Chivas 18


clinking glasses
Age plays an important part in the taste of Scotch. (But other factors matter, too.) |  iStock.com

Remember how Scotch gets aged for at least three years? That’s one reason why people talk about age so often when they talk about Scotch. When you see a number following the name on a bottle of Scotch, it tells you how long it was aged. The number on the label applies to the youngest whisky in the bottle.

Many people assume older will taste better when it comes to whisky. But age isn’t the only factor you should consider when choosing a bottle. If you’re new to Scotch, you might want to try several different types of whisky — all of different ages and from different distilleries — to find out which tastes better to you.

“If you like the taste, then it’s the right thing for you. Don’t worry so much about age,” Ian Buxton, the author of 101 Legendary Whiskies, told The Wall Street Journal. You don’t have to choose a bottle of Scotch by the number on the front. Many other factors affect the taste of a particular Scotch just as much as its age.

How to drink it

drink glass
You can order and drink Scotch several different ways. | Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

If you’re drinking good Scotch, you’ll probably want to order it “neat.” That means it comes in a glass with no ice. When drinking Scotch neat, you might want to add a few drops of water. That can help reveal the flavors of the liquor. And some people prefer to drink their Scotch “on the rocks.” That means comes in a glass with ice.

The bartender should serve Scotch in either a whiskey glass — a tulip-shaped glass like the one pictured above — or a rocks glass. But you should do more than just admire the presentation. Before taking a sip, you’ll want to nose, or smell, the whisky. Master distiller Richard Paterson explains how to nose and taste your whisky in this video:

When drinking, you should take your time to savor the beverage. And if you want shots, you should save your money and pick a different liquor for the night.

As far as choosing which Scotch to drink, it’s a matter of your personal preference. You can start with single malts. But don’t overlook blends, the best varieties of which are carefully put together by master blenders. They can taste just as good as single malts.

“There is a paradigm that has been established over the past two decades in mature markets like Japan, the U.K., and the U.S. that malts are good and blends are bad. Which clearly is not true,” Dave Broom, the author of Whisky: The Manual, told the Daily Beast.

Whether you find yourself drawn to single malts, blends, or don’t know what you want, an informed bartender can help you find a Scotch that fits your taste. Or you could attend a whiskey tasting to get a sense of what you do and do not like.

Can I put Scotch in a cocktail?

Whiskey on the rocks, drink
Scotch might not appear in many mixed drinks, but a few do include it. | iStock.com

Some purists only drink their Scotch unadulterated. They would never use top-shelf single malts and blends to make a mixed beverage. Yet, it’s possible to enjoy Scotch even if you don’t like it on its own. “The only rule is that you should drink Scotch the way you enjoy it as an individual,” according to the Scotch Whisky Association.

Nonetheless, Scotch’s strong flavor profile means it doesn’t always play well in cocktails. “[S]cotch is notoriously hard to mix,” explains the Kitchn. But a few cocktails do use it as an ingredient. That includes the Mamie Taylor (Scotch, lime juice, and ginger beer), the Godfather (Scotch and amaretto), and the Rob Roy (Scotch, sweet vermouth, and angostura bitters).

Recipe: Rob Roy

The Rob Roy, named after Scottish hero Robert Roy MacGregor, tastes similar to a Manhattan. But it uses Scotch whisky rather than rye as its primary ingredient. Try it out with this recipe from Chow.com.


  • 2 ounces good-quality blended Scotch whisky
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • Dash of angostura bitters
  • Maraschino cherry

Directions: Add the Scotch, vermouth, and bitters to a mixing glass with ice. Stir, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Drop in the maraschino cherry and serve.

Additional reporting by Jess Bolluyt.