Scotch for Beginners

Ransom Riggs

I've been a member of the Los Angeles Scotch Club since it was founded back in 2006, and in the past six months or so, we've noticed a marked uptick in interest and attendance. People everywhere seem to be increasingly interested in fine whiskeys and fine beers (despite the recession -- in fact, it's been said that rare whisky is a far sounder investment than the stock market), whereas the market share for fine wines is on a slight downswing. If you're just starting out and need a little guidance, our club's president, Andrew Smith, penned a nice beginner's guide, which with his permission I'm reprinting here.

So you're curious about Scotch, eh? The LA Scotch Club has written this little article to help explain what you really need to know about BEGINNING to enjoy good Scotch whisky. There are numerous books and magazine articles ready to preach about the whisky regions, the shape of potstills, and how some expert noticed a hint of elderberry in his $5000 Scotch (that he got for free). Now, I won't say that it's completely unimportant"¦ it's just not important to you right now, is it? What you need to know is: what to drink, how to enjoy it, and where to get your hands on it.

Let's start with "What do I want to drink?" We'll first separate the two important types of Scotch whisky: single malt and blended.

"¢ Blended Scotch

Blends are the bulk of Scotch sold worldwide and are allowed to take malt from many different distilleries, then "˜blend' them with inferior grain whisky. Blended Scotches (Johnny Walker, Chivas, and Dewars, etc.) strive for consistency and inoffensiveness, and sometimes achieve both. They have millions of casks to work with, with no two casks being exactly alike, leaving a hefty task of keeping the brands consistent year after year. Now, if your vision of a perfect evening is pouring Scotch into a big glass of ice and hoping for a familiar experience day in and day out, then blends are for you and you don't have to read another word. Cheers!

"¢ Single Malt Scotch

Excellent! You're still with us. I'll say this plainly: blends are inferior, mostly because they are bland and boring. They strive for it! A Johnny Walker Blue is popular because it's so smooth that you hardly notice that it's Scotch. Tap water is also smooth, and you'll hardly notice the Scotch. And it's cheaper! In single malts, however, you will find complexities of flavors you couldn't have imagined. Sometimes they won't suit your taste, I confess. But when you find the right malt"¦ well, you'll see.

Single Malt Scotch is by definition a malted-barley whisky produced in one (single) distillery. Scotch, which can only be made in Scotland, must be aged at least 3 years and be no less than 40% ABV (that goes for blends too.)


First, let me explain how I will categorize, in AN IMPORTANT WAY, Scotch for you. Major taste types (3 of them), and distribution type (2 of them). Let's start with the taste types:

1) Oak bourbon cask (most whisky)

2) Specialty casks (typically sherry casks)

3) Peaty (mostly from Islay)

Scotch is almost always aged in a used cask (pardon me, "˜pre-owned'), because the previous spirit strips away the harsh new-wood flavor and leaves a bit of itself that the Scotch will pick up.

Yes, there are complicated taste maps out there, but knowing these three types will get you pretty far. Whisky lovers will usually tell you whether they prefer or don't prefer sherried Scotch or Islays (they call themselves "˜Peat Freaks').

1) Oak bourbon cask

For lack of a better description, this is "normal" whisky. Used oak bourbon casks from America (bourbon is only allowed to use new casks) are cheap and plentiful, and the whisky may or may not inherit a small hint of bourbon. If your bottle doesn't specify what the whisky was aged in, this is usually it.

2) Specialty cask

Often, whisky is aged in casks that previously contained sherry, port, wine, rum, etc. Sherry has been historically popular, with distilleries such as Macallan and Glenfarclas specializing in it, but the rising cost of spent Sherry casks has made sherried whisky more costly and less common. Occasionally, whisky that has been aged in bourbon casks will be "finished" for a short time in a specialty cask.

3) Peaty

Peat is grassy soil burned as fuel to dry the barley and is plentiful on the boggy islands west of Scotland. The flavor from this peat smoke follows the whisky all the way to your bottle and is often described as briny, medicinal, smoky, or grassy. First timers will often react with "What the @#%," but the peat tends to grow on you fast and is a favorite of experienced tipplers. Peat can be used on any whisky, but it's a signature of the Islay Scotches and that's where you should start. Hint: Laphroaig 10 is cheap, easy to find, and tasty.

Now on to the distribution types: Distillery and Independent

1) Distillery

Most single malts are bottled by the distillery that made them, often with merely an age description. The distillery bottlings may mix in any whisky they produce so long as it's at least the age on the label. Most bottling lines will try to stay consistent from year to year, but distilleries often change or replace the line every decade or so.

2) Independent

The mass production of blends and even single-malts occasionally produces casks that for many various reasons (like being too damned tasty) are not thrown into the mix. These individual casks are sold to independent bottlers who sell the whisky under their own name AND the distillery name. These are very limited because only one cask is typically involved (200- 600 bottles), and are often better or quirkier than distillery's old standbys. With independents you'll even get to experience distilleries that don't have their own single malts (i.e. they are only used in blends), and often at cask strength (no water added).


Hand it over and we'll show you. As for glassware, there are many nosing glasses such as Glencairn, CelticMalts, Riedel for your dram (a dram is a Scottish "shot".) Please avoid a big whisky tumbler. A large cognac snifter will work nicely too.

"¢ Nosing

It's a fancy word for sniffing. Start with your nose above the rim to avoid burning yourself. Great whisky will probably have a great nose.

"¢ Tasting

It's not wine, so don't swish it around aggressively. Let it coat every part of your tongue.

"¢ Add Water

A few drops of water should be added to a Scotch dram to help open it up. This creates a chemical reaction that rouses the aromas. For cask strength whiskies that are often above 50% or 60% ABV, you may want to add more to avoid burning your palate.