How to Drink Scotch Whisky

Scotch Whisky (yes, it has no “e”) is perhaps the most sophisticated, idolized, debated, contested, over-analyzed and snobified of all the spirits… And rightfully so. At its best, Scotch is a complex whisky which requires both skill and patience to produce with the result being a smooth, rich, sometimes smoky flavored liquid which dances across the tongue, slowly and lightly burns its way down the throat and leaves one feeling warm all over.

In my case, it took me a full year to learn to drink Scotch and the first few months were rough! Peat (the reason for that smoky, iodine flavor) is not a taste one generally enjoys on the first encounter (or even the second or third!). It is bitter and tastes “mediciney”, a flavor not often associated with “good”. For me, learning to drink Scotch (and learning is the right word) was something I felt I needed to do in order to be a complete person, a Man In Full, as it were. I’d conquered Beer, Wine, Vodka, Gin, the Bourbons, the Brandies, and most other hard liquors but Scotch was out of my league and that bothered me. So one year, I decided that I would do whatever it took to learn to drink Scotch. I started in the minors, something of good quality but not exceptional… J&B, on the rocks with a splash of water. Not a bad way to start in retrospect but, it was murder choking that stuff down and not because J&B is a blend (see below) but rather, because of the peat. So, I backed off and lightened it up a bit and went with Dewar’s and soda with a lemon twist. Now, that hooked me. Light, refreshing, the lemon cut the peaty taste, those things go down like water on a hot summer’s day. (I love that drink even now and am enjoying one as I write this.)

From there, I moved back to drinking my whisky on the rocks. Johnny Walker Black Label, Chivas Regal, Vat 69 (when it was still a Top Shelf brand), all the better, readily available Scotches of the day. Of course there were the rare single malts as well, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, the occasional Speyside and Lagavulin but, in those days, it was the blends that controlled the market. By about the 9th month, there wasn’t a Scotch to be found in any bar or pub I visited that I had not tried. I was drawn more toward the Highlands than the Islay’s or Speysides because of their milder peat flavor and I’m still not one for that heavy iodine taste associated with the Northern shoreline of Scotland but, I won’t turn one down if it’s offered!

But enough about me, let’s talk about Scotch and the right way to drink it. Now Scotch Whisky is made using malted barley, wheat or rye, or a combination of the three. The malt (the cracked grain) is lightly smoked over a peat fire then is put into a vat of water to boil, then yeast is added to ferment, it’s distilled and finally the spirit is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 3 years. The barrels, by the way, are used barrels. They come mostly from Sherry vintners or Port makers in Portugal but sometimes from American Bourbon makers in the USA. Also, the whisky is subject to strict laws governing what can and cannot be called Scotch Whisky. (I oversimplify here, but here’s a more thorough explanation. or Wikipedia has a good article What comes out is pure smoky, amber goodness.

Before we debate what is the “right” way to drink Scotch, let’s talk about those blended whiskies. There are basically two types of Scotch Whisky, blended and single malt. Single malt is pretty self-explanatory. The whisky maker takes all the barrels from a single batch, pours them all into a large vat, adds water to achieve the proof (amount of alcohol) he desires and bottles it. This is how you get a 3 year old or a 10 year old or 12 year old single-malt whisky. On the other hand, blended whisky is made by adding grain whiskies or spirits to the Scotch. Grain whiskies are simply what you get if you don’t put the distilled malt into oak casks for year and years. It looks like Vodka. It’s clear, tastes pretty plain, rough even and is simply a distilled spirit, no aging required. The whisky maker takes his casks of Scotch, empties them into a big vat, adds the grain whiskies and some water to get the proof and taste he desires.

The advantage to making a blended whisky over a single-malt is consistency. Because the whisky maker is adding the grain whisky, he can achieve a more even and consistent taste year after year after year. They are more easily controlled than single malts which are subject to various environmental considerations of the grain harvest, water quality, the different oak the barrels are made of, the sherry or port or bourbon for which the oak casks were first used, as well as the quality of the peat used to smoke the malt. Which is better? Well… According to some, single malts are better because they are pure whisky, made from a single batch (though all the barrels from that batch are combined together to make the batch which is bottled) and they are not “cut” with the grain whisky. That being said, a top shelf blended whisky like Johnny Walker Black (or Blue for that matter) or Chivas Regal or The Dimple should not be snubbed. These are high quality whiskies whose taste and flavor have stood the test of time. Plus, being a whisky snob will quickly drain your wallet! Single malts are wonderful but can get quite pricey, so don’t discount a good blended whisky. 

Now, back to that big question; What is the proper way to drink Scotch? If you are in Scotland and tour a distillery or whisky shop, they’ll tell you the “right” way to drink Scotch is up with a small splash of water to “open-up the whisky”. Now, this is a great way to taste whisky and a great way to learn about the different types and brands of Scotch and is a great way to enjoy a dram but is it the right way to drink it? That is the question. Some people will say that a splash of water is fine but the “right” way is with one ice cube or three ice cubes (they never say what size ice cube) or that Scotch should be drunk over an ice ball. 

The ice ball is a relatively new invention for drinking whisky straight. I love them. They melt slowly, don’t over-chill the whiskey and they look cool. There are many types of molds and presses one can buy to make them. Others will drink their Scotch on the rocks (meaning a glass full of ice) or in a tall glass, over ice, with water or soda (seltzer water). Some will tell you that only Single Malt Scotch is worth drinking and the only way to drink those is neat. (No water, no ice, no soda.)

Well, the “right” answer is, however you like!!! You see, the enjoyment of a good tipple is all in the individual. How do you like your Scotch? Cold? Great! Then have it on the rocks or over an ice ball. Like it tepid? Fantastic! Drink yours up or with a little splash of spring water. Want that distinctive Scotch flavor but want something lighter and refreshing? Then go with my time honored favorite; Dewar’s and soda with a twist, served in a tall glass over ice. The “right” way to drink Scotch is the way you like to drink it. The only wrong way is to not drink it at all. Cheers!

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