Best Whisky for Beginners: Tips and recommendations for trying Scotch Whisky for the first time
If you’re just starting in the world of Scotch Whisky, it can be pretty overwhelming to know what is the best whisky for beginners or even what the terms mean. There are so many unpronounceable distilleries, numbers and opinions flying around, it can be hard to know where to start.
I spent 10 years recommending single malts at work for customers from all over the globe, with different budgets, levels of whisky experience and tastes. So, to help you navigate the whisky waters, we’ve put together a beginners guide to whisky. This includes our list of the best whiskies for beginners to get you started and enjoying the wonderful world of Scotch Whisky.
Simple tips to get started
There’s a high chance that your first foray into Scotch whisky will come in a bar. Depending on the type of bar, the staff may be able to answer questions about whisky, even if just the ones they sell. This is especially true in Edinburgh where there are many whisky-focused bars, so the staff are used to questions and being fonts of knowledge. However, others won’t be so helpful. So here are a couple of things to look for to help you navigate the selection in front of you.
If you’re in an establishment with a whisky list then hopefully they have arranged it by region. This is common and good practise as it’s by far the quickest and easiest way to navigate the selection.
Scotland is broken down into 6 whisky regions: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islands, Islay & Campbeltown. For beginners, I always look at the Lowland and Speyside regions.
Lowland whiskies are light, delicate and fairly straightforward. They’re a good entry point if you’re new to whisky and worried about your palette being overwhelmed.
Speyside whisky is characterised by the use of sherry casks. These casks are used all over Scotland but are most prevalent in Speyside. The sherry cask adds complexity but also a sweetness to the whisky. This is a welcome, pleasant characteristic if you’re new to it or you’re a bourbon fan which is generally sweeter than Scotch due to the use of corn-mash.
It’s true that the older the whisky is, the more mellow it will be. If you ever try a 3-year-old whisky you’ll discover this very quickly. But you don’t need to spring for spirits which are 15 years, or older, which will cost a bit. 10 years is a good starting point. However, be wary of anything under 10 years or without an age on the bottle. Young whiskies are “purer” as you’re tasting more of the individuality of the distillery rather than the barrel but they can be a bit rough around the edges.
This requires closer inspection of the bottle so is perfect if you’re in a shop or buying online. The “finish” is what type of cask the whisky spends the last 6 months to a year in. Lots of whiskies are predominantly aged in oak or bourbon barrels, which are relatively cheap. They are then “finished” in the casks of rum, sherry, port etc. which are much more expensive but add complexity. Anything that is finished in a sweet wine cask eg Sherry, Port, Madeira will have a sweet edge to it making it more beginner-friendly.
Elsewhere watering down your whisky is frowned upon. Though for some reason, chilling it to the point of not being able to taste it, is fine. But not in Scotland. All whisky should have a couple of drops of water added to release the aromas. However, don’t be scared to add an equal measure of water to whisky. If your palette isn’t used to drinking straight spirit, don’t worry, add some water and enjoy. Just don’t put ice in it! Ice will lower the temperature (duh) meaning you can’t taste the individual flavours, and it will be watered down at a rate you can’t control.
Whisky Drinking Expressions
Whilst travelling around Scotland, you may hear some rather odd expressions and colloquialisms. In a similar way to wine, whisky has its own language and jargon which can seem off-putting at first. But, unlike wine, the terminology is easy to pick up and learn so it won’t take you long before you a whisky speaking aficionado.
Dram – The traditional Scottish name for a measure whisky. Now, often used for a glass of any size. It is said to have evolved from an old term for an apothecaries’ weight, usually one-eighth of an ounce.
Nip – A measure of whisky smaller than a dram.
Nosing – Giving your glass a good sniff, inhaling the aromas before going in for the taste.
Quaich – Pronounced “quake”, this is a traditional Scottish whisky drinking cup. It is a shallow bowl with a short vertical handle on either side. Not something you will be presented with at the pub, but you will see it at Burns Suppers or traditional weddings, where the sharing of the quaich signifies friendship.
Slàinte – This is pronounced slanj and means “Good Health”. It is a friendly Gaelic toast made before enjoying a whisky in company.
Must-Try Whiskies for Beginners
Auchentoshan is a Lowland distillery to the North-West of Glasgow. It typifies the Lowland style with their delicate, straightforward whiskies. The 3 wood is our favourite offering for beginners as they use 3 different barrels, giving a very smooth dram that covers a lot of bases. This is one we’d constantly recommend to whisky newbies or anyone who hadn’t tried it as it’s a great whisky and good value.
Ageing: 3 different barrels – Oak, Bourbon and Sherry
Tasting note: Dark fruit and chocolate, like a black forest gateau
Ideal for: Whisky first-timers. It is sweet and fruity, so very beginner-friendly if your palette isn’t used to any type of whisky.
Glenkinchie is another Lowland distillery. Being the closest distillery to Edinburgh, it is a favourite of tourists who want to explore the world of Scotch whisky without having to head into the wilds of the Highlands. This is a more classic Lowland profile with bourbon cask ageing giving the light, bright simplicity of the region.
Ageing: 12 years in Bourbon cask
Tasting note: Fruit and sauternes, light oak finish
Ideal for: Purists who want to sample the profile of each region without much barrel interference. Or first-timers who are intimidated by the bold flavours of some whisky.
Balvenie is a Speyside distillery near Dufftown in the Highlands. If you want to visit lots of whisky distilleries on your trip, Dufftown is the place to go. There are six distilleries in the town and many more nearby. This whisky sees oak and sherry casks, adding sweetness and depth. The sherry casks are new when used, called “first fill”. This is important as they’ll add more flavour than older sherry casks.
Ageing: Bourbon barrel and 9 months in first-fill sherry cask
Tasting Note: Dried fruit and sweet spice with a hint of vanilla
Ideal for: Anyone looking for a sweeter whisky or who enjoy the vanilla flavours of bourbon
This is a more expensive dram, but it is the whisky that converted me to being a whisky lover. At the time, I was a whisky beginner and the powerful, sweet complex aroma alone was enough to convince me to try it. Though I did try a small amount whilst *ahem* at work so didn’t leap to a full bottle. I would definitely recommend having a nip in a bar before committing to buying a full one.
Aging: 16 years in Sherry cask
Tasting note: Rich oak, prune, clove and nutty elements
Ideal for: Anyone who enjoys rye or bourbon whisky and wants a big, punchy but sweeter Scotch to start off. This is not for the faint-hearted, but great for anyone transitioning from Cognac/Armagnac as I was.
Bruichladdich is one of 9 distilleries on the small island of Islay (pronounced eye-la). Islay is famous for its peated whiskies with their characteristic smokey notes. Across their whiskies, Bruichladdich has the most delicate peated flavour. But “The Laddie” is an unpeated offering making it a great entry point for those who want to explore this little region.
Ageing: American Oak Cask
Tasting Note: Brown sugar, red apple and grape. Hints of salt and barley
Ideal for: Beginners who want to get into the whiskies of Islay but are concerned about the smokey, heavily peated whisky
Talisker is located on the stunning Isle of Skye and has a wonderful complexity that is typical of the Island region whiskies. It does have a very slight smokey/peat flavour to it making it an excellent gateway whisky for anyone wanting to explore the peated style more.
Ageing: Bourbon cask aged
Tasting Note: Apple and pear with a salty edge. Delicate peaty notes
Ideal for: Those who enjoy the smokey/peat flavour but want to build up slowly to very peaty whisky. If you’re a fan of traditional mezcal, which also has smokey notes, this is for you.
Highland Park of various ages is often touted as “the best Scottish whisky”. The 12-year-old offering is great value for money and has all the elements of great Scotch whisky. It is subtle, yet complex, accessible to beginners but with enough going on to really impress whisky aficionados. The distillery is on wind-swept Orkney and was, until very recently, the most Northerly distillery in Scotland.
Ageing: Primarily sherry cask aged
Tasting note: Orange and green tea with slight sweetness and salinity
Ideal for: If you want to dive in and see the best of what Scotch whisky can offer without shelling out huge money, this is the bottle for you.
This is another whisky that helped me properly enjoy our national beverage in the beginning. 14 years of ageing make this a very smooth offering. Coastal Oban distillery has a slight saltiness but a light style, making it a great whisky for beginners.
Ageing: American oak
Tasting note: Citrus, sea salt with slightly medicinal notes.
Ideal for: People who want an impressive age on their bottle and the extra smoothness this provides. Again this is a “purer” expression of where the whisky is made than those aged in Sherry casks.
We can’t have a “Best Whisky for Beginners” guide without including a whisky from Campbeltown in the South-West of Scotland. Springbank is in Campbeltown itself. With both bourbon and sherry cask ageing, it is a Campbeltown classic.
Ageing: Bourbon cask and Sherry cask
Tasting note: Creamy with hints of smoke, marzipan and cigar box
Ideal for: This is Campbeltown in a nutshell so for anyone who wants to sample each region or just wants to see what Campbeltown is all about, this is the ideal whisky.
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