Sunday, November 1, 2009

How to Drink Scotch

Throw Back Some Scotch with the Game on the TV?
I think not. There are a lot of beverages that can be casually consumed. Beer is a great example. Mow the lawn on a hot sunny day and there is nothing better than having a beer in a chilled glass afterwards as you survey your well manicured lawn. Watching football? Beer works great again. Especially when you consider marrying it with the salty potatoe chips and cheddar drizzled nachos. Barbecue? Beer is great to start with and then move into a nicely decanted Cabernet Sauvignon when you take charge of that t-bone with mushrooms and risotto, as you chat it up with the neighbors.

Scotch and other whiskies (ie. Irish, Canadian, bourbon, etc.) do not lend themselves to the above occasions. Why? No elitism here friend. There is nothing wrong with watching football or organizing a barbecue in your backyard. The problem rests with scotch itself. The stuff is very powerfull and if you sip too much (which is not very much in terms of volume) you'll be more than intoxicated. You'll probably embarrass yourself (which may not be a big deal to you), but more importantly you will embarrass your wife, and then you know it's a big deal. So, the solution? Stick to beer and wine for the casual get-togethers and reserve the scotch for yourself and a few choice friends.

Besides the lightning quick intoxication, the other reason it is not ideal to casually toss back this wonderful spirit is that you miss the great experience of pondering the complex flavor profile. So, what follows are some suggestions as to how to drink scotch and appreciate it in its splendor:

1. Find a Quiet Place. The den, the basement, beside the fireplace, your cottage overlooking the lake, you get the picture.

2. Get Comfortable. Kickin' back on my favorite, beat-up, ol' lazy-boy in the basement, the kids are in bed, the wife is reading in the bedroom or asleep, means this is my quiet time to unwind. Ya gotta be comfortable. If that means your adirondach chair facing the lake or the ocean with the dying embers of the campfire glowing near you, well then do it. Dad's Hideaway. That's what I call my basement den. Find your's.

3. The Tumbler. Lately, if you read an article on scotch, there will invariably be a reference to the Glencairn glass. The glass was designed and manufactured by the Glencairn Crystal company of Scotland and introduced into the marketplace in 2001. It is a rounded crystal glass at the bottom but, tapers inward toward the top of the glass in an attempt to trap some of the aromas of whisky. It somewhat enhances the drinking experience in the sense that the tapered body traps the aromas more effectively than a regular tumbler. It will not improve the whisky upon the palate. I think a brandy snifter is actually more effective for drinking scotch. If you just have a crystal tumbler, that will work too.  Just stick your nose deeply into the tumbler and sniff.

Bottom line friends is get a clean crystal tumbler, brandy snifter or Glencairn glass and get ready.

4. A Tall Glass of Water and a Spoon. You need the glass of water to drink in between sips of scotch. This assumes you are drinking the scotch straight. If you like it with ice, you should still drink the water to hydrate yourself and clean the palate in between drams.

The spoon is for experimentation. When trying a new scotch, whisky or bourbon, try it straight for starters, then with a teaspoon of water to each shot and finally ice. You will quickly learn your preference. If you always drink with ice, have one or two with ice, and then change to two teaspoons of water to each shot. You might surprise yourself. I used to always add ice, but over time on the second or third drink I would be too lazy to get out of my chair and get ice out of the fridge. So, I ended up pouring a shot straight and taking just tiny sips. Key word here is "tiny." I was surprised that I enjoyed it greatly. Eventually, I abandoned adding ice altogether. That was a shocker as I drank whisky with ice for many years.

Just a note on the water. Use distilled water or Brita filtered water. It makes a difference.

5. The Pour. When opening a new bottle, you can't just pop the cork, pour it and immediately sample. Well, technically you could, but I am going to give you a compelling reason not to. It has been my limited experience that upon opening a new bottle it is not uncommon to get a sharp flavors and even alcohol tastes upon the palate. Solution? Pour your dram and let it sit for a few minutes (ie. 5 - 10). You do not need to do this everytime you want a drink, just when it is a new bottle and you are opening it for the first time. Once the air reacts with the whisky in the tumbler, it will soften and generally improve. Some scotches don't need this procedure, but many do.

6. Take a Sip . . . Not a Big Gulp! A lot of people don't like scotch, whisky or bourbon. Why? Well, they made two fatal mistakes when drinking it. First, they probably took to big a mouthful, downed it, and promptly gagged or had a facial expression that no mother could love. So, the first rule of drinking whisky is to take a little sip, and I mean little, think tiny, think half a teaspoon to start. If you take a whisky, scotch or bourbon in such a small quantity your drinking experience will be quite different. You will not gag, grimace or have the urge to woof. Instead, you will note the flavors and upon tasting you will be ready to make a decision in relation to the second most common mistake of people new to the whisky world. The second rule to remember is that upon obeying the first, you need to determine whether or not you would prefer your whisky with a little water or ice. Of course this is only a decision that you can make. When I intitally started drinking scotch, I added two ice cubes and poured a dram to just cover the top of the ice cubes. With the passage of time there were occasions when I was too lazy to go to the fridge upstairs and get more ice. Accordingly, I found myself sipping some scotch neat, and I was surprised to discover that it could be quite enjoyable. Today, I have lost the desire for ice in my scotch, but do like to add a teaspoon or two depending on what I am drinking. You have to do the same experimenting to determine what you like best. When arrogant, self-proclaimed scotch experts declare that scotch must be consumed neat, you have to dismiss such pronouncements. It's all up to the individual

7. Have an Open Mind. When evaluating a scotch, don't get hung up on whether or not it is a blend or a single malt. Just enjoy it!


© Jason Debly, 2009 - 2011. All rights reserved.


  1. Good deal Jason. I've been drinking my Knob Creek on the rocks for a lon time until I ordered one at the Omni in Dallas and the cute little bartender said "really? you seem like a neat kind of guy." so I tried it neat and it was great.

  2. Great post! I've read a few similar posts where the writers obsessed "get a scotch glass, it's not the same without one", which left me feeling rather sad as all I have are basic tumblers ;) Reading this cheered me up; I rather like your style and I drink the same way (although I'm only just beginning) and have several of your reviews in more tabs!

  3. Hi Rob! Tumblers work great! The only advantage of the Glencairn whisky glass and others is that it makes it easier to nose the aromas. With a tumbler you just have stick your nose into the glass more deeply. No biggie! We can manage that!

    Thanks for the post!

  4. Hey Jason,
    I've been experimenting with adding water to my scotch in an attempt to find the right balance depending on which scotch, and in order to better compare (in small quantities) one next to another without "anaesthetising" my nose and tongue at full strength. Comparing two side-by-side neat doesn't seem to work well. And of course a $17 bottle of Ballentine's makes it a lot easier to experiment as well. I also picked up a $31 bottle of Glenmorainge 10 yr old (its normal price was $48).
    Anyhow, to shorten what could amount to a very long post, these experiments turned out quite interesting and eye-opening - with each needing a different amount to taste best, and age seeming to have some correlation.
    Along the way, I found this interesting techo-babble article (actually a blog on food and drink) on the science of it, while researching adding water to scotch:

  5. Ripley, I am surprised by how some scotches, whether they are single malt or blend, either benefit or do not from the addition of water.

    Last night I was sampling Oban 14yrs old (an incredible single malt!) by adding a teaspoon of water, and found that was too much. Made it too peppery on the finish for my tastes. Maybe half a teaspoon is the trick.

    Anyway, it is definitely an experiment that you have to carry out on each one you try.

    I might add that I am probably unlike most people in that I do not try different scotches at one sitting. You mentioned that comparing two side by side neat doesnt work well. I think the reason for that is generally your palate becomes muted or dulled by the full strength flavors and before you know it, you cant distinguish much. The remedy? Try one, drink water in between, wait about 15 minutes and try the other. That's about the only way but after two samples my palate is toast once again.

    Anyway, thanks for posting.


  6. Hey Jason - I didn't actually mean side-by-side at the same in the left and one in the right (that would be a funny picture). I meant during the same evening, one after the other, with plenty of water and a little time between - or even on two separate evenings. I only allow myself one dram total if I'm tasting during the week and maybe two on a Saturday night, so I use a little metal tablespoon to try different combinations, without going over my max.
    By starting with more water (which does tend to be pretty weak) and reducing it a little at a time, I'm able to find the sweet spot and the variety of tastes, so to speak, without blasting my taste buds with intense alcohol.
    For example, both the Ballantine's and the Glenmorainge have a great nose and then numbing alcohol upon taste. I was disappointed each time I tried, particularly with the Glenmorainge because it has such a beautiful nose (and of course the Highland 12 never does this to me).
    But this technique allowed me to go from diluted to neat (tablespoon by tablespoon), while picking up new smells and tastes on each subsequent combination. When I arrive at neat or the sweet-spot, I can taste the summary without the overpowering alcohol.
    Anyway, now I am fond of both the blend and the single malt above - when at first I wasn't so sure. They are both very different and I can appreciate those differences as well. I guess this technique has helped me form an affinity with them, and how best to drink them for my own peculiar taste buds.

  7. Hi Jason

    Im still really new to the whiskey scene, after professing for years that I could NEVER drink scotch (bla bla bla, how wrong I was). An older mate gave me a small crash course (with johnnie black, red, glenmorangie lasanta and, don't laugh, jameson). I haven't looked back and can't wait to start really understanding scents and flavours.

    I find your blog incredibly helpful, specially when deciding what to try next. I found Teacher's a great bit of advice, even if its not the great dram you say it once was.

    Please review one or two south african "scotches" some time.


    1. Hi Nick,

      If I ever see any South African whiskies, I will try to pick up a bottle and review.

      Welcome to the blog!

  8. Cheers!

    I can tell you about three ships (not sure if its internationally available, it has a few variants).

    Also, as a newbie with rather limited cash (So the 18yo single malts aren't really an option) what whiskeys from the entry class could you recommend to start acquiring a taste for the different flavours one so often hear referenced (particularly smokes/peats, nuts, caramel, etc).

    But thanks, your blog is always a great read and massively helpful, specially as you tend to stear clear of the snobbish "the higher the price, the better the whiskey" approach.


    1. There are many reasonably affordable single malts to choose from.

      For a sherried/currants flavor profile introduction with a touch of smoke, try Balvenie Doublewood 12 yrs.

      The GlenDronach 12 yrs is another entry level single malt that is heavy on the sherry notes too.

      For a more sophisticated treatment of sherry, smoke, peat and butterscotch/caramel, I highly recommend Highland Park 12 yrs (not 10yrs). A classic that will challenge all your taste buds.

      Bowmore 12 is a gentle and affordable introduction to the smoke and peat of Islay, but where you are a newbie, you may not like it at first. The peat and smoke of Islay distilleries can be very off-putting to new fans of Scotch.

      Aberour 12, Aberfeldy 12 work well too at good prices.

      My big favorite is Cragganmore 12 and I recommend this to all newbies and I have never had anyone come back and say they did not like it. Light honey, lemon, apricot in tiniest of smoke.

      Good luck!

  9. So from a quick google, I found two options really. Bain's single grain (apparently won best sibgle grain in the world?) And we have Three Ships which I doubt is anything special.

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