International Scotch Whisky Day is coming up on February 8th (not to be confused with National Scotch Whisky Day for those of us in the United States, which is on July 27th). Personally, I’m going to be celebrating with a smoky and earthy Islay scotch whisky, but that’s probably not the preference for everyone — and certainly not usually someone new to scotch. Which got me thinking: what would be the ideal scotch whisky for a first time taster?
What Is Scotch Whisky?
Quick overview on scotch whisky to start.
You can get more information in our in-depth article about exactly what defines scotch whisky, but as a quick overview: these spirits are made from grains heavily biased towards malted barley, are rested in oak casks for at least two years, and they must be produced, aged, and bottled in Scotland.
While the basic building blocks remain similar throughout the country, there’s a wide and delicious variety of flavor profiles that you can find depending on where you look. These differences are due to local variations in how the whiskey is produced, and changes in the local environment that alter the resulting flavor. Some of these are delicious from the first sip, clearly enjoyable and universally beloved. Others are… an acquired taste. Something unique and enjoyable specifically because of its distinctive flavor profile.
You can absolutely start with a bold flavor bomb of a scotch as your first intro, but that’s a heavy gamble to take. In my opinion, what you want if you’re new to scotch is a Speyside-style Blended Scotch Whisky. Here’s why.
One of the smaller regions in Scottish whisky, the Speyside region is located on the coast to the north east of Edinburgh and within the area known as the “Highlands”. Generally speaking, the Highlands region is known for lighter, sweeter whisky that focuses more on the herbal and floral aspects of the flavor profile, and the Speyside area tends to do a much better job creating clean and delicious spirits.
This area of Scotland is filled with names that a scotch drinker might recognize, including Macallan, Glenfarclas, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and other glen and non-glen associated distilleries.
There’s really two broad strokes when it comes to scotch: blended vs. single malt.
With a single malt spirit, the entire point is to give you a taste of that specific location in Scotland. It’s sourced from a single distillery, closely controlled for quality, and as a result often has some really distinctive notes and flavors as a result. It’s fascinating to compare and contrast different single malt spirits from various distilleries, but as a first time scotch drinker that nuance might not come through.
The point of a first bottle or an introductory drink is to give you an idea for what you’re getting into — giving you the theme before you go off for the variations.
That’s where a blended scotch whisky is the perfect choice. Blends are made from spirits from a number of different distilleries, and combined to make a very specific flavor profile. Historically speaking, blended scotch whisky is the older version — the concept of a single malt expression is actually a very new idea in the timeline of Scottish spirits. Some of the more famous brands like Johnnie Walker are blended, for example. A blended whisky gives you the ability to get a curated taste of Scotland, just the right flavor profile without any surprises.
As for which specific one? I have only one recommendation, and there’s no surprise that it made our list of the most popular reviews of 2022.
Of all the blends, this is the one that makes me the happiest.
Monkey Shoulder is a brand owned by William Grant & Sons, who own a number of Speyside whisky distilleries. Spirits from those distilleries are combined and blended to create this specific bottle of blended scotch whisky, giving you something akin to a survey of the Speyside and Highlands region of Scotland in a single sip. You can expect something a bit sweet and malty, with some honey, vanilla, and even a touch of Earl Grey tea.
And, best of all, you won’t break the bank. This bottle is reasonably priced and almost universally available — meaning that if it turns out that scotch just isn’t your thing, you won’t have wasted a ton of money finding out.
Hopefully, though, this isn’t the end of the journey for anyone dipping a toe into the world of scotch. This is (again, hopefully) just the teeny tiny little opening in the curtain where you get an impression of the world beyond. For some, scotch isn’t their thing and that’s perfectly fine. But I feel like this bottle gives you the best opportunity to figure that out for yourself.
For you reading — do you agree? Was this your first bottle? (And if not, what was?) We’d love to hear your scotch stories in the comments below!
I just came across your blog. I’ve read two articles now. One helped me to choose a neat pour of Laphroaig 10 tonight at the bar. Wonderful review. The intro to Scotch article is also worth the read. I would agree on Monkey Shoulder as a starter. I started with Johnny Red myself, fell in love with the smoky notes, and dove deeper into the waters.