Skip to main content

A Primer on Scotch Whiskey

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

I have an MA in social science from the New School for Social Research in New York City and formally worked as a writing professor.


Scotch (Also known as Scot’s whiskey or Scottish whiskey) comes from Scotland. Period.

Within Scotland, the region in which the label is produced is important and inform drinkers as to what they can expect when they drink them.. These regions are innclude the Lowlands, Speyside, Highlands, Islay, Campbelltown, and the islands, or Inseln.

Scotch: What to Know

Aside from region, aspects of scotch that lend to description are type, age, taste, nose, and color.


This refers to how a scotch is produced. Most high-end scotch will be single malt. The key differences in type are whether or not it is single malt or blended, and whether or not it is made with malted barley in pot stills at one distillery or with malted and unmalted barley and other grains—blended whiskeys as they are called—and may combine several single malts, along with wheat or corn whiskeys in what is called a column still.

It won’t be important to character description which still the liquor is made from, but you may want to indicate that the scotch is single malt. There are reputable blended whiskeys but tend to be thought of as being second best. So to sum up, scotch will be designated as such:

  • single malt,
  • single grain,
  • blended malt,
  • blended grain, or
  • blended scotch.


After the scotch is produced, it’s put into barrels or casks to age, just like wine. Logic has it that the longer the whiskey is aged, the better tasting and more expensive it is. Of course, this isn’t always true, but an author can specify how many years the scotch has been aged to indicate fine quality. Some examples of reputable vintages are the Lagavulin 16-year single malt, the Bunnahabhain 25-year single malt, and one of the most expensive in the world, the Dalmore 62.

Scroll to Continue


Like wine, whiskey connoisseurs like to describe the taste and nose (the smell) of scotch with descriptive and sometimes flowery language. Most commonly, scotch will be described as smoky or peaty flavored. For those that don’t know, peat is earth cut from bogs and dried then used mostly as fire fuel. The umami in whisky can be the peaty and smokey taste itself, which to unpracticed drinkers will be too intense. Some whiskeys have more depth than others. And the taste is often partially derived from the land itself and nearby rivers or coastlines.

Sometimes whiskeys are aged in special casks/barrels that imbue additional flavor. For example, it’s not uncommon for sherry or casks, brought from Portugal or Spain, to be used to store the whiskey as it aged, therefore giving it notes of sherry or port.

Each brand and vintage of scotch has its own unique flavor. Some say that Speyside whiskeys are typically more fruity and sweet. Scotch from Islay is thought of as more smokey in flavor or even medicinal. Lowland whiskeys tend to be blended. The taste is less peaty and also lighter and grassy. Highland Scotch varies depending on where in the Highlands it comes from, but generally, they are peaty and floral with notes of cereals and honey. Island and Campbelltown whiskeys run the gamut when it comes to taste, and there is no absolute generality. However, some say that the sea influences the flavor.

If an author includes a specific distillery or vintage in the description, they should investigate online whiskey reviews or distillery product descriptions to determine what specific notes and flavors that particular whiskey imbues. It’s easy to do and only takes a few minutes. Otherwise, here are some adjectives used to describe Scotch: Grassy, smokey, peaty, apple, vanilla, treacle toffee, salted popcorn, cedar, mango, burnt sugar, coriander, cumin, smoked kipper, marzipan, ash, heather, polished leather, berries and cream, herbs, cocoa, smoked paprika, burnt bread, honey or pine.


A distinction is made between heavier whiskeys and lighter whiskeys. Color sometimes indicates a lighter or heavier whiskey but not always. Often the color of the scotch is described as amber, straw, or honey-colored, among other things. Some recommend that newbies to scotch-drinking begin with lighter scotch whiskeys, which generally have a smoother taste and are easier to drink—the umami of heavier scotches need to be worked up to drinking. Sometimes, Lowland whiskey, which is often blended, is easier on the palate.

How to Drink

  1. The unit of measurement for scotch whiskey is a dram. Sometimes people measure amounts in “fingers.” One finger of scotch would be the width of a man’s finger.
  2. Neat (straight) or on the rocks? For single malts, drink straight or with a side of spring water—NEVER on the rocks (ice), mixed with water, and never with tap water on the side. A billionaire would likely drink it neat. The only whiskey considered acceptable to drink with ice is a blended whiskey.
  3. Serve at room temperature. If one likes scotch colder, they would add one or two ice cubes but no water directly to the glass.
  4. Scotch is served in a tumbler or highball glass, a whiskey snifter, or a Glencairn glass—like a narrow-necked snifter without a stem.

Labels and Vintages That Shout Luxury and Class

  • Lagavulin: 16 or 25 years. Islay single malt. 25 years, the described taste is figs and treacle toffee. Also, spicy, smokey, peaty.
  • Macallan: 12-year single malt. Speyside. Butter, pine, vanilla. Color of straw.
  • Laphroaig: 10 years. Islay single malt. Madeira finish (aged in Madeira casks). Color of pink butterscotch. Cocoa, smoked paprika, citrus peels, waxy licorice.
  • Bunnahabhain: 25-year Islay single malt. Amber-colored. Sherry nose, caramel, polished leather, berries, and cream. $300 a bottle.
  • Shackleton: MacKinlay’s rare and old Highland blended malt whisky that Sir Ernest Shackleton ordered for his doomed Antarctic expedition. Eleven bottles were found at the basecamp in 2007, and it was recreated from those.
  • Ardbeg: 10-year Islay. Deep smoke taste.

Other Brands Sure to Impress

  • Talisker 10
  • Oban 14
  • The Glenlivet 12
  • Caol Ila 12
  • Glenmorangie 12
  • Highland Park 18
  • Bowmore 15

Rare and Ultra-Expensive

  • Bowmore 1957: Amber colored. Sherry bourbon casks. 62 year Islay single malt. One bottle sold at auction for $162,000. Stag on the bottle.
  • Dalmore 62: Only 12 bottles. Highland single malt.
  • The Macallan “M”: bottled in Lalique crystal decanter—aged 25–75 years, sherry casks. Speyside single malt.

The information I provide is a generalization meant for everyone, not for connoisseurs. The truth is, I am an infrequent scotch drinker. However, I did extensive research, so this should be a somewhat accurate summary. Please note that my recommendations do not include all distinctive brands of fine scotch (for example, Johnny Walker, Glenmorangie, etc.), only some of them, but the brands listed are reputable. I encourage you to do your own research as well. Thanks to,,, and the Scotch Whiskey Association for their insight, as well as YouTube channels like Aqvavitae, Elite Traveler, and the Gentleman’s Gazette.

Related Articles