What Is Scotch?

Scotch is a drink with a formidable reputation. Scotch whisky (never spelled with an “e”) has been called “liquid sunshine,” “a toast to civilization,” and “the best thing for the nerves.” For Americans, the amber liquid evokes business deals and smoke-filled bars; for Scots, drinking scotch means near-sacred national heritage. The word “whisky” comes from the Gaelic phrase uisge beatha, meaning “water of life.” 

What Does Scotch Taste Like?

Less sweet than bourbon and more vegetal than rye, scotch is known for its smoky, earthy taste. The moors and bogs of Scotland provide rich fodder for “peat bricks” (layers of decayed vegetation) that are burned during the distillation process. This peat smoke is a key component of scotch’s unique flavor and varies based on the region in which the scotch was made. 

Like making French champagne, there are many rules that govern the distillation of scotch. Some of the basics are:

  1. Scotch must be made in Scotland. 
  2. It must contain malted barley. Blended scotch can contain other grains like wheat, corn, or rye, but single malt scotch must be made with only malted barley, by one distiller, under one roof. 
  3. All scotch must be aged at least three years in an oak barrel. 

How to Drink Scotch

Because of its complex flavor, many scotch drinkers take their scotch neat. A neat drink is served with no ice (“rocks”) and no mixers. Some scotch enthusiasts drink their whisky neat from a tulip glass, releasing more flavor by warming the drink in their hand.

Other scotch drinkers maintain that adding water to scotch opens up the palate to flavors that would otherwise be obscured by the bitterness of the alcohol. When ordering a scotch and water, the water may be served on the side, allowing the drinker to add it to the whisky at their own pace.

Scotch on the rocks is another common way to enjoy whisky. The chill makes the drink more inviting, and the melting ice more slowly dilutes the alcohol than a splash of water.

The Best Scotch Drinks to Order at a Bar

Savoring scotch doesn’t have to mean drinking the spirit straight. Some of the best cocktails to order at a bar are scotch-based. Try ordering these on your next night out:

Blood and Sand

Blood and Sand

This 1930s cocktail perfectly balances citrus, smoke, and cherry. The “blood” refers to the dark cherry liqueur that sweetens the drink, and the “sand” comes from the graininess of the freshly squeezed orange juice. 

Rob Roy

Rob Roy

Known as the “Scotch Manhattan,” this cocktail is a sophisticated play on a classic Manhattan. It’s smooth and a little sweet and is served with a cherry.

Scotch Sour 

Scotch Sour

Any good bar should be able to make you a Scotch Sour with an egg white. The protein from the egg bonds the fresh lemon juice and sugar to the whisky, and adds a creamy, foamy texture that complements the earthiness of the drink. 

The Best Scotch Drinks to Make at Home

Great scotch drinks don’t have to come from an experienced bartender – some of the best ones can be made at home. Because scotch packs so much flavor on its own, you don’t need many more ingredients to make a standout drink.

Rusty Nail 

Rusty Nail

Combining scotch with Drambuie (a heather honey scotch liqueur), the Rusty Nail is reminiscent of an old fashioned, not too sweet, and quite strong.

Recipe: 

Pour 1.5 oz scotch and .75 oz Drambuie into a rocks glass. Add ice and stir to chill for about 20 seconds.

Penicillin

Penicillin

The Penicillin is a great drink for a sore throat or a cold night. This recipe is a recent invention from the renowned bar Milk and Honey.

Recipe:

  • 2 oz scotch
  • .75 oz fresh lemon juice 
  • .75 oz honey ginger syrup
  • Ice
  • Candied ginger to garnish

For the syrup: Boil equal parts water and honey with peeled and sliced ginger root. Reduce heat and simmer for at least five minutes. Strain and chill the syrup.

Combine the lemon juice, syrup, whisky, and ice. Shake vigorously, then strain and serve over fresh ice. Float a spoonful of extra-peaty whisky over the top of the drink for an extra kick, or just garnish with candied ginger.

Scotch on the Rocks With a Twist

Scotch in the Rocks

Looking for a less complicated cocktail to make at home? Try a scotch on the rocks with a twist. Simply pour 2 oz of scotch over ice, and add a citrus peel garnish, or “twist.” 

For the twist: Carefully peel off a thick swath of citrus skin from a lemon, orange, or grapefruit. Then, color-side facing down, squeeze the citrus peel to release the oil onto the drink. Run the peel over the rim of the glass for extra flavor. 

For the ice: Many bars recommend using “whisky rocks,” which can be made using special ice cube trays, or else you can purchase actual stones to chill the whisky without diluting it.

Some Common Brands of Scotch

Lagavulin

A single malt scotch from the Islay region of Scotland. The Lagavulin distillery has been making whisky since 1816. With its extreme peatiness (characterized as “smoked bacon, seaweed, and salt”), it may not be the best scotch for beginners, but it’s well-known among avid scotch sippers. 

Famous Grouse

One of the most popular brand of scotch in Scotland for over 40 years. It’s a blended scotch with notes of shortbread, oak, and dried fruit.

Hakushu 25 Year

No modern guide to scotch would be complete without mentioning the rise of Japanese whisky distilled in the Scottish style. In a blind taste test, the Suntory distillery’s Hakushu 25 Year unseated its Scottish competitors for the prestigious Best Single Malt Whisky Award in 2018 and 2020. Suntory’s Toki line is an accessible and cost-friendly way to begin to explore Japanese whisky.

How You Should be Drinking Scotch: Takeaway

Ordering scotch can seem intimidating, but there is no best way to drink whisky! While there are many rules that govern the making of scotch, there are no rules when it comes to drinking scotch.