The Hooch Life

3 Scotch Whiskies for Beginners

| by | January 4, 2012

Bartender Sian Ferguson will instantly convert you into a Scotch drinker.

Tell me the type of soda you like to drink or how you drink your coffee, and I will find you a Scotch that you will enjoy. I swear. I may not make an instant convert of you, but I can and will change your mind on how you think about Scotch whisky. It is said that you need to taste something 14 times before you truly know whether or not you like or dislike it. Now for Scotch, that can be a fairly painful and expensive endeavor, so here I have an introductory path for you to weave your own way through Scotch tasting in your own good time and budget.

(Insider’s tip: It’s called “whisky” if it comes from Canada, Japan, Scotland or Wales; and “whiskey” if it comes from the United States or Ireland. The New York Times found that out the hard way.)


Auchentoshan 10 year old, Lowlands

This is the perfect starter Scotch, both in terms of trying it for the first time and as a pre-dinner cocktail. If you like chamomile tea or enjoy local honey drizzled on your toast at breakfast time, you will enjoy this malt. It’s aged in three different types of oak barrel, which gives this Scotch a boost on the pedigree ladder that belies its affordable price.

Being distilled three times versus the usual two makes Auchentoshan 10 Year a touch more mellow and not as blatantly high in alcohol on that first sniff. First impressions are that it’s going to taste like Christmas pudding (raisins and dates) with flaming Grand Marnier, but with a lively, spicy kick on the tongue. I do think a couple of ice cubes in this make it a very comfortable, easy-going and approachable sipper.


Balvenie DoubleWood 12 year old, Highlands

I pour this most often for people who claim with great intensity that they do not, cannot, will not, ever drink Scotch again. Those poor sods probably had a half bottle of a cheap blended Scotch before their 21st birthday and chased it with a liter bottle of sugar-laden cola. I’d be upset, too.

This is where we can turn it all around. If you like the crunchy sugar and creaminess of crème brulee, and don’t say no to key lime pie with a graham cracker crust, then this is your malt. Balvenie ages this malt in whisky casks for a spell and then transfers it to Spanish Olorso sherry casks, which give it a rich, sexy, subtly sweet character. It’s true to its Scotch personality and has weight and strength, but also a sweetness that appeals to both connoisseurs and disbelievers alike. Dad will like it, Auntie Mary will like it, and cousin Jim will say it was his idea all along.


Caol Ila 12 year old, Islay

Aaah, now this is my malt. I’m heard often to say “the more intensely it stinks on the nose, the more likely I am to really enjoy the flavor.” I really get a kick out of something (or someone for that matter) that has the confidence to demand that you sit up and pay attention. This is definitely not for the faint of heart, but will get some very strong, opinionated reactions.

It’s a perfect Scotch for post-dinner debates and poignant reflective states. This malt is from Islay, a gorgeous, sea-salt-and-wind-whipped island off the west coast of Scotland where there are eight active distilleries. Most of these malts smell like Band-Aids, ashtrays and iodine if you want to be dramatic about it, or tangy, salty oysters and smoky campfires if you want to get mistily romantic. Caol Ila (pronounced Cull-eela) is a happy medium of the Islay extremes. Not as broody, dirty and peaty as Lagavulin, and not as seaweed-y and olive-briny as Laphroaig. If you’ve had Talisker from Skye, you’ll love it.

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The Hooch Life Guide to American Whiskey