This post contains affiliate links - if you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we earn a commission at no additional cost to you. If you choose to buy through our links then THANK YOU - it helps us keep this site going. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases. For more information, read our disclaimer here.

How to Drink Scotch The Proper Way & Look Like An Expert

Last Updated: June 4, 2023

Are you curious about Scotch whisky but intimidated by the thought of ordering it? Don't worry; you're not alone. With so many choices, and some hard to pronounce distillery names, it can be overwhelming. That's why we've created the ultimate Beginner's Guide to Drinking Scotch.

This guide will walk you through the essential steps to drinking Scotch whisky like an expert. Learn to select the best glassware, why you might want to add water, and how to swirl and nose your Scotch to unlock its full flavour potential.

Our guide is packed with simple techniques to enhance your Scotch drinking experience. So, the next time you're at the bar, you can confidently order a Scotch like a boss. We'll help get you on your way to becoming a whisky connoisseur!

Scotch Whisky Overview

Types of Scotch Whisky

Scotch whiskies are classified into five types:

  1. Single Malt: Single malt whisky is produced at a single distillery using 100% malted barley, via the pot still distillation process. Single malts generally exhibit distinctive characteristics correlated to the distillery making them. Distilleries are usually known for their 'style' of single malt, though some may produce two or more distinctively different styles. For example, Bruichladdich Distillery is known for its super-heavily peated Octomore single malt whisky, yet their Bruichladdich branded single malts are unpeated.
  2. Single Grain: Single grain whiskies are made from malted barley and other whole grain cereals such as corn, wheat, rye, or even unmalted barley. The 'single' part of the title means that the whisky was distilled at a single distillery. Single grain whiskies are usually produced using column distillation.
  3. Blended Malt: means a blend of two or more Single Malt Scotch Whiskies that have been distilled at more than one distillery
  4. Blended Grain: a blend of two or more Single Grain Scotch Whiskies that have been distilled at more than one distillery.
  5. Blended Scotch Whisky: Blended Scotch Whisky combines single malt and single grain whisky from two or more distilleries.

To be called Scotch Whisky, the whisky must have been aged only in Scotland, and it cannot be aged in anything other than oak barrels.

Age Statements

The age statement on a bottle of Scotch whisky refers to the number of years the youngest whisky in the bottle has been aged in oak barrels. While a 'blended' whisky refers to a mix of whiskies from different distilleries, a single malt whisky will almost always (other than a single casks whisky) be a blend/mix of different whisky casks from the same distillery, vatted together before being put in a bottle. So a bottle labelled "10 year old single malt" may actually contain, for example, a mix of 10, 12 and 16 year old whisky, but the youngest whisky used cannot be less than the age stated on the label. A whisky with no age statement on the label (often referred to as NAS) will usually contain relatively young whiskies, though, in Scotland, they must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years to be called whisky.

Older whiskies are usually perceived as smoother, richer, and more complex, while younger ones are considered more vibrant and robust. However, the age of a whisky is no indicator of its quality, as the flavour of a whisky depends on the casks in which it has matured.

As Master Distiller Jim McEwan says, "generally, all whiskies are made superbly; there's not a bad distillery in the world, certainly not in Scotland.. If you put good whisky in a tired cask, it ain't going to mature; it will just sit there and do nothing. The oak has got nothing to give, so it will just sit there. The quality of the cask is so important."

"You build up your own mental library, so when you see a cask from a particular distillery, you think, Christ, I hope it's been a good cask. It's a play between the spirit and the oak, getting together. That's why cooperage is so important. I've seen great whiskies, maybe 30 years old, and you take a sample, and it's almost clear. It's been in the wrong cask for 30 bloody years. What a waste."

Scotch Whisky Regions

There are five Scotch Whisky regions protected in law by UK legislation: Speyside, Islay, Highlands, Lowlands and Campbeltown. While many people consider 'Islands' to be a sixth classification of Scotch Whisky, it cannot legally be used on labels to describe a Scotch Whisky, as it is not a recognised classification in the The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009. The law does permit a further five geographical descriptors however, the law also allows other geographical areas which can be clearly defined to supplement the category descriptions if all the whisky was distilled there. For example, “Hebridean Single Malt Scotch Whisky”, “Fife Single Grain Scotch Whisky” and “Borders Blended Malt Whisky” are all allowed

Should You Drink Whisky Straight or With Water?

When drinking Scotch, you should try it straight / neat first, without any added water or ice. This allows you to fully appreciate its original flavours and aromas. However, adding a few drops of water to your scotch can enhance the drink by bringing out more subtle flavours and aromas that might otherwise be overshadowed by the alcohol content. To do this, simply pour your preferred serving of scotch into a whisky glass and then add a few drops of water using a dropper or a small spoon. When ordering at whisky bar, they will usually have a small jug of water available so you can add as much water as you want, however, if there is no jug for this purpose, order a glass of water and a teaspoon. The teaspoon will help you get just a few drops into your glass without making too much mess. Some whiskies might need a teaspoon or two, some might need more. Taste it and nose it as you go. 

Matt Bailey's "3 Rules of Thumb" for when to add water (Matt's the Country Director for Scotch Malt Whisky Society Australia):

  1. A young (6 to 12-ish year old) ex-Bourbon cask whisky will almost always benefit from adding a drop or two of water.
  2. Sherry, port and wine cask matured whiskies often do not benefit from adding water.
  3. Old whiskies (18+ years old) rarely benefit from adding water. The older they are, the less likely they are to need water as they've usually lost a lot of alcohol during maturation and will be lower abv, to begin with.

However, these are not hard and fast rules! Matt's the Country Director for Scotch Malt Whisky Society Australia, so he's used to drinking cask-strength whiskies (usually over 50% abv).

How Much Water Should I Add to My Whisky?

Younger, bourbon cask matured and higher-proof whiskies will probably need more water added than sherry or port-finished whisky, but you may also prefer not to add any. Taste your whisky neat first. Add 3-4 drops of water. Taste it again. You may need more water; you may not. Heavy phenolic whiskies (e.g. Laphroaig 10 at Cask Strength - high proof, young and bourbon cask finished) may need quite a lot of water - Ralfy adds two teaspoons to his dram in his latest review.

The easiest ways to add water to whisky is using a pipette or a straw (with your finger over the top of the straw to create a pipette), or a spoon.

What Does Nosing Whisky Mean?

Whisky nosing is the process of tasting the whisky with your nose. Don't stick your nose into the glass and take a big inhale. You'll just flood your senses. You wont pick up the subtleties of the whisky. Leave your mouth slightly open, let your nose pass over the top of the glass, and consider your initial impressions. Don't worry if you cant detect anything fancy, a nose for whisky takes time and practice. As says, "it's about experience, perseverance, and enjoyment".

Andrew Derbidge, of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society says “some whiskies also benefit from hand warming.  Hold the glass from underneath in the palm of your hand and let your hand’s warmth stimulate and release the aromatic alcohol vapours.  Some whiskies are extremely complex and change dramatically over time, and it is not uncommon for me to spend 10 to 15 minutes nosing a dram before I even think about putting the glass to my mouth. Note also that your ability to detect and recognise aromas will be greatly enhanced if you leave your mouth open while inhaling through your nose.  Try this yourself – nose a good malt with your mouth closed, then try again with your mouth open.”

I don't think I've ever let a whisky I've poured sit untouched for more than a minute or two, so don't worry if you think leaving it for 10 minutes seems excessive. has often suggested letting your whisky sit for the same amount of time that it is 'old' e.g. let a 10 year old whisky sit for 10 minutes, let a 20 year old sit for 20 minutes etc so there is definitely something in the theory, if you can work on your patience. Ralfy suggests pouring yourself another dram while you wait (a blended whisky, or perhaps a whisky cocktail).

Why Do You Swirl Whisky

Swirling whisky helps it react with the air and release the aromas in the whisky. Swirling whisky also allows the drinker to observe its "legs" – the lines that form as the liquid recedes from the sides of the glass after being agitated. These legs provide insights into the whisky's viscosity and alcohol content, contributing to the overall tasting experience. For more information see our post Read Your Glass Like a Pro | Decoding Whiskey Legs, Beading, and Whorls.

While some whisky enthusiasts argue that swirling is essential, others do not share the same belief, believing that it can lead to a harsh nostril-burning sensation due to the sudden release of alcohol vapours. As whisky typically has a higher alcohol content than wine, over-swirling may risk overpowering the drinker's senses, making it difficult to discern the subtler aromas and flavours. Nonetheless, swirling whisky offers insight into the spirit's unique characteristics, allowing a more holistic appreciation of its attributes.

Why Are There Swirls IN My Whisky?

If you add ice or water to your whisky, you may notice some cloudiness or swirls in the liquid due to the water reacting with the fatty acids, phenols, esters, and proteins found in the whisky. These are soluble in alcohol but not in water; when you add water to whisky, the alcohol concentration drops and the esters and fatty acids come out of the solution and clump together, causing the whisky to appear cloudy. Many commonly available whiskies (generally those bottled under 46% abv) will undergo chill filtration to prevent cloudiness. Sadly some higher strength whiskies are also being overly stripped via barrier filtration. Chill filtration (and fine barrier filtration) removes the esters and fatty acids so that the whisky won't appear cloudy in the bottle or glass. However, when you strip the esters, phenols and fatty acids, you also strip a lot of the whisky's character (Ralfy refers to it as 'castration'). As with all things whisky, it comes down to personal preference. However, we prefer our whisky to be non-chill filtered, and only sifted enough to remove any chunks of barrel sediment.

If there are swirls of whisky sticking to your whisky glass, this is known as 'whisky legs' or 'whisky tears' and is a result of the Marangoni Effect. The appearance of legs is often used used as an indicator of the alcohol content and quality of the whiskey. Whiskeys with a higher alcohol content and greater viscosity will produce more pronounced and longer-lasting legs. For more information see our post Read Your Glass Like a Pro | Decoding Whiskey Legs, Beading, and Whorls.

Should You Drink Scotch Neat or "On the Rocks"?

Drinking your whisky with ice or "on the rocks" can be seen by some as heresy. However, it does depend on the whisky and your personal preference. If you want to drink Scotch over ice, order a cheaper blend: Johnnie Walker Red or Black, Glen Grant, and Monkey Shoulder are good Scotch options that will work with ice.

The reason why we don't recommend you add ice to most whisky is that it will lock up the flavour and over-dilute your dram. As Andrew Derbidge, Chairman of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Australia (and Keeper of the Quaich) says “the colder temperatures created by ice serve to suck in and close off the dram, effectively destroying or disguising the aromas and flavours that you’ve paid good money to enjoy". If you want to learn to appreciate the flavour of your whisky, then don't add ice to it.

How to Drink Scotch with Ice

Ultimately, it is your drink order, so if you do really want Scotch on the Rocks, then ask the bartender to use a large ice cube or sphere. Smaller cubes dissolve quickly and will dilute your drink faster - you’ll never learn to appreciate what the whisky actually tastes like if its swimming in melted water. Spheres dissolves slower due to decreased surface area compared to cubes, but cubes are easier to make at home.

If you want to learn to appreciate the flavours in your whisky, leave the ice out of your glass.

james bentley whiskey glasses

James Bentley whiskey glasses with a large spherical ice cube

Best Whisky Glasses

When enjoying Scotch whisky, selecting the proper glassware can significantly improve your overall experience.

Whisky Tasting Glasses

The most popular and widely recommended glass for drinking Scotch when you want to nose and taste the whisky properly is a tulip-shaped glass, also known as a copita. As Matt Bailey from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society also recommends the tulip shape as "down the bottom there's enough space to allow the aromas to move around a bit, to open up the whisky, let the ethanol compounds open up, become a bit more floral... and then a bit narrower up the top, to concentrate those aromas where the nose is".

A popular tasting glass is the Glencairn. The design of Glencairn glasses allows the whisky's aroma to be concentrated at the top of the glass, helping you fully appreciate its unique characteristics. The Glencairn glass is an excellent choice for those who enjoy nosing and tasting Scotch. Its shape allows for easy swirling and facilitates the evaporation of alcohol before it reaches your nose. The stocky base is perfect if you prefer stemless glassware.

The benefits of a Glencairn or copita glass for drinking Scotch are the following:

  • Concentrate aroma for a better nosing experience
  • Are easy to swirl and better to see a whisky's legs
  • Ideal for tastings and appreciating a whisky's characteristics

Even bourbon should be tasted via a Copita or Glencairn. In her book “Which Fork Do I Use With My Bourbon?, Peggy Noe Stevens advises that “tulip-shaped glasses are preferred, whether you use small wine glasses or Glencairn whiskey glasses. The bulb shape helps release the aromatics in the bourbon, and the relatively narrow throat or chimney traps and concentrates them near the lip of the glass”.

Matt Bailey reckons there are two types of whisky glass; those for appreciating whisky (like a tulip) and your favourite tumbler. If you're spending good money on a whisky and want to get the most out of it, use a Glencairn/tulip or copita tasting glass. But a whisky tumbler absolutely has its place.

Whisky Tumblers

Whisky tumblers are short, cylindrical, wide-mouthed glasses with a solid base. Tumblers are versatile, as they're suitable for neat and mixed Scotch drinks (and my favourite whisky cocktail, The Old Fashioned). However, their broad opening can cause a whisky's aroma to disperse quickly, making them a poor choice if you want to 'nose' and properly taste your whisky.

There are some wide-mouthed glasses designed for nosing whisky - most notably Norlan, who developed the original double-walled whisky glass, and it is a stark contrast to the more traditional Glencairn. The Norlan Glass is designed to be slightly tapered at the top to help with nosing. James Bentley Whiskey Glasses are also tumblers designed for nosing whisky. You dont necessarily need a special tumbler though - tumblers are great for their simplicity and the best one will just sit comfortably in your hand. We really love our Waterford Marquis Old Fashioned Tumblers, as they look good and are nice to hold.

woman holding a tumbler glass with neat whisky in it

Neat whisky in a glass tumbler - image credit OurWhisky Foundation Jo Hanley

Consider the following when using a tumbler as a whisky glass:

  • Versatile for both neat and mixed Scotch drinks.
  • A wider opening may cause the aroma to disperse quickly.
  • It generally sits nicer in your hand. 
  • It's the style of glass we recommend for lounging around at home and enjoying your favourite whisky.

It is quite likely if you’re at a bar that doesn't specialise in whisky, they’ll serve your whisky in a rocks glass or tumbler.

Ultimately, the 'right' choice of glassware depends on personal preferences and how you enjoy your Scotch. As you explore different options, consider the importance of aroma, swirl-ability, and overall aesthetics. Whatever your choice, your glassware will help influence your Scotch drinking experience.

Do You Sip or Shot Scotch

The proper way to drink Scotch whisky is to sip it, not shot it. If you’re dying for a shot, order Fireball, or a cheap blended whisky. Do not shot Single Malt Scotch. 

Whisky is often served in a tumbler at bars, but a copita or tulip style glass (such as a Glencairn) is better if you want to properly nose your whisky. image credit OurWhisky Foundation Jo Hanley

How Do You Say ….? Scotch Whisky Distillery Pronunciations

One stumbling point when you start ordering scotch is how to pronounce some of the distillery names. Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Laphroaig, Ncn’ean - the list is extensive and they’re not phonetic. Don't worry if you can’t pronounce them properly, most people can’t, and you’ll even find some variation between how some Scots might say certain distillery names, (see note below re: Ledaig, Tobermory’s peated whisky)

The following list contains phonetic spellings of the Scotch distilleries you are likelier to see listed on a bar’s whisky list. Click on the links to hear their pronunciations (courtesy of the Edinburgh Whisky Academy, who have a fabulous resource on Youtube - all except Ledaig, which RoddyRalfy and The Scotsman all say should be ‘Led-Chig’).

  1. Ardbeg (ard-beg)
  2. Ardmore (ard-moor)
  3. Auchentoshan (ock-en-tosh-an)
  4. Balblair (bal-blair)
  5. Balvenie (bal-ve-nee)
  6. BenRiach (ben-ree-ack)
  7. Bladnoch (blad-nock)
  8. Bowmore (bow-moor)
  9. Bruichladdich (broo-ick-lad-dee)
  10. Bunnahabhain (bun-nah-hav-enn)
  11. Caol Ila (cull eel-a)
  12. Clynelish (cline-leash)
  13. Dalmore (dal-moor)
  14. Dalwhinnie (dal-whin-nay)
  15. Deanston (deen-stun)
  16. Edradour (ed-ra-dow-er)
  17. Glenallachie (glen-alla-key)
  18. Glendronach (glen-dro-nack)
  19. Glengoyne (glen-goyn)
  20. Glenfarclas (glen-fark-lass)
  21. Glenfiddich (glen-fidd-ick)
  22. Glenlivet (glen-liv-it)
  23. Glenmorangie (glen-mor-run-jee)
  24. Glen Moray (glen mur-ree)
  25. Kilchoman (kil-ho-man)
  26. Lagavulin (lah-gah-voo-lin)
  27. Laphroaig (lah-froyg)
  28. Ledaig (led-chig)
  29. Macallan (mack-al-un)
  30. Mortlach (mort-lack)
  31. Ncn’ean (nook-knee-anne)
  32. Pulteney (poolt-ni)
  33. Talisker (tal-is-ker)

Don't worry if you think you're going to say it wrong. As an Australian who has spent much time in Scotland, my accent kills most Gaelic pronunciations, no matter how well I think I'm saying them. They serve me whisky anyway. And in Australia, Roddy's Scottish accent and correct pronunciations are frequently questioned by bartenders, who have often never heard half the whiskies they sell pronounced correctly. If you're having issues ordering, pointing to a menu item or bottle on a shelf and saying 'that one, please' will generally procure you a dram.

And likewise, don't worry if you think you'll order or drink your whisky incorrectly. Everyone has to learn somewhere, and anyone who tells you there is only one right way of drinking whisky is full of shit. You are allowed to enjoy your whisky however you like it. This guide is to help you learn to appreciate, but you will only improve your nose and taste with practice. We recommend finding a whisky club in your area or joining a few tasting events. If you live in a remote location (we've done that!), online tastings are a fabulous way of accessing whiskies and learning to enjoy different flavours and profiles. Flaviar (USA) and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (UK, EU, USA, Australia) have some fantastic tasting kits available for exploring different whiskies at home (we buy a lot of SMWS tasting kits).

advertisement banner for flaviar whisky tasting kits

About the author


Amanda is an Australian-born photographer, digital nomad and whisky lover. Her passion for travel and whisky lead her to Islay, where she fell in love with an Ileach (an Islay native). Amanda and Roddy now share their Spirited Adventures.

Related Posts

Did you find this post helpful? Did we miss anything? Do you have questions?

What are your tips or stories? We'd love to hear them!

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
Distillery Wall Art + Whisky Gifts