Scotch is a curious liquid. Although it is the best-selling category of whisky on the planet, it remains intimidating to many drinkers. A lot of this boils down to misconceptions the legendary liquor can’t seem to shake. For example, some perceive elevated cost as a barrier to entry. Others are turned off by smoky elements they assume are universally inherent to the brown spirit.
If either of these concerns are what’s been stopping you, I have some great news for you: great scotch does not have to be expensive. And most of it exhibits gentler, sweeter notes as opposed to anything reminiscent of smoldering campfire. Even with a nasty 25% tariff imposed, you can still dip your toe in with some sensational examples, priced under $40. As for the smoke…Explore the elegant and refined flavors of Highland and Speyside blends and malts and this’ll hardly be an issue.
Certain folks, though, see all the fuss and pageantry surrounding scotch and find it off-putting. Fair play to them. On behalf of whisky geeks everywhere, allow me to apologize. No matter what’s in your glass, the goal should be to enjoy it—not fetishize it. With the overly-precious stuff that line admittedly becomes woefully blurred. Land on a proper entry-level expression, however, and it’s easy to execute the former without veering into the latter.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. I gathered some industry experts, from beverage directors and bartenders to whiskey writers and authors, and asked them to share their top picks for scotch beginners. You’ve got little to lose from listening to their advice. If you can’t make it work with these bottles, it just wasn’t meant to be.
“This is a great entry-level whisky and a great whisky to have at home. It’s really graceful and full-flavored. I don’t think you can mention the whisky without talking about the honey. This gives it a roundness on the palate, some elegant citrus and fruits. There isn’t anything offensive in there. It’s able to be just sipped or mixed in a drink. When you’re looking for a whisky to get you in the whisky world it makes it easier if you can try it in different ways; Aberfeldy has that versatility. Also it’s really affordable as well.”
— Brendan Bartley, beverage director at Bathtub Gin/18th Room in New York, NY.
“This is one of the most persuasive single malts on the market. Thanks to lengthy aging in Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks—a signature Glendronach move—the 43% ABV fireside sipper carries an herbaceous, creamy sweetness that cloaks the palate in a calming sea of stewed stone fruit and baking spices. I’ve converted more than a few Scotch naysayers with a single dram of this approachable gem.”
— Meredith Heil, whisky writer.
“Bank Note is a great value and perfect in cocktails. It’s got a little more body than other go-tos like the Famous Grouse; rounder and fuller with more weight to it. Try it [in place of American whisky] in an Old Fashioned, a Rob Roy, or even a Scottish Mule.”
— John McCarthy, co-author of Be Your Own Bartender.
“This is perfect for a novice—while still respected by connoisseurs. It’s very pleasant and lacking in the aggression of smoke and peat that turn off so many neophytes. It’s low ABV but not low in flavor, with a dessert-y, peaches-and-cream type flavor profile. It’s also accessible and economical, so no fear of going broke.”
— Aaron Goldfarb, author of Hacking Whiskey.
“Johnny Walker provides a clear window into a vast world of scotch whisky without overwhelming your senses, or wallet, while still offering a line of varying degrees of quality, price and seriousness you can confidently progress though in the blended category.”
— Joel Caruso, Los Angeles-based bartender.
“For those unfamiliar with barley as the lead grain in their whisky, I usually recommend a blended rendition. I’d start with The Famous Grouse. It’s inherent softness, drinkability and pleasing honeyed flavor profile exists to simply be the first step in the imbibers long road through the varied offerings that are Scottish whisky. As a bonus, their Black Grouse performs the same function as lead-in for peated-styled whiskies.”
— Frank Caiafa, author of The Waldorf Astoria Bar Book.
“This example from Macallan’s Double Cask range is an excellent introduction into this iconic distillery. Rich and balanced sweetness of American oak with notes of ginger, honey and smoke make this sherried scotch a staple for your home bar. Although associated with luxury and a high-price tag (and rightfully so), Macallan offers this whisky at an affordable price point that will please beginners and experts alike.”
— Jennifer Wagoner, beverage director and sommelier at Sepia in Chicago, IL.