A beginner's guide to whisky

Curious about Scottish whisky but don't know where to begin, feeling overwhelmed by all of the information available or worried you'll be ridiculed? Well this guide is for you.

Published 28th Sep 2015
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

First of all, let me start by saying that whisky is nothing to be afraid of. There is no secret set of rules you must adhere to or codes you must break, you don't have to dress a particular way or live a particular lifestyle or be a certain age. You just have to be interested in trying whisky and want to know more about it.

Let's start, well at the beginning I suppose, with what whisky actually is, the differences between the different types and how it is produced.

What is whisky? 

What is whisky to you? Perhaps it's the bottle of Whyte and Mackay spotted in a relative's cupboard? A glass of Macallan noticed in a James Bond movie (yes the product placement really was a tad too obvious)? Or a bourbon drowned in coke bought for you by a mate at a local bar?

The Scotch Whisky Regulations defines Scotch whisky as "Whisky distilled in Scotland and aged in oak barrels for at least three years.."

The definition really doesn't explain just how wonderful our national drink is, how much passion people have for it or how it enjoyable it can be to share with your friends.

In reality, whisky is simply the product of combining malted barley or grain, that wonderfully pure Scottish water with a little bit of yeast and that hard work we Scots are so famous for.


There are several styles of whisky including blends, single malts, single grains, blended malts, bourbons and ryes. For the sake of clarity, we will focus on the main types of Scottish whisky so we'll leave bourbon and rye for another time.

Single Malt - A single malt is a whisky which has been made in only one distillery, using only barley, and has not been blended with any other product from elsewhere. It may however contain whisky from several of the distillery's production batches over a period of up to a couple of years.

The three best summer 2024 whisky releases - classic peat, heavy sherry and a stunning first release

Blended Malt - This is a combination of single malts from different distilleries blended together. Most commonly seen in whiskies like Big Peat, Spice Tree and Monkey Shoulder.

Blended whisky - A whisky that contains a variable proportion of blended malt and grain whiskies, commonly about 40% malt:60% grain. Examples of this type of whisky would be Whyte & Mackay, Grouse, Bells and Teachers.

Single Grain - A style that's gaining a growing reputation of late, single grains are whiskies that only contain grain whisky (no malt) from a single grain distillery.

It helps to imagine each style as a type of food. Malts are similar to prime cuts of meat, a blended malt would then be a platter of different types of prime meat.

Single grain is much akin to vegetables and a blended whisky a stew where the grain (much like vegetables in stew) goes to make up the body of the blend, while the malt (much like the meat in stew) goes into to add more flavour.

Here’s why Glenmorangie have stopped making a 10 year old whisky


Whisky has a long and glorious past in Scotland, from the early days of bothy distilling through the multi-billion pound industry that exists today.

Thought to originally have begun in either Scotland or Ireland (there is still much debate over the exact birth place). The practice of distilling uisge beatha - the water of life; uisge becoming whisky - was believed to have been brought to these shores by monks coming over from Ireland. A practice that was quickly adopted by farmers and crofters, first on the western islands and later more widely spread across mainland Scotland.

In more modern times whisk(e)y is now created all over the world including in places like Japan, the US, Canada, Taiwan, Scandinavia, Holland, Germany, India, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand to name but a few.

You'll notice I added the (e) to whisky and I suppose now is as good a time as any to look at the difference between the spellings. Scottish whisky along with Japanese, Canadian, South African and most other countries spell whisky without the extra 'e' while the US and Ireland spell it whiskey.

Japanese vs Scotch whisky - experts decide which is best including drams and cocktails to try

The reasons for this are lost to the past, though there are many theories, two of my favourites are regional variances in language and that the extra 'e' was a stamp for excellence (this one is usually pushed by the Irish side of the argument).

The Scottish whisky industry exploded around the 18th century when what was previously a cottage industry and the preserve of farmers became a viable business after the introduction of the Excise Act of 1823. Following the act most distilleries (though not all) were legalised and began to sell whisky with the blessing of the British government.

Scotch remained a relatively small commodity until a little serendipity saw the rise of a particular breed of parasite, which ravaged wine crops across Europe and set the brandy industry back decades. Suddenly, whisky became the spirit de jour and everyone desired the uisge beatha. It was not all plain sailing and though the industry is now stronger than ever there have been many blips and busts along the way.


Without going into too much depth as the process can be complicated, whisky is produced up and down the country (and round the world) in large buildings known as distilleries.

Barley is brought in to be malted, which entails soaking to allow it to germinate. From here the malted barley is transferred to a large floor to drain, then into the Malt kiln to dry. At this point, peat can be added to give the malt that smokey flavour.

The malt is then ground down into a fine powder known as grist and the impurities removed. This malt grist is fed into the 'mash tun' where it is combined with a carefully measured quantity of hot water. This completes the conversion of dextrin into maltose and produces a fermentable solution of the malt sugars called 'wort'.

Again, after several washings to draw out the malt, the solid residue or 'draff' is removed and sold as cattle food. The wort is then cooled in a receiver known as the underback and then transferred to the 'washbacks' where the yeast is added for fermentation.

Picture: Colin Smith\Geograph.org

The fermentation produces an alcoholic clear liquid called 'wash', which will now ready to be distilled in the copper stills.

The wash is distilled in the first still known as the 'wash still' to produce an impure product called 'low wines'. This is then fed via the spirit safe into the low wines charger ready for the next stage of distillation.

When ready, the low wines are discharged into the spirit still and the process repeated. The final product - raw, unmatured spirit passes via the spirit safe to spirit receiver and spirit store, ready for filling into barrels to be matured.


Maturation in oak casks is critical to the taste and appearance of the final whisky. In recent years the importance of wood in terms of flavour has come to the forefront of the industry and a particular emphasis has been placed on sourcing quality casks.

The need is for casks which will impart a characteristic taste to the whisky without dominating it or imparting a 'woody' flavour.

Principally two types of cask are used - sherry casks and American oak Bourbon casks.


Whisky casks being rolled into a warehouse. Picture: TSPL

Though in recent years it has become common to see many different styles of sherry casks - including Oloroso and Pedro Ximinez - port, red wine and rum casks being used.

Each style of cask will induce different flavours in the whisky. Sherry imparts vanilla, nuts and dried fruits, while port tends to be drier and slightly more citrusy.


The magic of whisky comes, in part, from the fact that the spirit is endemically tied to the land from which it is produced.

Scotland itself separates into five main whisky-producing regions, each offering their own unique influences on the whisky they produce. These regions, defined by geographical boundaries laid down by law, can be thought of as similar to the Terroir regions of France, where a particular wine, say, Burgundy, could only ever be produced from the land of the Burgundy region – because its soil and micro-climate are so unique, that they have an unmistakable ‘stamp’ on its product.


The Lowland region lies south of an invisible border that stretches from Greenock on the west coast to Dundee in the east. There are currently three major distilleries; Auchentoshan, Bladnoch and Glenkinchie – with two more looking to begin production in Daftmill and Aisla Bay.

The region is known for producing lighter, smoother, non-smokey style of whiskies.

These whiskies are some of the best to begin with as they are some of the lightest available and as such perfect for beginners.


Speyside has the largest number of distilleries and possibly the most densely populated too, two thirds of all malt whisky production is in the Speyside region.

Whisky produced here was traditionally seen as light and sweet, however in more recent times, this region as began to produce many differing variants of their classic malts and it’s not uncommon to see highly peated malts sitting side-by-side with the more traditional style.


Campbeltown lies towards the end of the Mull of Kintyre peninsula on the West Coast and was once home to over 30 distilleries – now only with three operating: Glen Scotia, Glengyle, and Springbank.

Campbeltown malts, such as those from Springbank distillery tend to be robust, complex whiskies that are full of flavour with hints of sea salt and mild peat.

Highlands (and islands)

This region, which encompasses the islands as well, probably has the greatest range of flavours, from the lighter style of the ‘midland’ malts – like Glengoyne and Deanston – all the way up through to the brinier coastal malts – such as Old Pulteney and Oban.

The island malts also have their own styles ranging from the lightness of Arran, through to the sweetness of Jura and Tobermory, and the rich, briney complexity of Highland Park.


Islay currently has eight producing distilleries; creating some of the most famous and well known of all the whiskies available. It’s fair to say that Islay (pronounced ‘eye-luh’) lives and breathes whisky, indeed most of the island’s population are involved in its production in some way either through agriculture, distillation or distribution.

The island itself very much drives the flavour of the whisky produced there, Islay is largely composed of peat – most of its water is brown due to this abundance – while winter gales often blow sea salt spray far inland, adding briney notes to the already smokey character of the peat.

Find out more about the regions here.


Whisky comes in a massive array of flavours and you'll find that most flavour notes can range from the poetic (barbecued apple on a warm summer's day) to the downright strange (The inside of a workman's lunch box). These can be confusing at first and in most cases feel pretentious and off-putting if you don't get the same smells or flavours.

It's important to remember that these notes are often only a guide and that everyone's palate is different. Most of us will have been exposed to different foods, fruits and drinks in our lifetime, all of which will influence your own sense of taste.

Don't be afraid to offer your own interpretations of your whisky - be as poetic or succinct as you like, again it's all part of the fun - and don't worry if they don't match up with the distilleries. As we've said before whisky is an intensely personal journey and though it's fun to share and be part of the wider community the most important part is that you enjoy it.

At the most basic level most Scottish whiskies will conform to four main flavours; smooth and light - usually perfumed or floral, fruity - citrus, dried fruits and honey, salty - coastal and briney and smokey or peaty. Find out which of these you like and it will become easier to find similar whiskies to try at a later date.

How to drink

There is only one golden rule when it comes to drinking whisky and that is to enjoy it any way you want. You are the person who is going to be drinking it, not Dave at the bar or Billy Blogger on the internet.

We won't tell you how to drink your drink, you paid for it, worked hard for the money to be able to buy it and it's yours to enjoy but we will offer some education on how different ways of drinking will affect your whisky.


Picture: maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com

With soft drinks

Ok, so let's get the first one out of the way: it's probably best not to drink a decent malt whisky with coke, soda, Irn-Bru or any other soft drink we care to name. While we are sure it tastes delicious, it ruins a spirit that someone has cared for and lovingly took sometimes more than a decade to produce, mature and bottle for you to enjoy.

Now, again, this is your choice but put quite simply, it's the equivalent of paying a substantial amount of money for a prize steak in a five-star restaurant only to smother it in ketchup.

There are blended whiskies that are designed precisely for this sort of thing and they will complement that Irn-Bru or coke just as well and won't cost you nearly half as much.

With ice (on the rocks):

Ok, so imagine, if you will, that it's a very cold day (easy if you are from Scotland or Canada, perhaps not if you're from California or India, but bear with us) and it is snowing.

You leave your house, exiting your front door, now, tell me, what can you smell?

Most likely? Nothing.

Now, imagine it's a warm day and you leave your house, what can you smell? We are guessing the answer will be a lot more, perhaps Bob across the street is mowing his lawn and you can smell the freshly cut grass?

The same thing happens with whisky, should you use ice you will cool the drink down and dampen the flavour. Now, should this be the desired effect - perhaps your whisky is too smokey or too sweet for your personal taste - then ice will help.

The important thing is to try the whisky before reaching for the ice, a simple rule but one that works for water too.

With water:

Speaking of which, should you add water? This subject is a favoured topic with many a whisky drinker and the simple answer? It's up to you.

Let's refer to the previous example, you've opened your door for the third time, stepping outside, Bob's still cutting his grass and it's still warm and sunny. Only now it's raining slightly, ok what can you smell? There's that cut grass again and what's that underneath? Is it tarmac? Yup, there's definitely more scents in the air.

Now water will, to a certain extent, open up a whisky, especially a richer, oily one. The danger though, is it will drown a more delicate spirit.

Everyone will give you a different answer for this, most will agree that always using around two tear drops is perfect.

But again I'm going to have to go against common wisdom here and say quite simply, DO NOT add water until you have at least sipped the whisky first. As mentioned before, if the whisky is delicate, water can easily drown it, losing the flavour and making it hard to taste.

So, remember always try the whisky first, then you'll be in a position to judge whether it is best to drink it neat, with a few drops of water, or if need be with ice.

Whisky glossary:

Malt - Malt is essentially barley which has been allowed to germinate by soaking in water then has been dried by the application of heat.

Single Malt - This indicates that the whisky was made in only one distillery and has not been blended with any other product from elsewhere. It may however contain whisky from several production batches over a period of up to a couple of years.

Blended Malt - This is a combination of single malts from different distilleries blended together. Most commonly seen in whiskies like Big Peat, Spice Tree and Monkey Shoulder.

Blended whisky - A whisky that contains a variable proportion of blended malt and grain whiskies, commonly about 40% malt:60% grain. Examples of this type of whisky would be Whyte and Mackay, Grouse, Bells and Teachers

Angel's Share - As the whisky is matured a small percentage of alcohol evaporates, thus lowering the spirit's abv. Usually around 2% of the spirit is lost every year.

Age Statement - This gives the age of the youngest component of the whisky.

Cask Strength - This refers to whisky that has been bottled almost straight from the cask -  usually with an abv of around 50-60% - that has not been diluted to market strength - usually around 40-46%.

Maturation - This refers to the period that a whisky is left - a minimum of three years but usually between 8 and 50 years - in wooden barrels to mature.

ABV - Alcohol by volume. The alcoholic strength measured as the percentage of alcohol present.

Bourbon -  An American whiskey distilled from a minimum of 51 per cent corn, distilled to no more than 80 per cent abv which is then placed into new charred oak barrels at no more than 62.5 per cent abv.

Cask Finish - This refers to the maturation. When a whisky is transferred from the first barrel to a second, or even third, for an additional maturation - usually a different style of wood- it is known as a Cask Finish.

Lyne Arm - An arm which extends from the top of the still, connecting the still with the condenser.

Mash Tun - A large vessel in which the grist is combined with hot water thus allowing the fermentable sugars to dissolve.

Pot Still - A traditional still used to distil single malt whisky, among other varieties. Pot Stills are almost exclusively made of copper and are based upon the alembic still, created around the eighth century AD by the Arabian alchemist Jabi ibn Hayyan.

Triple Distillation - A process whereby an alcoholic liquid is distilled three times, as opposed the standard twice. This is a favoured technique in both Ireland and the Lowlands of Scotland. It is said to proffer a 'smoother' spirit.



Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
Copyright ©2024 National World Publishing Ltd
Cookie SettingsTerms and ConditionsPrivacy Policy
crosschevron-down linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram