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The world of scotch whisky can seem intimidating to newcomers to the category, as people tend to wax poetically about tasting notes and the complexity on the palate. These things can all be true, but there’s no reason for anyone to feel scared off by scotch, whether it’s a single malt or blend. True, there are some incredibly smoky, heavily peated bottles out there, and these might not be for everyone. But there’s also a whole world of lightly peated, or completely unpeated, whiskies for you to try.
Whether you prefer sipping it neat or mixing into a cocktail, there’s a scotch whisky out there for you. We spoke to some top bartenders around the country to find out what their recommendations are for novices to the whisky world, from budget bottles to blends to expensive cask-finished expressions. Dipping your toes into the world of malt? Here are the best scotch whiskies for beginners to seek out right now.
Best Overall: Aberfeldy 12 Year Old
Region: Highland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Honey, Vanilla, Pineapple
“Aberfeldy 12 is an incredible starter scotch because it's not too overpowering,” says Austin bartender Aaron Kolitz. “It introduces people to what a single malt tastes like versus an American or Irish whiskey, and has such a lovely dark honey sweetness that rounds out all the other secondary flavors.”
Gabriel Urrutia of Miami also recommends this single malt for novices. “I call it the people's whisky because it is complex enough for a scotch connoisseur but approachable enough for a newbie,” he says. “The unique fermentation, along with the distillation and maturation process leads it to have honey notes which give beginners something to lean on without breaking the bank. I love this scotch in the summer or winter. And it's also great in cocktails.”
Related: The Best Single Malt Scotch Whiskies
Best Value: Johnnie Walker Black
Region: Blend | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Smoke, Vanilla, Oak
“Johnnie Walker Black has always been my go-to when teaching staff about scotch,” says Sean McGoldrick, bar and lounge manager at The Shelbourne in Dublin. “In my opinion, it offers everything a beginner needs to start to understand the flavors of scotch. The flavor profile is rich and offers… a hint of peat with a balance of citrus, toffee and spice. The finish is long, so the flavors keep coming. When you are starting off trying to find flavors in any drink, it’s always good to start off with a full-bodied spirit.”
Sunny Seng, mixologist at Moon Rabbit at InterContinental Washington D.C. - The Wharf, notes that it’s a nostalgic drink. “Johnnie Walker Black was the first scotch I ever tasted,” he says. “It’s a really well-rounded scotch with a great balance of vanilla and fruity characteristics.”
Related: The Best Scotch Whiskies
Best Splurge: The Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask
Region: Speyside | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Brown Sugar, Mango, Orange
“This is one of my favorite scotches to introduce to people who may have not had scotch and/or say they don't like it,” says bar manager Jose Medina Camacho of Automatic Seafood & Oysters in Birmingham, Ala. “With it being finished in rum casks, both rum experts and bourbon drinkers can give it a try.”
This bottle costs a bit more than others, but the flavors make it well worth it. “It features freshly baked oatmeal raisin cookies on the nose, with a hint of pineapple on the palate,” says Clay Tolbert of The Alley Light in Virginia. “This is the gold-standard and OG of the Caribbean cask trend.”
Best Highlands: Glenmorangie Original 10 Year Old
Region: Highlands | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Orange, Peach, Vanilla
Reniel Garcia, corporate beverage manager for V&E Restaurant Group on Española Way, considers Glenmorangie The Original a great option for beginners. “It’s delicate, fruity, and balanced,” he says, “with notes of candied apple, pear drops, and a bit of toffee, along with lightly toasted malt and nuances of petals. It’s perfect for beginners to sip on the rocks.”
This Highlands single malt has a mild flavor profile that won’t put anyone off. “It’s an affordable single malt that is aged ten years in bourbon casks,” says Josh Sasinos, bar manager of Varley in Salt Lake City, “which makes for a more familiar flavor profile and an easy transition for whiskey drinkers without diving into a malt whisky with a prominent peat and smoke flavor.”
Best for Cocktails: Monkey Shoulder
Region: Blend | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Spice, Smoke, Vanilla
“The best scotch for beginners is absolutely Monkey Shoulder,” says Ethan Campbell of Virginia's Sense of Thai St. “Monkey Shoulder is a fantastic scotch to mix with, and it’s reasonably priced. I think it gives a good impression of the potential scotch has in mixology.”
Count Geno Marron, mixologist at The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, in Miami, as a fan. “You might see it behind the bar and not order it because maybe it’s not a premium brand, but let me tell you that it can compete with some premium brands,” he says. “It is a blended malt (no grain whisky included) and is smooth and rich. If you are starting to drink whisky and see this bottle, just order it and try it. I drink it on the rocks or neat but can be used in mixed drinks and it elevates the experience.”
Related: The Best Scotches for Scotch & Soda
Best Islay: Ardbeg 10 Year Old
Region: Islay | ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Iodine, Salt, Smoke
“I really enjoy peaty, earthier scotches,” says Dimitre Darroca, mixologist at Moon Rabbit. This Islay single malt definitely fits those qualifications and more. Ardbeg is sort of a cult favorite distillery that makes heavily peated but very drinkable whisky.
Adventurous beginners should see this one out. “I think Ardbeg 10 has nice, mellow notes that compliment the more ‘aggressive’ flavors while showcasing the Islay region really nicely,” says Darroca.
Best for Bourbon Lovers: Auchentoshan 12 Year Old
Region: Lowland | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Orange, Green Apple
“Auchentoshan 12 YO Single Malt is the best scotch for beginners,” says Scott Moser, bartender at FIRE at The ART Hotel Denver. “I call this whisky ‘entry level’ because it has characteristics of other whiskies and spirits people love,” he says.
This is definitely a scotch for bourbon drinkers, as many of the same flavors from the American style of whiskey can be found here. “It is fruity and complex on the nose and it does not punch you with peat,” he says. “On the palate, it is remarkably smooth and almost sweet. It is a bourbon or rum drinker's scotch, and a great segue to the rest of the country."
Best Sherry Cask: The Macallan Sherry Oak 12 Year Old
Region: Speyside | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Spice, Vanilla, Dried Fruit
“This whisky is incredibly well made and won’t break the bank to experience a heavy sherry cask influence scotch whisky,” says Jon Feuersanger, bar manager, Death & Co Denver. “Its style is focused on malt character, sherry cask fruit, and spice.
In my experience, it is a great introductory mark to the category.” Myles Holdsworth, director of food & beverage at The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans, recommends this for people moving from blends to single malts. Start with a classic Speyside like The Macallan Sherry Oak 12 Year, and keep exploring from there. It is fun to know where each whisky is coming from and what makes it distinct not only from the region but also the many different finishes and notes achieved from various aging techniques.”
Best Peated: Highland Park 12 Year Old
Region: Islands | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Dried Fruit, Smoke, Vanilla
"Highland Park is the nectar of the gods,” raves Scott Baird, owner of Zeppelin Nashville. “Hailing from Scotland's most northern distiller, it is aged for 12 years and boasts citrus and green notes."
This is a peated single malt that’s not too smoky, with nice dried fruit notes from the sherry cask maturation. “There are plenty of unpeated scotches for beginners,” says California bartender Tom Levron. “But if you want to ease into peated scotches, Highland Park 12 has a very nice organic smoke aroma that invokes the smells of roasted bacon, mushrooms, and bonfire potatoes and makes peated scotch much more approachable than more phenolic offerings.”
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Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries for many years. His work has appeared in many different national outlets covering trends, new releases, and the stories and innovators behind the spirits. His first love remains whiskey, but he is partial to tequila, rum, gin, cognac and all things distilled.