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When most drinkers think of Scotch whisky, they often consider it to be a spirit best consumed neat. The Scotch & Soda, however, is a simple highball cocktail that requires just two ingredients—scotch and a carbonated beverage—that has become a go-to drink for whisky enthusiasts and is beloved by bar pros.
“There are several scotches that not only drink well with a properly carbonated soda but also showcase the flavor profiles that master whisky distillers strive for people to enjoy in a very approachable way,” says Nick Ruiz, the general manager and head bartender at Patent Pending in New York City. “A proper soda will accentuate the notes that the master distiller worked for you to taste.”
A Scotch & Soda is also the perfect cocktail for luring whisky purists into the world of scotch cocktails. “Most spirits served neat or on the rocks can be a tough adjustment for many new consumers,” says Ryan Lindquist, the bar manager at LuxBar in Chicago. “So the highball provides a gateway to provide a bubbly experience, where the spirit is opened up with a carbonated counterpart. It is light and easy and usually works well in all seasons.”
While the cocktail is only made with two ingredients, it takes great attention to detail to make a memorable one. The glass in which it’s built and served, the ice used, the carbonation source, the technique used to mix it, the proportions and the whisky are all vital elements to consider when mixing a Scotch & Soda (which makes for the argument that the cocktail really contains more than just two components).
You’ll also want to keep in mind a few other considerations. First, glassware: Use a highball glass, preferably chilled. “CO2 does a better job of staying in the water when it’s cold; the colder the better,” says Gregory Bayer, the bar manager at Haven Craft Kitchen + Bar in Orange, California, who advises that you chill your glass beforehand by stirring ice inside it (and pouring out any melted water before adding the whisky and soda) or by placing it in the freezer.
This leads in to temperature. As Bayer mentions, carbonation is held best at colder temperatures, so it’s imperative that all ingredients be as cold as possible, as well as the glass. Your mixer should be chilled, and some bartenders choose to chill their whisky as well, but a whisky that’s non-chill-filtered will have its fatty acids congeal in the freezer, creating a visually unappealing cloudiness. If anything, put your whisky in the refrigerator for a few hours before you make your cocktail. Using clear ice in the drink is of course preferred.
To make the perfect Scotch & Soda, the general rule is a minimum of one part whisky to three parts carbonated mixer. This allows for enough dilution to accentuate the whisky’s complex notes. Your choice of soda is important: Every soda has a different mineral content and level of carbonation. “My personal go-to is Topo Chico sparkling mineral water,” says Bayer. “It holds its CO2 extremely well and has more of a hard Champagne bubble.” Q Mixers and Fever-Tree are other brands preferred by bartenders. Citrus twists make an ideal garnish for the drink, making for a bright and aromatic cocktail.
To set you on your way towards crafting the ultimate Scotch & Soda, these are six highly recommended scotches to use.
Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 10 Year
For the peat-loving scotch drinker, Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 10 Year might be the best fit in a Scotch & Soda. “This peated scotch showcases so much more than a smoky note,” says Ruiz. “The palate is quite floral and fruit-forward with hints of orange and raspberry. These notes make for an approachable and delicious Scotch & Soda that goes great with an orange twist, taking away any of the intimidation from Islay scotch.” If your palate tends to veer toward sweet flavors rather than dry, a small dash of a sugar syrup or a vermouth might add a welcome note to elevate this Scotch & Soda.
Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend
This full-bodied blended scotch is inspired by old whisky recipes and thus contains a high malt content of 65%. The blend comprises whiskies from the Highlands, Speyside and Islay, all of different aging specifications from first-fill and refill ex-bourbon barrels and first-fill sherry casks.
“This whisky expresses finesse and complexity but also presence,” says Christopher Longoria, the bar director at Che Fico in San Francisco. “Presence is a characteristic that lends itself to structure [the balance of texture, body, acid and flavor] and helps maintain the integrity of a cocktail.” Longoria raves about the whisky’s balance of rich fruit character from the sherry cask, and the slight smokiness from the Islay whisky from Laphroaig Distillery in the blend that makes it a complex base for a Scotch & Soda.
The Dalmore 12 Year
This single malt whisky is aged in American white oak ex-bourbon casks for its first nine years before half is transferred to ex-oloroso-sherry casks for the final three years. It’s sophisticated yet approachable. “This scotch displays a subtle citrus note that begs for an expression of lemon peel to complete the nose,” says Ruiz. “The notes of vanilla pods, chocolate and oloroso sherry, and the finish of coffee, really pops when soda is added.”
The GlenDronach 12 Year
This expression from one of the Scottish Highlands’ most noteworthy distilleries is the perfect single malt scotch for drinkers who enjoy the dried fruit and baking spices of a sherry-aged whisky. The distillate matures in a combination of oloroso and Pedro Xeménez sherry casks from Spain and is non-chill-filtered, making it rich in flavor and body.
"It truly stands out with its rich flavor profile and deep sherry finish,” says Bayer. “The Scotch & Soda is a perfect way to explore the dark malt notes, deep caramel, spice and heavy dried fruit that The GlenDronach 12 offers.” Mark Sassi, a bartender at Seattle’s Rob Roy, agrees, pointing out that it possesses great depth and character that’s unveiled by the carbonation in soda, which brings more of the whisky’s delicate notes to the surface. “Its creaminess shines through the bubbles, and its notes of dried fruit and baking spice make it a perfect candidate for an autumn highball,” says Sassi.
The Glenlivet Caribbean Reserve
This rum-cask-finished Glenlivet bottling doesn’t have an age statement, but it does have quality at a great value. The finish brings notes of tropical fruit, banana and caramel, which pair beautifully with the malt, making for a perfectly balanced highball. “It has subtle tropical tones from the rum finish and reminds me of banana flambe,” says Trish Rossiene, a bartender at Parched Hospitality Group. “If you want to punch up the classic Scotch & Soda a notch, you can even use coconut-flavored soda to compliment its juicy fruity notes.” Adding a bit of coconut water to the drink and a lemon twist as a garnish works, too.
The Macallan 12 Year Double Cask
This single malt scotch has been aged in a combination of American oak and ex-sherry casks, giving it a deep flavor profile filled with notes of citrus and caramel, as well as spices such as ginger and nutmeg. “The blend of American and European sherry oak casks gives a rich vanilla and nutty underpinning, which is accentuated by making it long with soda rather than muted as can often be the case,” says Jonah Dill-D'Ascoli, a bartender in New York City.