The Scotch (Non-)Drinker’s Cheat Sheet

Want to learn the basics? We can help with that...

Unless you’ve been living as a hermit over the past few years (or aren’t an alcoholic), you may have noticed that scotch has become the latest rage at hipster bars all over the country. Nowadays, you can’t meet a man wearing suspenders and a handlebar mustache without seeing a scotch in his hand, too.

Maybe by now, you too have become a connoisseur of the “e”-less whisky. If so, congratulations, this article isn’t for you.

What if you know nothing about scotch, but are dying to learn everything about it? Nope, not for you, either.

No, this guide is for the regular beer-guzzling joe who doesn’t care much for scotch, who doesn’t plan to care much for scotch anytime soon, and who leers at scotch enthusiasts with a skeptical, beer-goggled eye. But he figures he’d like to know something about it, anyway. Because let’s face it, who doesn’t like showing off their knowledge?

So, if this guy is you, let’s get started….


There are five scotch-making regions in Scotland. Any scotch lover will be happy to describe the flavors that each region is known for. But look, you’re not one of these people, so here’s all you really need to know. Two regions, that’s it:

  1. Islay (pronounced EYE la) = peaty scotch. The stuff that tastes like dirt-infused gasoline topped off with a kiss of chemical-grade benzene. Hey, some people love it.
  2. Every place else = smooth scotch. The stuff that you can slip into your sober buddy’s iced tea because you want to goad him into streaking again.

Seriously, don’t even worry about differentiating the other regions, because few people will ever be able to distinguish by taste alone. Maybe if you want to flaunt, you can throw out that Speyside = the Napa Valley of scotch. But other than that, Islay versus everything else is the only line you’ll ever need to draw.

Single Malts versus Blends

You’ve probably heard that true scotch drinkers only drink single malts. Stay away from that blended swill, your scotch-worshiping buddies tell you.

Well, guess what? “Single malt” only means that it comes from one distillery. Within said distillery, the single malt is still a blend of several different batches, some younger and some older. There are professional blenders whose job it is to mix just the right amount from several different casks, so that the scotch comes out tasting the same year after year. That’s why a 12-year-old Glenlivet bottled in 2013 is going to taste just like a 12-year-old Glenlivet bottled in 2014. The only rule is that the age you slap on the label is the age of the youngest scotch in the mix, like how if you roll up to a liquor store with a bunch of your college buddies, the age of the youngest guy in the group is the only one that matters.

Rest assured, the “I only drink single malts” attitude is BS. Even the idea of single malt scotch was nothing more than a marketing gimmick that sprung up in the ’70s. Here’s the bottom line: there aresome excellent blended whiskies out there, and unless you drink exclusively single cask scotch (and are willing to shell out the cash for it), what you’re drinking is a blend, anyway.

Aging and Price

After the scotch is distilled, it’s aged inside wooden casks for years to decades. Aging mellows the alcohol and gives the scotch its distinctive flavor. The longer it’s aged, the smoother — and pricier — it gets. A bottle of scotch can run anywhere from $20 to over $1,000, depending on its age. So where should you start? Well, let me tell you a story:

A few years ago, I decided to splurge and buy myself a 30-year-old single malt for $125. At this point, I had been drinking scotch for about three years, and I was dying to know what three decades inside a damp barrel tasted like. Here are my conclusions:

  1. A $50 bottle is definitely smoother than a $20 bottle. You could even say it’s $30 smoother.
  2. A $125 bottle is definitely smoother than a $50 bottle. But is it $75 smoother? Hell, no.

It’s the law of diminishing returns. Sure, you’ll keep mellowing the booze the longer you make it sit inside a barrel. But at some point, it’s going to level off. In my personal opinion, the “sweet spot” for scotch is anywhere between 12 and 18 years, which generally translates to between $30 and $60. Above that, and you’re just showing off.


You can detect the aroma of whatever the hell you want in your scotch. I’ve participated in dozens of tastings now with professional distillers. They all acknowledge that everyone’s senses are different, and a good scotch is always going to be way complex in flavor, anyway. If you detect hints of lilac and coriander, you’re no less accurate than the dude next to you who gets smoke and firewood. Studies have shown that the whole booze-tasting scene is a bit of a sham, anyway.


Drink your scotch however you want — neat, on the rocks, cut with water, over the blood of sacrificial virgins. It’s up to you, and don’t let anyone give you a hard time about it. Taste is totally subjective, and no one has the right to dictate what tastes “good” to another person.

On the flip side, don’t make fun of another man’s scotch, either. Because if you do, karma might slap you upside the head. Like so:

Some time ago, I hit up a new whiskey bar with two buddies. Since these were craft cocktails we were ordering, we had to wait for the bartender to make them one at a time. The first one up was a beautiful orange cocktail in a curvy snifter. The bartender handed it to my friend Alex, who was standing closest to the bar.

As soon as I saw it, I started giving Alex a hard time for ordering something so girly, adding, “You should be drinking that with your pinky up in the air.”

Alex rolled his eyes, and just as he was about to take a sip, the bartender looked up and started waving to get our attention. When Alex looked over, glass halfway to his lips, the bartender said to him, “Hey buddy, that’s his drink,” and pointed to me.

Moral of the story: Don’t make fun of someone else’s drink. It might turn out to be yours.

And there you have it. Enjoy your new-found scotch expertise. But don’t start growing that mustache and thinking you’re better than everyone else quite yet.

Dennis Hong is the creator of LemonVibe, an anonymous relationship advice site. He blogs and tweets, too.

Dennis parlayed more smoothness forward when he taught you How Being an @$$#()!% Won Me Dates on

A-shirt, trenchcoat...whoa! Is that a fedora? This dude's jerk credentials check out!

A-shirt, trenchcoat…whoa! Is that a fedora? This dude’s jerk credentials check out!


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