Scotch 101: How to Drink Your Single Malt

By now, you’ve purchased a good single malt bottle, and you’re probably itching to try it. But now is not the time to be over-eager! If you want to get the most out of your first Scotch, there’s a right way to drink it.

Drinking Scotch is an art in itself, and there are methods that seasoned Scotch drinkers have used for years to really appreciate the unique flavor characteristics of a given dram.

So let’s dive in and find out how you go about drinking your single malt. From temperature, glasses and drinking methods, to the debate around water, ice and mixers, we’re covering it all!

What Temperature is Scotch Served At?

While many alcoholic drinks are best served chilled, that’s certainly not the case for Scotch. If you want to get the most out of your single malt when it comes to flavor, make sure you’re serving it at room temperature and remember that refrigerating your given Scotch isn’t a good idea.

Why? As Nick Savage, master distiller at The Macallan notes, chilling Scotch causes the flavors to tighten up and “contract.” Room temperature, meanwhile, “allows for optimal taste” because the whisky’s aroma’s and flavors will “volatilize,” meaning you can better appreciate them.

Some even recommend wrapping your hand around the whisky glass before you drink it, allowing those flavors to volatilize even further.

So, in summary, refrigeration of your Scotch is a definite no-no. Room temperature is the way to go to get the most out of your tipple.

What Kind of Glass Do You Use?

A standard whisky tumbler might seem like the glass of choice for any self-respecting Scotch drinker. It’s what you see folks using to drink Scotch in movies and on TV all the time.

But, Scotch aficionados tend to disagree. In fact, the recommended receptacle for your dram is a tulip-shaped glass.

Photo by henry fournier

This is for two reasons:

  • It allows the whisky to be swirled around without spilling (useful for releasing the flavors of the whisky)
  • It concentrates the aromas at the neck of the glass

They’re not always the easiest things to find, but it’s well worth hunting out a tulip-shaped glass if you want to get the most out of your dram.

The Stages of Drinking Scotch Whisky

Photo by Filip Bunkens

Once your whisky is at room temperature and poured into an appropriate glass, there are a few steps to drinking your chosen dram that will help you appreciate it fully.

Checking the color:

Hold your glass up to the light and check the color of the whisky. Some people believe doing this helps you determine the age of your malt, but this is a misconception. Checking the color will give you an indication of how your drink was matured. Golden colored single malts typically come from sherry oak casks, paler whiskies from bourbon casks.

Checking the “legs”:

Checking the legs on your whisky involves holding your glass by the stem, tilting it and then rotating it briskly, so that the walls of the glass are coated with the Scotch. When the glass is held up straight, you’ll see the “legs” forming at the whisky runs down the sides of the glass.

Why do this? Checking the legs helps you determine the age of your whisky. The slower the legs, the more unguent the liquid and the older the whisky.


Now that you’ve determined the age and origin of your whisky, it would be tempting to dive straight in with the tasting. But, there’s a very important step that comes before the drinking – and that’s the nosing.

Nosing the whisky simply means smelling it. The correct way to do this is to hold the glass away from you and then pass it under your nose, taking a deep breath through your nose as you do so.

On this first pass, you should make a mental note of what the smell reminds you of. Then, repeat the process a few times to see what other notes you detect.

This might seem like a strange step, but drinking Scotch really is a multi-sensory experience and nosing is essential to understanding the full flavor characteristics of your dram.


Finally, we get to the tasting. To do this, form your tongue into a small spoon shape, then take a sip from your glass. Don’t swallow the whisky straight away, instead let it rest on your tongue.

From here, your mind tries to identify the many complex aromas of your dram and what they remind you of. This process can sometimes be overwhelming, especially to a new whisky drinker. But, remember that they’re your taste buds, and that there aren’t right or wrong things to detect in your dram.

Crucial to tasting is that it helps you distinguish different Scotches from one another. Next time you taste that single malt, your mind should be able to identify it.

Water, Ice and Mixers:

There’s plenty of debate about whether you should add anything at all to your whisky. Some purists say that whisky should only ever be drank neat.

But, the general consensus is that, if you’re going to dilute your Scotch, it should be with water. Many believe that adding a touch of water can enhance the aroma of your whisky and bring out many of its hidden characteristics.

By water, we’re specifically referring to soft, still spring water, ideally from Scotland. Tap water is off the table because it contains high levels of chlorine that can spoil, instead of complimenting your tipple.

As a general rule, it’s recommended that you taste your whisky neat first, and then add a little spring water with your second sip. You don’t want to drown your drink; about 20% water is plenty. Combine the whisky and water by gently shaking the glass (giving it a “shoogle” in Scottish parlance).

Scotch on the rocks might be common in bars across the Scottish land (and everywhere else), but for whisky connoisseurs, adding ice is a big no-no for three reasons.

  • Ice cubes are usually made from tap water, meaning high levels of chlorine.
  • Ice cubes reduce the temperature of the drink, and chilling Scotch whisky freezes its flavors.
  • It’s very difficult to regulate the amount of water in your drink when adding ice cubes, and they dilute the flavor as they melt.

Finally, mixers such as sodas, ginger ales, lemonades and colas are a pointless addition to Scotch. You spent top dollar on your bottle because you wanted to experience its unique flavor. Covering up that whisky’s true taste with a cheap mixer is not going to help you do that.


So that’s it for this week’s edition. By now, you’re well versed in buying and drinking Scotch. Next week, we’ll be talking about how to store your whisky so that you can get the most out of it for years to come.