First, just a pedant alert, when spelling whisk(e)y to refer to scotch, it should be spelled without an E. But most people don’t know this, and since scotch refers to Scottish whisky anyways, most people know what you mean. Anyhow, what scotches do I think are beginner-friendly? See, it’s a tough question to answer, because everyone’s palates are different.
I’ve had people where I had them try the “friendly scotches” and they didn’t like them until I introduced them to an Islay scotch, and fell in love. I’ve had some that instantly fell in love with Speyside sherry bombs. Why is this weird? Because Islay scotches and Speyside sherry bombs are a bit notorious for being challenging to beginners. But, I suppose some rare species of human like that challenge.
So I will be addressing both the careful newbie, the ones who want to learn to walk before they can run, and the bold adventurer, who’s new to scotch, but isn’t turned off by rich, bold flavors. Both kind of newbies exist, and both would be curious to know what the good stuff is. While I will say the best whisk(e)y is what you like to drink, however you prefer to drink it, many newbies want options to try out and see what their palate prefers.
Based on that, here's my recommendations.
1. GLENLIVET 12
Glenlivet 12 is found basically at any bar, and any liquor store, and is quite affordable being around $30 in my area. It’s low on the proof, being 40% ABV, or 80 proof, and its flavor profile is something that many people will likely enjoy, consisting of vanilla, toffee, and some citrus like notes akin to oranges.
A lot of newbies would consider this one “smooth” because the way the ethanol presents itself on this one isn’t alarming or offensive, but makes the tongue tingly.
2. CHIVAS REGAL 12
This is my favorite blended scotch, and it, like Glenlivet 12, is available everywhere, and very affordable, around $30. The flavor profile is also something that most people will find pleasant. I get hints of dried banana chips, nuts, and spices. And again, the proof is also low, being 40% ABV or 80 proof, and much like Glenlivet 12, the alcoholic ding won’t be alarming or offensive to newbie scotch drinkers.
3. MONKEY SHOULDER
Monkey Shoulder is the new darling in blended malt scotches, because it’s really a blend of three different Speyside distilleries, and it’s known for having some rich flavor. I always get butterscotch both on the nose and on the taste with this one. While we went up a bit on the proof, around 43% ABV, or 86 proof, this will make your tongue tingly, but it doesn’t hit you very hard.
Its flavor profile also makes it great for doing scotch cocktails like Blood & Sand, Rob Roys, and so forth, if you were curious about scotch cocktails. It also helps that it’s insanely affordable, being $35, and it’s available pretty much everywhere.
4. HIGHLAND PARK 12
We’re moving the flavor profile a bit, because some newbies to scotch do want to try a scotch that has a bit of smoke, but isn’t a peat explosion like you get from Islay scotches. Enter in Highland Park 12, being available everywhere, and being quite affordable at around $40–$50.
Its flavor profile is sweet and fruity, and I taste pineapple, and then you get a spike of smoke, which to me tastes like black pepper, and then that finishes with a woody spice. It will be more interesting for newbies, and considering its availability and price, it’s a great beginner single malt scotch. Its proof is the same as Monkey Shoulder, 43% ABV or 80 proof, and on this, the alcoholic ding will make your tongue tingly at most.
5. GLENFIDDICH 12
If I would recommend the definition of a Speyside scotch, Glenfiddich 12 would be it. It’s low on the proof, 40% ABV or 80 proof, and so the alcohol won’t be overpowering to newbies. But mostly its flavor profile is why I recommend it. It’s quite sweet, where I get more fruity notes like pears and apples. It’s one of the more easy going single malts.
It’s more rich, in my opinion, than Glenlivet 12, and costs around a similar price to Monkey Shoulder in my area. Basically, its flavor, availability and accessibility is why I recommend it as the definition of a great Speyside single malt scotch.
Now, the previous scotches I would recommend to most newbies, mostly because they were low on the proof, so the alcohol ding doesn’t burn them, and because their flavor profile would be things that most people would enjoy. But there’s always that breed of human, that newbie who is undeterred by challenging flavors. They seek them out. Boldness is what they want.
So what if they aren’t put off by sherry bombs or Islay peat explosions, and they’re still newbies and want to try them? Well, here’s my recommendations.
6. LAPHROAIG 10
I know what many people who’ve read my whisk(e)y blogs are saying: “you’re a member of the Cult of Ardbeg, why not recommend Ardbeg 10?” The answer? Because Ardbeg might not be as widely available as Laphroaig, or as affordable. So, for those of you who want to try an Islay whisky, you can’t do much better than Laphroaig 10.
The best way I can describe the flavor is salty… but seductive. Its flavor has also been described as making love to a cigar smoking walrus, drinking a mermaid’s bathwater, and getting kicked in the face by a horse in a peat bog. How I would describe the flavors is briny on the nose, and smoky, salty and savory on the taste, almost like you’re eating salted figs while smoking a cigar.
The proof is 43% ABV, or 86 proof, so it will make your tongue tingly. The price is also quite affordable if you ever were curious about Islay scotches, costing around $45–$50.
7. ARDBEG 10
As a scotch fan, I cannot, in good conscience, not recommend my all time favorite whisky in the entire domain of whisk(e)y. A wash of smoke initially hits before it washes away with the taste of smoked ham or brisket, with a long, smoky finish. It’s fantastic. For newbies, this will come off as aggressive, not only with its challenging flavors, but it’s also one of the higher proof whiskies I’m suggesting, coming in at 46% ABV, or 92 proof.
Coming in at a comfortable $46, this makes for a great, easily accessible (in some areas, not so much), affordable, yet richly flavored scotch. If you’re the kind of person that just wants to swim in the deep end, and was always curious about Islay scotches, this would be my personal recommendation.
8. GLENMORANGIE LASANTA
For those that are interested in sherry bombs, this is one of my favorites, especially for the price. Its flavor is quite powerful, if friendly. I get raspberry, dried fruit, sherry (of course), and berry jam, finishing with a nice dark chocolate. I recommend it for those that are interested with sherry bombs and want to give them a go.
The proof is the same as the Ardbeg 10, at 46% ABV, or 92 proof. So while it may be sweet, gotta be careful, as it packs a bit of a punch.
9. GLENDRONACH 12
Let me say this, if you’re only going to purchase one sherry bomb, or try one sherry bomb in your life, make it GlenDronach 12. Its taste is rich and complex for a sherry bomb. Of course you taste sherry as the dominant note, but it’s quite nuanced. I always get spiced raisins and dark chocolate with this scotch, personally.
It’s basically liquid dessert. It’s not my favorite scotch, but it is a great one that I can recommend in good faith.
10. ARDBEG UIGEADAIL
And this is my second favorite scotch ever, and my second favorite whisky in the entire world of whisk(e)y. This is as if you tamed the smoke on the Ardbeg 10 a bit, and allowed those sweet and savory notes to come to the forefront a little. I say the smoke is tamed, but that’s in comparison to Laphroaig 10 and Ardbeg 10. It’s still very heavy on the peat.
A wash of smoke hits your palate with strong notes of smoked bacon and maple syrup, all finishing with a nice smoky finish. This is also the highest proof whisky I will recommend, with the Oogie coming in at a whopping 54.2% ABV, or 108.4 proof. It will toss you around the room with its strength. But why do I recommend it to an adventurous newbie?
Because the way the alcohol presents itself in this whisky is surprisingly tame. It doesn’t burn, it isn’t offensive, but trust me, it’s heavy. Only for the most adventurous newbie would I even suggest the Oogie. If none of this deterred you, you will enjoy a damn fine non age statement Islay single malt.
It’s also one of the more pricey options, coming in at $85 in my area, and in terms of availability, you may or may not come across this whisky. Generally, if the store has Ardbeg 10, it shouldn’t be too hard for them to get the Uigeadail. I do recommend it, because it’s so great. Be forewarned though, for the cautious newbie, this will be a challenging and aggressive whisky for you.
So those are my personal recommendations, both for the newbies looking to dip their toes into the wonderful world of scotch, and for those bold people that just want to try Islay peat explosions and Speyside and Highland sherry bombs. However, it’s my personal feeling that the best whisk(e)y is what you like to drink, and however you prefer to drink it.
So choose your scotch based on that, and you’ll be happy with your decisions. These are just my personal recommendations.