If Scotch purely conjures images of your dad or another father figure sipping it neat next to a fireplace, you might be missing out. Sure, lots of people (of all ages) love straight Scotch, but there are other ways to enjoy whisky, and many more options to choose from than the intensely peaty versions the spirit has become ubiquitous with. To get some recommendations about how to drink more Scotch, we asked bartenders to share their go-to bottles. Here’s what they said.
Go-to Scotch, according to bartenders:
Ardbeg 10 Year
Lagavulin 16 Year
Macallan 12 Year
Compass Box Artists Blend
Lagavulin Distillers Edition
Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask
Balvenie DoubleWood 12 Year
Dewar’s White Label
Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie
“Macallan 12 is my go-to Scotch. Maybe because it’s almost my last name, or maybe because I have fond memories of pouring airplane bottles of it over sad ice cubes in a plastic cup on my train rides home to Michigan for the holidays. It’s a perfect entry-level Scotch, and it has name recognition. It’s peaty without being too divisive and interesting enough to have notes of sherry and vanilla that rise up past the alcoholic burn, which makes it perfect for crafting cocktails.” —Kylie McCalla, beverage director, Offshore Rooftop and Lírica, Chicago
“I have a number of go-to Scotches depending on how I plan to use it. When sipping neat or with a little room-temperature water — never on ice — I like the big smoke of Ardbeg 10-Year. But Japan and America are making some amazing malted barley whiskies that we should be drinking more of. If I’m using it in a cocktail, Famous Grouse alway delivers the power, fruit, and oak we are looking for.” —Jason Jeffords, beverage director, Pando Park and Pando 39, New York City
“One of my favorite Scotches would have to be Monkey Shoulder. Produced by William Grant & Sons and named after the shoulder injury that maltsters would experience from shoveling malted barley, Monkey Shoulder is a blend of three different Dufftown, Speyside single-malt Scotches. This whisky is not only fantastic on its own, but it was intentionally crafted for cocktailing. Notes of vanilla, citrus, baking spices and honey make for fantastic spirit-driven cocktails such as a Rob Roy or a Scotch Old Fashioned. Beyond Monkey Shoulder’s fantastic quality and cocktail versatility, this Scotch punches high above its SRP, which is around $30 to $35.” —Scott Taylor, beverage director, Harris’ Restaurant, San Francisco
“Lagavulin 16. I first gained interest in Lagavulin due to the simple yet classic label and bottle design. But after trying it, I really fell for it. Smokey and dry flavors balanced with sweetness from sherry oak and salinity from the sea. It’s been my favorite since.” —Derek Tormes, general manager & beverage director, Joliet & Tropezon, Miami
“My go-to Scotch would have to be Macallan 12 Year. This spirit is rich with fruits, spices, sweet oak, touch of vanilla, and complexity. It is perfect for mixing in cocktails because of its layered notes that can be mixed with many components behind the bar or over a big cube and neat.” —Daniel Bishop, head sommelier and beverage director, Fiola, Miami
“When it comes to making cocktails, my go-to Scotch is Compass Box Artists Blend. While perfectly suitable for a neat dram, this blended whisky has the elegance of a single malt, and the meatiness and heft of a blended whisky. It’s a high-integrity and transparent whisky, being non-chill filtered, and not allowing any additional coloring. Finally, it has a great cocktail ABV of 43 percent. I like it in classic whisky-forward Scotch cocktails, like a highball or Rob Roy, or sipping by a roaring fireplace.” —Brandon Ristaino, co-founder and beverage director, Good Lion Hospitality, Santa Barbara, Calif.
“For my go-to Scotch, it would depend on my mood, but Lagavulin 16 Year was the Scotch that changed my mind about Scotch eons ago. I had over-imbibed some crappy blended Scotch in my early 20s, forcing me to swear off it forever, and a bartender I worked with in NYC insisted I have a Lagavulin. Blew my baby bartender brain.” —Kimberly Patton Bragg, beverage director, Palm & Pine, New Orleans
“My go to Scotch is Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask. It’s an excellent Scotch that is not crazy expensive like some others, and is not overly peaty with exotic fruit and vanilla notes on the palate. It also is great to have neat, on the rocks, or mixed into a cocktail like the Penicillin.” —Brian Christie, assistant general manager and beverage manager, Union New American, Tampa, Fla.
“Very reasonably priced for being such a quality Scotch, my go-to is Balvenie DoubleWood 12. With the silkiest texture, this rich Scotch offers a smooth combination of cinnamon apples, sweet nuttiness, and a delicate layer of sherry. The long and lingering finish brings warming spices and a strong dryness. This is a full and sophisticated dram.” —Shiva Thapa, head bartender, Miller & Lux, San Francisco
“My go-to Scotch is something very simple like a Dewar’s White Label. When I think of Scotch, I think of my old man who drinks it straight. For myself, I think of Rob Roy variation and try to find a vermouth that’s off the beaten path and maybe a little more floral to bat up against the Scotch.” —Michael Silva, head bartender, The Dean Bar, Providence, R.I
“While I love an assortment of Scotch hailing from all regions, the one bottle that I consistently reach for is Bruichladdich’s The Classic Laddie. A fairly uncommon example of unpeated whisky from the Islay region, it nonetheless exhibits a round, balanced palate of soft notes of crème brûlée, malt, and just a hint of the sea air you’d expect from the terroir. It’s also slightly varied (by design) distillation to distillation, making the experience of tasting each bottle unique and exciting.” —Rob Struthers, beverage director, Gair, New York City
“My go-to Scotch is Dewar’s, a great-value brand that’s not too expensive but super delicious. It’s versatile enough to be enjoyed in many forms, whether that’s neat, on the rocks, with soda water, or in a Penicillin. It fits every application.” —Brenda Riepenhoff, head bartender, Thief and Thief LES, New York City
“Our bar supervisor Ashleigh and I always reach for Famous Grouse. This classic brand has been around for a long time and has a loyal following worldwide, mainly in Europe. Heavy-grained enough to pair with mixers yet smooth enough to stand on its own when sipping, we highly recommend all of our guests give it a try.” —Sami Katrib, director of food & beverage of Mercy Me at Yours Truly, Washington, D.C.
“My go-to is Balvenie 14 Year Caribbean Cask. I’ve always been impressed by the inviting palate of the Balvenie collection, specifically their 14 Year Single Malt finished in rum casks. While devoid of any peat, this Scotch’s honeyed mouthfeel — rich in vanilla and silky toffee — more than makes up for a lack of woodiness or smoke. Personally, I would rather smoke a cigar alongside some terrific Scotch like Balvenie than indulge in a heavily peated Scotch whisky on its own.” —Sean Gundersen, lead bartender, Baar Baar Los Angeles, Los Angeles