Scotland is famous for its whisky. Whisky was invented and perfected here and it’s one of our most important industries. We think the Americans, Canadians, Irish, and Japanese all make some great whiskies. But Scotland’s vast range of whiskies puts us way ahead of the pack.
Anyone coming to Scotland looking for the most authentic experience possible simply must try a few whiskies. Before you come, we thought it might be good to give you an introduction to whisky. So we’ve put together this handy wee guide!
Is it Whiskey or Whisky?
If you’re just saying the word to bartenders, then the spelling won’t matter. But it never hurts to know the correct spelling!
Scottish people always spell it whisky — without the E. Whilst Irish people spell it whiskey — with an E before the Y. The difference in spelling simply comes from the difference between the way the word was translated from Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic.
Because of a huge influx of Irish immigrants in the 18th century to America, Americans spell it the same way as the Irish. Canadians spell it the Scottish way.
This isn’t the most important thing to know about whisky before your visit. But maybe you can pass the test in a whisky bar if you get chatting to the locals.
Would you also like a little background on the word whisky? It comes from the Gaelic uisge beatha, which means “water of life”. It’s likely you’ll hear or see references to the Gaelic or English when you visit Scotland.
Ask for a Dram
You’ve probably heard this word before, but its usage isn’t very common outside of Scotland. Today, the word ‘dram’ is used to just mean ‘a glass of whisky’ but it comes from an old measurement equivalent to 1/8 of a fluid ounce.
Of course, nowadays, no one asking for a dram would be happy if they were only given 1/8 of a fluid ounce of whisky! Today, the word simply means a serving of whisky, which is usually around a fluid ounce.
When ordering a whisky, it’s fine to ask for a dram of X (where X is the name of the whisky). If you want to use some local lingo, you could even say you’re going for a wee dram at the pub.
Ordering a Scottish Whisky at a Pub
On the topic of ordering a whisky from a bartender, it is often a good idea to ask for recommendations. We Scots take our whisky seriously and most trained bartenders will know what they’re talking about. They will be happy to recommend a few whiskies depending on your flavour preferences.
That said, if you’re at a busy pub on a Friday night, perhaps that’s not the best time to delay the bartender for quite a while. On a quiet afternoon, you’ll have all the time in the world to ask questions and learn more about our beloved whisky.
If you go into one of Scotland’s many specialist whisky bars, you will find an entirely different level of knowledge. The bartenders there will be able to tell you every possible detail about the various whiskies on offer.
Talking to bartenders to learn about the different flavour profiles and distillation methods is a really fun part of the whisky experience. But it also serves a practical purpose! The bartender can help you find the perfect whisky for your palate. They may even take you through a few different whiskies as they gauge your preferences.
Even if you’re not a connoisseur, it’s still an interesting, immersive experience to try a few whiskies and talk about them with the experts. You may even find your perfect dram!
Whisky Beginner’s Tip: Consider Adding Water or Ice
Many people have to slowly acquire a taste for whisky and are often rewarded for their efforts! It’s a very strong drink and it can certainly overwhelm first-timers.
However, if you tell the bartender that you’re a newbie, they will probably have a few smoother drams available. This can help you to orient yourself and acquire a taste for whisky.
Another great way to make whisky smoother is to add a little water or ice. True whisky anoraks tend to prefer it straight, but some strongly believe that adding a little water can improve its flavour. There’s even a little science to back this up!
If you’re new to whisky, you may struggle with its often-smoky, peaty flavour. Adding a little ice could make it a little smoother by anaesthetising your taste buds a little.
As you get more used to the flavour, you may opt to omit the ice. Or you could just add a wee splash of water.
Travelling to Scotland for Whisky
If you’re hoping to sample some Scottish whisky during your visit to Scotland, you’ll be spoilt for choice! There are several whisky regions in the country that offer distillery tours, whisky trails, and countless pubs.
You can learn more about Scottish whisky tours and distilleries in our inspirational guide. There is so much more to whisky that we haven’t covered — such as which ones we think are the best and visiting a distillery for a private tour.
But we think people should discover their favourite whiskies for themselves. And we need to keep some cards close to our chest!
If you’re especially interested in whisky, we can help you design your own whisky trail of Scotland. If you have a specific budget, distillery, or itinerary in mind, our team can help you to build the perfect tour to suit you. We also have a set Whisky Trail by Luxury Train & Taste of Edinburgh tour packed full of tastings and distillery tours, formal dinners, and visits to castles.
This post was originally published in April 2018 and was updated in July 2021.