Despite the unwavering beliefs of certain cigar-smoking, sporting gentlemen, Scotch is made for drinking how you like it. For some, that means topping it with soda, like Coke or ginger ale; for others, it means adding a hefty measure of water; for others still, it might mean mixing it in a cocktail.
However, while there aren’t precise rules regarding how to mix the spirit in a cocktail, there are certainly some guidelines worth following. “For me, the Scotch has to taste great on its own, if I am going to use it in a drink on our cocktail menu,” says Michael Hajiyianni, general manager at Ruby in Copenhagen, who suggests adding lighter Scotches to highballs, reserving more robust bottles for stirring into spirit-forward drinks.
One of the primary considerations when buying a Scotch for mixing is whether it’s a single malt or blended Scotch. The latter is the most common style of whisky used in cocktails, as most are bottled at a cocktail-friendly ABV, between 40 and 45 percent. They often contain both malt and grain whiskies, depending on the brand, and therefore have the character to stand up in a cocktail.
But single malt has become a more popular backbar item over the last decade, despite the higher price tag. “These days, there are more ‘cocktail-friendly’ single malts on the market,” says Samantha Casuga, head bartender at Temple Bar in New York, referring to the range of new options at an affordable price point. Casuga also notes that, while the spirit is typically consumed neat, single malts offer more control when selecting a Scotch for a cocktail, as bartenders can home in on specific flavor notes, rather than having to rely on a blend.
Even within these categories, though, there are nuances dependent upon region and each distillery’s unique production methods. For example, “Islay whisky is famous for being heavily peated [i.e., smoky] with hints of brine from the salty sea air, and is perfect for more robust cocktails,” says Maroš Dzurus, bar manager at Himkok in Oslo, Norway. “Lowland single malts are known for being light and soft, and Speyside malts are generous with fruity flavors.”
To sift through the innumerable Scotch whiskies on the market and determine the best ones for mixing, we tapped bartenders from around the world for their go-to recommendations.
The William Grant & Sons–owned brand was the most suggested bottle by the surveyed bartenders, establishing itself as a bartender favorite through its cocktail-friendly price point.
“I think Monkey Shoulder is perfect for newcomers to the Scotch category,” says Marcio Ramos, partner and head mixologist at The Honey Well in New York. With a nuanced creaminess and notes of vanilla, toasted brioche, baking spices and dried apricot, the Scotch “allows patrons who wouldn’t normally drink Scotch, but like bourbons and ryes, to explore a new genre within whiskey.”
The blended malt whisky is, for the most part, a combination of aged whiskies from three distilleries, all located in Dufftown, in the Speyside region: Glenfiddich, The Balvenie and Kininvie. The whiskies are all aged in first-fill ex-bourbon casks for at least three years, based on Scotch whisky production regulations.
“It’s specifically designed for cocktails and is great with citrus, especially in drinks with ginger like a Mamie Taylor,” says Ezra Star, bartender at Mostly Harmless in Hong Kong. It’s a no-brainer Scotch whisky for any cocktail enthusiast to buy.
- Price: $40
- ABV: 43%
Glenfiddich 12 Year Old
Glenfiddich 12 is one of the most popular entry-level single malt whiskies in the world. While it may lack the nuanced depth that some of the older Glenfiddich bottlings are known for, it’s not meant to be overly contemplative. Glenfiddich 12 Year is all about approachability, and that means it’s enjoyable to sip on its own, but it can also shine in a cocktail.
“I love mixing with Glenfiddich 12 Year because it has the right body for stirred drinks,” says Star, ideal for a cocktail like the Bobby Burns. Aged for a minimum of 12 years in both American and European oak, Glenfiddich 12 Year expresses notes of pear, caramel apple, malt, citrus and white flowers, with a subtly oily mouthfeel that adds a nice weight to the whisky. As far as single malts for mixing go, there are few brands that top this industry stalwart.
- Price: $33
- ABV: 40%
Naked Malt Blended Malt Scotch
Naked Malt doesn’t disclose the exact sources of the single malt whiskies in its blend. But speculation among whisky enthusiasts suggests that the blend is composed of whiskies from The Glenturret, Highland Park and Macallan—three of the most prestigious whisky brands in the industry, all owned by the same parent company as Naked Malt.
The Naked Malt is matured in first-fill oloroso sherry casks for a minimum of six months, delivering a robust flavor profile that can fortify a range of cocktails. “The flavor is rich and fruity thanks to the sherry finish, and it’s a perfect fit for a classic Scotch & Soda or a more sophisticated Rob Roy,” says Dzurus.
Hajiyianni, who uses Naked Malt in a twist on the Whiskey Sour, also notes the character that sherry imparts. “It has an amazing dried fruit flavor due to being finished in first-fill oloroso casks,” he says. With deeper notes of sultanas (aka golden raisins), toffee and caramel, and brighter notes of red fruit and spice, Naked Malt has a depth that can’t be said about many other whiskies at its price point, making it perfect for the home bar.
- Price: $25
- ABV: 40%
Talisker 10 Year Old
Having a saline, peated whisky in your arsenal is requisite for smoky-spicy cocktails like the Penicillin. The bartender-backed Talisker 10 Year is one of the most popular Scotches in this style. Made on the Isle of Skye and aged in ex-bourbon casks for a minimum of 10 years, Talisker is a versatile whisky that shines in stirred drinks and highballs because of its oily texture and weight.
“It has a rich texture with flavors of heather, smoke and brine,” says Hajiyianni, who pairs the full-bodied whisky with Pedro Ximénez sherry and herbal pastis, proving that the spirit can retain its integrity even when mixed with the most robust ingredients in Manhattan-style cocktails.
- Price: $42
- ABV: 45.8%
Johnnie Walker Black Label
While the iconic Blue Label has long served as a status symbol among whisky drinkers and casual consumers alike, Johnnie Walker Black Label has been the blended Scotch of the people. Made from a blend of around 40 separate single malt and grain whiskies, this made its debut in 1909. Today, it’s a clear favorite among bartenders who count on its reliability in flavor and general accessibility.
Dilynn Walker, bar manager at Homeboy Bars in London, describes Johnnie Walker Black as “a banger of a whisky that you can use in any cocktail.” With apple, floral and peat notes, the Scotch is also a good candidate for a classic Penicillin and a range of other smoky drinks. Leon Wilkes Back, head of mixology at the Virgin Hotels Edinburgh, says that Johnnie Walker Black Label “is great for Scotch & Sodas and longer, fresher drinks with that delish hint of smoke.” In sum, he says: “Great bang for your buck!”
- Price: $27
- ABV: 40%
The Famous Grouse
As far as budget Scotch whiskies go, few triumph over The Famous Grouse, which can often be found for under $20. It holds the title of the bestselling Scotch whisky in Scotland—a significant feat—with over 2 million cases of The Famous Grouse sold around the world each year.
“I think it’s just so classic, and so affordable,” says Casuga. “It’s soft, approachable, and is a perfect intro spirit for the Scotch whisky category.” Notes of honeycomb, apple, biscuit and a whisper of tobacco make it a jack-of-all-trades for cocktails of all styles.
- Price: $31
- ABV: 40%
Dewar’s 12 Year Old
For decades, Dewar’s has been a household name for American whisky drinkers, and it is equally popular among bartenders. A handful of our surveyed pros recommend Dewar’s 12 Year Old whisky (a slightly more expensive bottle than the popular Dewar’s White Label), a blend of single malt and single grain whiskies aged for a minimum of 12 years. After the individual whiskies are aged separately, they are then blended together in oak casks for an additional six months.
“If you like warm honey and a medium-sweet malt profile, then Dewar’s 12 Year Old is one of the best deals you can get,” says Bryan Bonifacio, bar manager at Employees Only Singapore. “It works in a variety of drinks, including sours, highballs and spirit-forward drinks, and it’s also fine to sip on its own, or over ice.” Dewar’s 12 Year Old is also the house Scotch at Silverleaf Bar in London, where general manager Chris Tanner praises the whisky’s malt character that “is light and mixable, allowing it to stand up in both modern and old classics.”
Sergejs Platonovs, owner of Law & Order in Amsterdam, claims that Dewar’s in a Rob Roy is one of the best uses of the quintessential Scotch due to its soft, sweet character with subtle notes of smoke, caramel and hay. At its price point, it’s hard to argue against Dewar’s being one of the best Scotches for mixing.
- Price: $33
- ABV: 40%