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Whisky 101

Scotch Whisky 101: A Comprehensive Guide to the World’s Favorite Spirit

scotch whisky

May 11, 2023

All you have to know about Scotch Whisky

Scotch whisky is one of the most beloved spirits in the world for its complex flavours, rich history, and refined character. This guide will provide an introduction to everything you need to know about Scotch Whisky. Starting from its, history, production and classification to its flavour profiles and serving suggestions.

We will introduce you to this iconic spirit. Hence, by the end of this article, you will become a true Scotch Whisky expert. At least on the theory. On the practical side, you will still have to do several tastings to call yourself an expert. And believe me, it’s one of the most fun parts!

Let’s start from the very basics. What’s a Scotch Whisky? 

Definition of Scotch Whisky

Scotch whisky is a type of whisky distilled in Scotland, using water and malted barley as the main ingredients.

But this general definition is not enough.

Indeed, Scotch Whisky, to be called such, must be produced according to some rules defined by the government since 1933. According to UK Law, if a distiller wants to write “scotch whisky” on the bottle’s label, the spirit must be:

  • Made in Scotland from only cereals, water and yeast. 
  • Matured only in Scotland in an excise warehouse or a permitted place. Ageing takes a minimum of 3 years in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres;
  • Bottled at a minimum strength of 40% abv
  • Distilled below 94.8% abv to retain the flavour and aroma derived from its ingredients

Part of the cereal must be malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added) all of which have been:

  • processed at that distillery into a mash;
  • converted at that distillery into a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems; 
  • fermented at that distillery only by the addition of yeast.

Finally, no additional flavouring or sweetening is permitted.

About Scotch Whisky Regulations

Producing Scotch Whisky is a very strict affair. As you can guess from this very long list of rules and restrictions.

These adjustments were made with the goal of protecting a traditional Scottish product. However, it is inevitable that this kind of protection also comes along with drawbacks for those who are involved in the whisky production industry.

Some say the strict rules on production and labelling are suffocating creativity and innovation. And that the only beneficiaries are those making whisk(e)y in countries where things are more relaxed.

Nevertheless, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), the group that represents the interests of Scotch whisky producers, won’t permit any variation to the regulation. At least for now.

Role of the Scotch Whisky Association

Founded in 1912, the SWA plays an important role in regulating the production and sale of Scotch whisky. It also works to promote the industry and protect the Scotch whisky’s name and reputation.

One of the key functions of the SWA is to enforce the legal definition of Scotch whisky. As we saw, the SWA sets strict standards for the production, labelling, and marketing of Scotch whisky. They ensure that only genuine Scotch whisky can be sold under that name. The SWA also works to protect the geographical indications (GI) associated with Scotch whisky, such as the regions where different types of whisky are produced, to prevent imitation and protect the reputation of the industry.

Although there may be instances where self-imposed regulations cause frustration, the real question is whether or not they are worth the cost in order to preserve the reputation of Scotch whisky.

The short answer is: yes, they are worth the cost. 

If instead, the question is, do the regulations need to be updated? The answer turns to “maybe”. But we will discuss this in another article.  For now, let’s just get on with our guide to the world of scotch whisky.

Let’s move on to the next question then. What are the types of Scotch Whisky that you can find on the market?

5 Scotch Whiskies types 

Scotch whisky is divided into five distinct categories, each with its own unique characteristics:

Single Malt Scotch Whisky

This type of whisky is made exclusively from malted barley, using water from a single source and distilled at a single distillery. Single malt Scotch whisky is known for its complex and varied flavours, which are influenced by the location, water source, and production methods of each individual distillery.

Blended Scotch Whisky

This type of whisky is a blend of two or more single-malt whiskies, combined with grain whisky. Blended Scotch whisky is the most popular type of Scotch whisky. It accounts for over 90% of all Scotch whisky sales worldwide.

Single Grain Scotch Whisky

This type of whisky is made from grains other than malted barley, and it is distilled at a single distillery. Single-grain Scotch whisky is known for its light, sweet, and delicate flavours, which are achieved through a unique production process that involves the use of different types of grains and distillation methods.

Blended Grain Scotch Whisky

This type of whisky is a blend of two or more single-grain whiskies, combined with single-malt whisky. Blended grain Scotch whisky is a relatively rare type of Scotch whisky. Nevertheless, it’s gaining popularity among connoisseurs for its unique flavour profiles and complexity.

Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

This type of whisky is a blend of two or more single malt whiskies, with no grain whisky included. Blended malt Scotch whisky is sometimes referred to as pure malt whisky, and it is known for its rich and complex flavours, influenced by the individual characteristics of each single malt whisky used in the blend.

We have seen the definitions and laws concerning Scotch whisky. Now, let’s look together at the origins of one of the most beloved spirits in the world.

A Brief History of Scotch Whisky

The origins

The earliest evidence of distillation in Scotland dates back to the 12th century when monks are believed to have been distilling spirits from fermented barley mash. However, it wasn’t until the late 15th century that the first written record of whisky production in Scotland appeared,  in the tax records of the day, the Exchequer Rolls. Here, an entry lists 

“Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.”

Early whisky was known as “uisge beatha,” which is Gaelic for aqua vitae, water of life. It was produced in small quantities by farmers and other locals using pot stills and often used as a medicine. However, whisky soon became a popular beverage.

Illicit Distilleries

The increasing popularity of Scotch attracted the attention of the Parliament, which was looking to profit from the industry. Hence, as soon as the first taxes on Scotch were introduced in 1644, the number of illicit whisky distilleries across Scotland increased. Since then, smuggling became standard practice for the next 150 years. 

By the 1820s, as many as 14000 illicit stills were being confiscated every year, and more than half the whisky consumed in Scotland was actually illegal.

Eventually, in 1823 the Excise Act was passed. The new act sanctioned the distilling of whisky in return for a licence fee of £10, and a set payment per gallon of proof spirit. This way, the illicit distillery could finally become legal and now even the government could have benefitted from them. As a consequence, smuggling died out almost completely over the next decade.

A new process to make Grain Whisky

The 18th and 19th centuries were a period of growth and expansion for the Scotch whisky industry. During this time, the invention of the column still made it possible to produce whisky on a larger scale and at a lower cost. This led to the production of Grain Whisky, a lighter-flavoured spirit opposed to the intensity of  Malt Whisky.

Modern Scotch Whisky Times

The 20th century brought both challenges and opportunities for the Scotch whisky industry. During World War I and World War II, production was restricted due to shortages of grain and fuel. However, the post-war period saw a boom in whisky production and exports as the industry expanded to new markets around the world.

In recent years, the Scotch whisky industry has faced new challenges, including increased competition from other spirits and changes in consumer tastes. However, the industry has continued to innovate and adapt, with many distilleries experimenting with new flavours and production methods.

Today, Scotch whisky is one of the most popular spirits in the world, with exports to over 180 countries.

The Production Process

After diving briefly into the history of whisky, it is now time to explore the production process. As we have mentioned earlier, making whisky is a complex art. It only takes a slight variation in ingredients or methods to completely change the final profile of this distillate. Therefore, the process we will describe below should be understood as a series of general steps that make up the whisky-making process.

The production of Scotch whisky is a long and complex process that involves several stages, each of which plays a crucial role in shaping the final flavour and character of the spirit.

Here is a brief overview of the production process:

Step 1 – Malting

The first stage in the production of Scotch whisky is malting, which involves soaking barley grains in water and allowing them to germinate. This process activates enzymes in the grains that convert starch into sugar, which is essential for the fermentation process.

Step 2 – Mashing

After the barley has been allowed to germinate, it’s dried in a kiln to stop the germination process. The dried grains, known as malted barley, are then ground into a coarse flour called grist, which is mixed with hot water in a large vessel called a mash tun. This creates a sweet liquid called wort, which is essential for the next stage of the process.

Step 3 – Fermentation

The wort is transferred to large vessels called washbacks, where yeast is added to start the fermentation process. Over the next hours, the yeast converts the sugar in the wort into alcohol, producing a liquid called wash, which is typically around 8% alcohol by volume.

Step 4 – Distillation

The wash is transferred to copper pot stills, where it is heated and distilled to separate the alcohol from the water and other impurities. The first distillation produces a low-alcohol liquid called low wines, which is then distilled again in a second still to produce a higher-alcohol spirit known as new make spirit.

Step 5 – Maturation

The new make spirit is then transferred to oak casks, where it is aged for a minimum of three years. The type of cask used for maturation, as well as the age and previous contents of the cask, can have a significant impact on the flavour and character of the final whisky.

Step 6 – Bottling

Once the whisky has been aged to the desired level, it is typically bottled at a strength of around 40-46% alcohol by volume. Some whiskies may be bottled at cask strength, which is the strength at which the whisky was taken directly from the cask.

Flavour Profiles

Scotch whisky is renowned for its complex and varied flavours, which are influenced by a range of factors, including the location of the distillery, the water source used, and the type of cask used for maturation. Here are some of the key flavour profiles you may encounter in Scotch whisky:

  • Smoky/Peaty: Whiskies that have been produced in areas of Scotland where peat is commonly used as a fuel source often have a smoky, peaty flavour. This flavour is derived from the smoke that is produced when the peat is burned during the drying process.
  • Fruity Some whiskies have a fruity flavour profile, with notes of apple, pear, or citrus.
  • Floral: Other whiskies have a floral flavour profile, with notes of heather or honey.
  • Spicy: Some whiskies have a spicy flavour profile, with notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, or ginger.
  • Sweet: Many whiskies have a sweet flavour profile, with notes of vanilla, toffee, or caramel.

Scotch Whisky Regions

As we mentioned, the whisky profile also varies depending on the region of whisky production. We will return to this topic further in the future to explore each of the regions in more detail. For the moment, as this article aims to be a basic guide to Scotch whisky, we will just briefly describe the regions’ characteristics. 

Scotch Whisky is produced all over Scotland and can be broken down into six regions.

Highlands

The Highlands region is the largest producer of whisky, which is why the whisky produced in this area is diverse and offers a wide range of flavours. As a result, it is difficult to categorize the specific style of whisky that comes from this region. Hence, generally, the whiskies from this area are divided into four subregions: 

  • North: the whiskies are full-bodied, sweet & rich in character
  • East: the whiskies are lighter and fruity
  • South: the whiskies are light and fruity with a touch less body compared to the whiskies from the east
  • West: the whiskies are full-body with a peaty punch

Speyside

The region of Speyside is located in the northeast of Scotland surrounding the River Spey.

Speyside is renowned for its extensive variety of whiskies, which exhibit different characteristics, particularly known for their sweet single malts that contain little or no peat. This style of whisky makes Speyside an ideal starting point for beginners who are embarking on their whisky journey.

Lowlands

The Lowlands region extends from the south of Scotland up to the north of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Lowland whiskies are distinct from other regions in that they tend to be light and gentle with no peatiness. Since the distilleries are located inland, there is a slight salinity within the whisky. As a result, Lowland whiskies are an excellent introduction to malt whisky.

Campbeltown

Campbeltown Whisky is recognized for its dry and sometimes pungent taste, which is attributed to its location. As the region protrudes from the mainland and is closer to the neighbouring islands of Arran and Islay than any other mainland producer, it has developed its unique flavour.

Islay

The Scottish island of Islay (pronounced eye-luh) is located to the west of the mainland. The region is known for its peaty single malts. Because these whiskies can be a bit overpowering, we recommend them to those who are already familiar with the world of whisky. 

Islands

Whisky produced on the islands surrounding the mainland of Scotland offers a diverse and unique taste, although they are not officially recognized by the Scotch Whisky Association. They are often grouped together geographically as they are all islands.

All whiskies from the Islands have diverse flavours, but common elements include peat and salinity, the latter being due to their proximity to the sea.

Serving Suggestions

Let’s finish with some tips on how to best appreciate your whiskey. of course, there are no wrong or right ways. Scotch whisky can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, depending on personal preference and the type of whisky being consumed. So don’t be afraid to experiment!

Here are some serving suggestions:

  • Neat: Many whisky connoisseurs prefer to drink their whisky neat, or without any mixers. This allows them to appreciate the full range of flavours and aromas in the whisky.
  • With Water: Adding a few drops of water to your whisky can help to open up the flavours and aromas, making them more pronounced.
  • With Cocktails: While purists may frown upon mixing their whisky with anything else, some people enjoy their whiskies in cocktails, in combination with soda, ginger ale, or fruit juice to create a refreshing drink.

Conclusion

Scotch whisky is a unique and complex spirit with a rich history and a distinct flavour profile. From the highlands to the lowlands, from single malt to blended, there is a Scotch whisky to suit every taste and preference. Whether you are a seasoned whisky enthusiast or a newcomer to the world of Scotch, there is always something new to discover and appreciate.

By understanding the different types of Scotch whisky, the history and role of the Scotch Whisky Association, and the production and taste profile of Scotch whisky, you can fully appreciate and enjoy this iconic spirit. Whether you prefer to sip it neat or enjoy it in a cocktail, Scotch whisky is a versatile and timeless drink that has stood the test of time.

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