Scottish Whisky is something of a king among whiskies, thanks to its distinct character and austere quality. If you’re new to one of Scotland’s finest exports or just want to brush up on your knowledge, here is everything you need to know to make Scotch’s acquaintance.
History & Origins Of Scotch
Whisky’s history is difficult to put a definitive timestamp on. Like most of the liquors we enjoy today, whisky has been made for hundreds of years, its origins predating any label or brand. Whisky comes from the Old Gaelic word “usquebaugh”, meaning “water of life,” which is certainly a good place to start.
While the SWA acknowledges that the first period of whisky distillation in Scotland is unknown, evidence points to the ancient Celts, who likely brewed the earliest family of whiskies for ritualistic and spiritual use. (Hence the “water of life.”) For the most part, historians go by the earliest taxes levied on whisky, and more or less set the record from there. The earliest known taxes on whisky sales and production were imposed in 1644, resulting in an almost immediate rise in whisky bootlegging. To put it into perspective: by the late 18th century there were less than 10 legal distilleries, and nearly 500 illegal ones.
By 1823 Parliament sought to ease restrictions on licensed distilleries through the Excise Act, which in turn made it harder for illegal distilleries to continue operating. This, along with the Pyhlloxera pest outbreak that would wreak devastating havoc on the French wine industry, paved the way for modern Scottish Whisky production and so scotch was born.
How Is Scottish Whisky Distilled?
While certain varieties of whisky are distilled with slightly differing additions or altered steps, there are 5 basic stages to distilling a Single Malt Whisky, which make up the foundation for all whisky distillation.
The first stage is malting, when the barley is steeped for 2-3 days in tanks of water in order to germinate the grain and start the conversion of starches into sugars. It’s crucial that the grain not consume too much of the starch, and that the malting process be stopped at the right time. Once the grain is removed it is laid out to dry in special troughs, in preparation for peat smoking. It’s important to note that the region from which the peat was harvested greatly determines the flavour and overall identity of the finished product.
The next step is mashing, in which the dried grains are ground–or mashed–into a powder called grist, then mixed with warm water. At this point the starches are fully converted into sugars, resulting in a liquid called wort.
The third step is fermentation, which happens once yeast is added to the wort and left for about 48-60 hours to produce what is known as “wash.”
Distillation is the fourth step, whereupon the whisky is double distilled in a pot still. After that the ageing process begins, which can take anywhere from three years to thirty.
In order to meet Scottish standards, all whiskies must be made in Scotland, from grains and cereals grown in Scotland, aged in oak casks for a minimum of 3 years, and be bottled at or above 40% abv.
A Note On Peat: Much of Scotland is covered in peat, a dark soil-like deposit formed from thousands of years’ worth of vegetable matter. For centuries peat has been used for farming and energy, and its role in whisky distilling is especially important. The level of smokiness one can detect in a whisky is the direct result of how long the barley grains were dried over peat smoke, as well as the region from which the peat was harvested.
How Many Kinds Of Scotch Whisky Are There?
1. Single Malt
Arguably the highest standard of whisky, single malt is distilled in one distillery, using pot stills, and consisting only of water and malted barley.
2. Single Grain
While similar to a single malt, single grain just barely misses the requirements, as it undergoes the same distillation process but may contain added cereals.
A blended whisky contains a blend of one or more single grain whiskies and one or more single malt whiskies.
4. Blended Malt
Blended malt whisky contains more than one single malt whisky, procured from more than one distillery, blended together.
5. Blended Grain
Almost identical to a blended malt, a blended grain whisky contains a blend of more than one single grain whisky from more than one distillery.
Whisky Flavour By Region
In terms of whisky, Scotland has historically been divided into separate production regions, with each one producing its own unique whisky under strict regional guidelines. Although each whisky is unique, the malts produced in each region have some common characteristics which separate them from whiskies from other regions. These differences are the result of several factors as for example the use of different raw materials, climate variations and different production techniques.
Islay is a small island west of the Scottish mainland and is the home of many well-known malt whiskies. Although a few milder versions exits, Islay whisky in general is smoky, peaty and salty and has quite a bit of tang and tar thrown into the mix. The island once had 23 distilleries operating at the same time but the number of active distilleries is now down to seven. They will soon become eight however; a brand new distillery is being built which will be named Kilchoman. If all goes according to plan Kilchoman will open in 2005.
Islay Distilleries >>
The Highlands is the largest of the whisky producing regions in Scotland. The whisky is often powerful, has a rich flavour and is quite smoky although slightly less so than whisky from the Islands. Compared to the Lowlands, Highland whiskies often taste very different from each other. This is partly due to the size of the region which allows for greater differences in the microclimate, but variations in raw materials and productions techniques also play an important part. The word ‘glen’ is commonly used in the name of both Highland and Speyside distilleries and means ‘valley’.
Highland Distilleries >>
As the name suggests, the Lowlands is a flat region without mountains. It is also the southernmost part of Scotland. Whisky from the Lowlands is smooth and slightly fiery. It is also very light in salt, peat and smoke as opposed to many other whiskies. Any Lowland whisky is a fine aperitif.
Lowland Distilleries >>
Speyside is the undisputed centre for Scottish Whisky when it comes to the number of distilleries. The region has received its name from the river Spey which cuts through the area. Many of the distilleries use water straight from the river Spey in their production process.
Speyside is geographically part of the Highlands but is considered a separate region because of its size and the different characteristics of Speyside whisky as opposed to other Highland whisky. If you wish to introduce a friend to the world of whisky, a Speyside is a good choice with its rich flavour, complexity and relatively mild character. The town of Elgin is the centre of the region.
Speyside Distilleries >>
5. Campbell Town
The region Campbeltown was once a flourishing whisky region and the city of Campbeltown was considered to be the whisky capital of Scotland. In 1886 there were no less than 21 distilleries in and surrounding the city. Today only three distilleries remain. Campbeltown is still referred to as a separate whisky producing region, but today the reason is mostly historical.
Campbeltown Distilleries >>
6. The Islands
It is not uncommon for this region to be confused with Islay but Islands is in fact a separate production region which consists of the islands Mull, Orkney, Jura, Arran, Shetlands and Skye. It is a source of constant debate whether Orkney belongs to the Islands or in fact should be counted as part of the Highlands region. Whisky from the Islands may be described as a milder version of Islay whisky and is often appreciated by those who have enjoyed whisky for a few years. The well-known whisky Talisker is produced on the beautiful Island of Skye. The Blackwood Distillery is the most recent addition to Scotland’s family of distilleries and is currently being built on one of the Shetland Islands.
Island Distilleries >>
How Do You Drink Scotch?
Despite the somewhat intimidating history and standards of Scottish Whisky, the good news is you can enjoy it pretty much any way you please. While most whisky authorities would recommend taking your drink neat or with water in order to open up the flavours, there are a number of cocktails showcasing Scotland’s amber elixir, such as the Rob Roy and Rusty Nail.