What is Scotch?

What is Scotch?

By Timo Torner / Last updated on June 27, 2022 
Scotch Whisky is a specific type of Whiskey with a distinct smoky flavor and taste. To be called a Scotch, the complete production process of a Whisky has to take place in Scotland.

Many have some sort of understanding of what Scotch is. But when it comes to defining the term, this knowledge quickly reaches its limits. Sure, Scotch Whisky comes from Scotland. And the Scotch variant is written without e, so Whisky instead of Whisky. But the adapted spelling is also valid for Whiskey from Canada or Japan. So, obviously, that can't be it. But what discerns Scotch from other Whiskey?

I have compiled essential characteristics and facts about Scotch for you. So next time someone asks, you can explain in perfect detail what Scotch is and what to look for in Scotch.

What is Scotch?

First of all, Scotch must be produced entirely in Scotland. That is the most important and non-negotiable aspect of Scotch Whisky. Another crucial feature is the typical smoky flavor. The smokiness comes from the manufacturing process that Scotch goes through. The grain is malted and then peated. Peated means that the malted barley is dried over a peat fire. It adds a distinct smoky, peaty flavor to the Scotch.

The basis of Scotch Whisky is a mix of grain. Typically, it is made primarily from barley. Other grains can also be used, as long as malted barley is part of the mixture.

After the grains are malted, peated, and distilled, Scotch ages at least three years in oak barrels. When a bottle of Scotch has a number printed on it, it reflects the youngest Whisky in the blend. That, in turn, means, for non-blended versions, the age on the bottle how long its entire content aged in an oak barrel.

According to legal regulations, the minimum bottling strength of Scotch is at 40% ABV. The same measure also applies to its American cousin Bourbon. However, like with Bourbon, Scotch is often bottled at a higher strength. Those cask strength releases often contain between 50% and 60% alcohol by volume.

There are five different types of Scotch Whisky available on the market. Those are:

  • Single Grain
  • Single Malt
  • Blended Grain
  • Blended Malt
  • Blended

You can find a more detailed explanation of them below.

How is Scotch different from Whiskey?

Scotch is a specific type of Whiskey. Consequently, it is not different but has characteristics that make it unique.

Here are the main aspects of Scotch Whisky.

The Grains

In general, Whiskey is a distilled spirit made from barley, corn, wheat, or grain. Traditionally, Scotch had been made from barley, but over time the use of rye and wheat became more common.

The most important thing is that Scotch is famous for malting barley, wheat, or rye before the distillation process.

To malt the grains, they soak in water. This step prepares the starches in the grains for the fermentation process.

The malting of grains is also the main reason for the exceptionally smooth taste of Scotch.

The aging process

Scotch typically ages in oak barrels for at least three years. In some cases, those barrels previously were used for aging wine or other spirits like Rum or Brandy.

Other Whiskey types, like Bourbon, don't need to age that long.

Also, the barrels for most other Whiskey types are different. In most cases, freshly charred white oak barrels are used to mature Whiskey.

The flavor

Scotch is known for its smooth taste and smoky notes. The smoothness of the spirit is mainly due to the malting of the grains before the distillation process.

The typical smoky notes are coming from another procedure, the peating of the grains.

This process not only dries the grains but is also responsible for adding the iconic smoky touch to Scotch Whisky.

Not all Scotch is heavily peated, though. You can also find some bottles with less or no smoke at all.

The spelling

Scotch Whisky is spelled without an e. Just like the Canadian and Japanese versions, the product from Scotland is Whisky as opposed to American or Irish products, which are spelled Whiskey with the e.

Different Types of Scotch

According to the official Scotch Whisky regulations, as of 2009, there are five different types of Scotch Whisky allowed.

Single Grain Scotch Whisky: A Single Grain Scotch Whisky gets distilled at one distillery. It is produced from a mix of water, malted barley, and whole grains of other malted or unmalted grains.

Single Malt Scotch Whisky: Single Malt Scotch is a high-end Whisky produced from malted barley only. The mash gets distilled in pot stills, which results in a rare Single Malt. Just like Single Grain Scotch Whisky, Single Malt gets distilled in only one distillery.

Blended Grain Scotch Whisky: Blended Grain Scotch Whisky is the result of blending two or more Single Grain Scotch Whiskys from various distilleries.

Blended Malt Scotch Whisky: A blend of Single Malt Whiskies from different distilleries is called Blended Malt Scotch Whisky. 

Blended Scotch Whisky: Blended Scotch hast the lowest standards. It's a blended Whisky made from a mix of malt Scotch and grain Scotch from different distilleries. 

Popular Whisky regions in Scotland

The taste of Scotch varies widely. Asides from a more or less pronounced smokiness from the peat fires, the taste of Scotch depends strongly on regional factors. It ranges from fruity notes to salty seagrass. In total, Scotland has five different Whisky regions. Here is a list of them, including their most important representatives.

Islay: Islay is a small island located just west of the Scottish mainland. It's the smallest of the five Scotch regions. But despite its small size, Islay is home to some of the best-known Scotch Whisky brands. Lagavulin, Ardbeg, and Laphroaig distill their world-renowned spirits on the isle. The region is specifically renowned for its peated Single Malt Scotch. So expect some serious smoky notes from Islay Scotch.

Highlands: Geographically, the Scottish Highlands are the largest Whisky producing area. Therefore, Scotch from the Highlands is highly diverse in taste. That's why there is a further subdivision into four parts: north, east, south, and west. Each of these areas has its very own characteristic flavor. The northern part is famous for the bold Single Malt Scotch. Scotch from the eastern part is usually milder and more fruity in taste. The southern part of the Highlands produces similarly light and fruity Scotches with an even lighter body. The western part is famous for its peated Single Malts. The most influential distilleries in these regions are:

  • North: Glenmorangie & Dalmore
  • East: Glendronach
  • South: Aberfeldy
  • West: Oban

Lowlands: The second largest area of Scotland that produces Whisky is home to only five distilleries. Lowlands Whiskies are usually light with almost no peaty flavors. The most famous distillery from the Lowlands is probably Auchentoshan.

Speyside: Actually, Speyside is another subregion of the Highlands. But due to the high density of distilleries, it's treated as a separate region. Speyside is home to more than 60 different distilleries, which equals more than 50% of all Scottish distilleries. This vast number is why Scotch made in Speyside is very diverse. Overall, the area is known for sweeter Single Malt Scotch with little to no peat. The most popular brands from Speyside are Macallan, Glenlivet, and Glenfiddich.   

Campbeltown: Campbeltown is a part of mainland Scotland just east of Islay. It used to be a hot spot for Scotch Whisky with more than 30 distilleries. These times are long gone, and today, you will only find three left. The light and grassy Glen Scotia is probably the best-known representative of this region.

Islands: The islands are no official Whisky region in Scotland but are home to some world-renowned distilleries. Around the Scottish mainland, there are more than 800 islands. However, only a few are inhabited, and even fewer harbor a distillery. The geographical differences of each island lead to a different taste. But most of them carry strong notes of peat and saline. Popular brands are Highland Park, located on Orkney, and Talisker on the Isle of Skye.

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