Many know Scotch Whisky comes from Scotland, and some know -or have experienced- the characteristic smoky, peaty taste of the traditional Scottish spirit, but that's where it ends for most.
Yet, obviously, that's not the whole secret behind Scotch. So let's see what else there is to know:
Scotch - Quick Facts
- Spirit base: malted barley, rye, or wheat
- ABV: 40% to 68.5%
- Proof: 80 to 137
- Calories per ounce: 68 to 120
- Origin: Scotland
- Color: Golden brown (depends on the aging time, wood, etc.)
- Best served: neat or in cocktails
What is Scotch?
Scotch is an aged, high-proof grain spirit from Scotland. That means all steps of production must take place in Scotland. - Which is also the most important and absolutely non-negotiable aspect of Scotch Whisky.
Another vital aspect is the smoky flavor. This smokiness comes from the manufacturing process that Scotch goes through and is a great tasting experience, both neat and in Scotch Cocktails.
The basis of Scotch Whisky is a mix of grain. Typically, it is made predominantly from barley. Other grains are fine, as long as malted barley is part of the mixture.
The grain mix is malted and peated. The resulting mash is distilled and matures in oak barrels. -Peat is a dark, decomposed, organic matter you can find in wetlands, and peated means that the malted barley is dried over a peat fire. It adds a distinct smoky flavor to the Scotch.
Requirements for traditional Scottish Whisky
In addition to being from Scotland and containing malted barley, the minimum bottling strength of Scotch is 40% ABV. Like Bourbon, Scotch is often bottled at a higher percentage. Those so-called cask-strength releases often contain between 50% and 60% alcohol by volume.
Further, according to legal regulations, Scotch must age in barrels for a minimum of three years.
By the way, bottles of blended Scotch have a number printed on them, reflecting the youngest whisky in the blend not the average age. For non-blended Scotch, this means that the number on the bottle tells you the aging time for the whole content - whereas, for blended Scotch, the average age is higher than the number on the label suggests.
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:
Generally, whiskey is a distilled spirit made from barley, corn, wheat, or grain. Traditionally, Scotch was made from barley, but over time the use of rye and wheat became common ingredients, too.
The most important thing is that Scotch is famous for malting barley, wheat, or rye before the distillation process. Malting means that the grains 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 and always for at least three years. In some cases, those barrels were previously used for aging wine or other spirits like Rum or Brandy.
Other whiskey types, like Bourbon, don't need to age that long and also, the barrels are different. In most cases, freshly charred white oak barrels are used to mature whiskey.
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 smoky notes of Scotch come from the peating of the grains, which means drying them over a peat fire. Not all Scotch is heavily peated, though. You can also find some bottles with less or no smoke at all.
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 allowed. Here's a short overview:
- Single Grain Scotch Whisky: gets distilled at one distillery.
- Single Malt Scotch Whisky: a high-end whisky produced from malted barley only, and distilled in one distillery.
- Blended Grain Scotch Whisky: 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.
- Blended Scotch Whisky: made from a mix of malt Scotch and grain Scotch from different distilleries. It has the lowest quality standards.
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.
Here is a list of the country's whisky region:
- Islay: Islay is a small island located just west of the Scottish mainland. It's the smallest of the five Scotch regions.
- Highlands: Geographically, the Scottish Highlands are the largest whisky-producing area. Therefore, Scotch from the Highlands is highly diverse in taste.
- 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.
- Speyside: Actually, Speyside is another subregion of the Highlands. But due to the high density of distilleries, it's treated as a separate region.
- Campbeltown: Campbeltown is a part of mainland Scotland just east of Islay.
- Islands: The islands are no official whisky region in Scotland but are home to some world-renowned distilleries.
There's a lot more to know, including details on why we list six regions, even though you often read about " the five Scotch regions" and some common representatives of each region. So head to our guide to the different Scotch regions for more.
The beginnings of Scotch Whisky
Ireland and Scotland both claim to be the inventors of whiskey. Yet, the earliest known mention of a forerunner of this traditional liquor can, indeed, be traced back to Scotland.
Accordingly, the history of Scotch started in 1494 when a monk called John Cor produced the first barley-based Aqua Vitae. He distilled the spirit in Lindores Abbey, located in the Scottish council of Fife.
His early version of whisky was clear, unaged, and infused with an undefined number of herbs and plants. -Far from the whisky we drink today, but as far as we know today, the beginning of the amber-colored liquor.