For whisky lovers, Scotland is something of a spiritual homeland—pun intended. This rugged, windswept region of the United Kingdom has been the source of some of the finest and most distinctive whiskies in the world for centuries. Yet for new fans, it can feel a little intimidating, with hard-to-pronounce names, high prices, and what can feel like a disorienting range of flavors and styles. If you’re just getting your bearings in the wide, wonderful world of Scotch, read on for a crash course.
How it’s made
Scotch whisky, like all whiskies, is made from grain, which is brewed into a substance called wort, fermented just like beer (only without the hops) and distilled to concentrate the alcohol and flavor. Scotland’s most famous whisky type, single malt, is made from 100% malted barley, mashed to make a liquid much like beer, and then distilled on a pot still. Grain whisky, on the other hand, can be made from any grain, and it’s distilled on a continuous column still.
To earn the name Scotch whisky, it must be aged at least three years in that oak container, but unlike bourbon, it doesn’t have to be a particular kind of oak container—new, used, charred, toasted, soaked with sherry or nearly neutral, it’s all fair game. Today’s Scotch landscape is filled with creative whiskies that take advantage of a wide range of cask types.
While single malt gets the lion’s share of attention, it’s not the only style of Scotch whisky by a long shot. Blended Scotch whisky actually far outsells single malt, and other categories like blended malt, single grain, and blended grain are on the rise as well. Here’s the breakdown:
Single malt whisky must be distilled from a mash of 100% malted barley on a pot still and produced at a single distillery (that’s what the “single” part means). It’s often intensely flavored and full-bodied.
Single grain whisky can be distilled from grains other than malted barley, with most employing wheat or corn. It is almost always produced on a continuous column still, must be distilled at a single distillery, and is generally lighter and sweeter than single malt.
Blended whisky is made by blending one or more malt whiskies with one or more grain whiskies, with no restrictions on the number of distilleries the whiskies can come from. This practice enables a producer to achieve flavor consistency and balance that might be otherwise impossible. Blended whisky constitutes the majority of Scotch sold in the world (think Chivas, Johnny Walker, and Bells), but contrary to popular opinion, there’s nothing inherently inferior about it.
Blended Malt and Blended Grain whiskies
Blending two or more single malts from different distilleries without any grain whisky produces a blended malt. Likewise, blending two or more single grains from different distilleries with no malt whisky produces a blended grain. These categories are less common, but they’re on the rise.
Scotch whisky has an amazingly broad flavor range, from sweet, mellow, honey-like sippers to bracing, salty, peaty drams that practically slap you in the face with flavor. Why so much diversity? One of the most important factors is if the malted barley—Scotch whisky’s primary ingredient—was dried with peat during the malting process.
To understand what that means, it helps to know a little bit about malting. To malt barley, malsters (yep, that’s really what they’re called) take barley grains and basically trick them into sprouting by soaking them in water and letting them rest in a moist, humid environment. As the grain begins to sprout, chemical processes take place that convert the starch inside the grain into different molecules that give the plant energy to grow.
After a few days, you can see the tiny rootlets and stalk beginning to grow from the barley kernel. But malsters aren’t farmers; they’re not in the business of growing baby plants. At just the right moment, they halt the germination by kilning the barley, killing the plant and stopping that chemical process taking place within the grain at just the right moment. The fuel source chosen for the kilning process—peat, coal, or electricity—imparts a range of flavors into the grain, as does the length and temperature of the kilning. Those flavors, in turn, impact the way the finished whisky tastes.
Peat, a natural resource made from compressed, decomposed organic matter, has been used for generations in Scotland as a fuel for cooking food and heating homes, so it only makes sense they’d use it for drying malt too. The natural environment plays a big part in the flavor profile of peat cut from different areas. Islay peat, for instance, is salty and briny from the millennia worth of seaweed and bracken it contains, while some Highland regions produce woody, heathery peat. Those different peats, in turn, create different flavor profiles in the malt, contributing to Scotch’s diversity.
Not all Scotch whiskies are made with peated malt. Spirits made in the Highland, Islay, and Island regions are more likely to be peated, but these days, the boundaries between styles are beginning to blur. Nevertheless, if you see a bottle that says “Islay” on it, there’s a good chance it’s going to be smoky.
Tasting Scotch is a pleasure.
- First, you’ll need a glass. The Glencairn is the industry standard, and nowadays it’s easy to find. Then, pour yourself about an ounce of whisky.
- Examine the whisky for color and consistency. Is it light colored, like straw or white wine? Or is it dark like amber or mahogany? Color can be an indicator of flavor, but not always, as some Scotch producers add caramel coloring to deepen the shade.
- Next, take a sniff. The range of aromas in Scotch can be remarkable, from sweet notes like raspberry and toffee, to funky aromas like seaweed, kippers, or even Band-Aids. A tasting wheel can help you identify different notes.
- Now, take a small sip, allowing the whisky to sit on your palate for a few seconds before swallowing. Breathe out your nose, noticing how the quality and intensity of the flavor changes. Is it sweet? Fruity? Tart? Earthy? Smoky? Do you notice flavors that could be attributed to special casks that may have been used during aging, like sherry casks or wine casks? Lastly, and most importantly, do you like drinking it? Hopefully, the answer is yes—and if it’s no, well, never fear, because there’s almost certainly a Scotch out there for you.