What is Scottish Whisky (Scotch)?
Scottish Whisky or Scotch is the national drink of Scotland and is the most popular whiskey in the world.
Rich in history and tradition, Scotch is produced in four main areas of the country, offering very distinct characteristics to each region. While it may have been Irish monks who brought the idea of whiskey distillation to the region, the Scots built on the principles, and whiskey-making has evolved since.
Let’s look at the history of Scotch and how it’s grown from an underground operation to a beloved spirit 175 countries wide.
What is Scottish Whisky (Scotch)?
While there are many types of whiskey, Scottish whisky or Scotch grain whisky is usually made from 10-20% malted barley and other unmalted cereals such as maize or wheat. Malted barley is the actual defining grain of Scotch, with peat being a close second (and in some varieties, peat is the number one ingredient).
Single malt Scotch is pot-distilled, while blends of single malts can be column-distilled. It can only be distilled to 94.8% ABV, but it has to be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV, similar to bourbon. It can be bottled at cask strength, which means no water has been added after aging to bring the proof down, and it must be aged in oak casks for at least three years, though Scotch is usually aged for much longer. Each cask can be used for 50 to 60 years, and when it’s no longer able to hold liquid properly, it can be sold to salmon fishermen who use the casks as wood chips to cook their fish, imparting a super unique flavor.
Single Malts refer to Scotches or whisk(e)ys made by one distillery. In contrast, many blended Scotches are made with malts gathered from various distilleries and combined by a Master Blender.
Whiskey-making is a long process, and if you want to learn more, check out our post on how to make whiskey.
How Does Scotch Taste?
Scotch is a type of whisky, and we share a bit more about that in this post The Scotch vs Whiskey Showdown. Scottish whisky offers a variety of flavors depending on a few factors; the environment of the region in which it was produced, whether or not the barley is peated, the type of the casks used, the aging period, and of course, the flavors of the ingredients themselves. One major factor in distinguishing a type of Scotch is whether or not it’s been “peated,” which refers to the process of drying the malted barley over a peat fire. This results in a smoky, oily campfire flavor.
Another factor that influences Scotch is what it was aged in. You may remember that Bourbon must be aged in new barrels, but Scotch can be aged in previously-used barrels- even barrels used to age bourbon! Other popular cask choices include Sherry, Port, Madeira, wine, rum, and brandy. Because of these variations, Scotch ranges significantly in its flavor profile. You may hear descriptions like floral, Christmas-y, baking spices, fruitcake, honey, campfire, seaweed brine, walnuts, toffee, caramel, dried fruit, or grainy.
Scotch is produced in a few distinct regions, each with its own distilling traditions and environmental conditions that heavily influence the final product.
- Highlands: This is a large geographical area, so a Scotch’s characteristics will vary depending on whether it’s produced near a coastal line or not. Depending on the influences of the coast, you’ll detect notes of sea salt, spice, light smoke, fruit, florals, heather, or honey, often with a dry finish.
- Islands: The Islands are a division of the Highlands, referring to a group of islands at the very northernmost tip of Scotland, including Skye, Jura, and Orkney. A lot of the Scotch produced here offers sea salt and air flavors, nuts, fruit, and spices.
- Speyside: Speyside is another subdivision of Highlands, but maybe the most distinctive. Scotch from this region is often lightly peated but sweeter, with notes of honey, fruit, vanilla, and baking spices.
- Lowlands: The Lowlands is another significant area known for its rolling hills. Generally speaking, Scotch made here is lighter in body, unpeated, sweet, and light, and it’s a good region for new Scotch drinkers.
What’s the Difference Between Scotch and Irish whiskey?
You may have noticed that Scotch and Scottish Whisky are interchangeable terms, simply referring to whisky made in Scotland. But what about its cousin Irish Whiskey? There are a couple of distinctions here. First, Scotch must be made in a single distillery in Scotland and should be fermented only by adding yeast. It must mature in Scotland in oak casks, and cannot contain any additional substances like sugar or color additives.
Irish whiskey must, of course, be made in Ireland, from a blend of malted and unmalted barley in the pot still phase, (remember Scotch uses only malted barley). It’s usually distilled three times in copper pot stills, and aged in oak casks just like Scotch. It’s known to be a smoother drink than Scotch, and easier to drink, with sweet notes of vanilla.
Lastly, you might also notice the spelling of these spirits is slightly different. Because Whiskey was primarily introduced to the United States by Irish immigrants in the 18th century, American “whiskey” kept the Irish “e,” while other English-speaking countries kept the Scottish spelling, omitting the “e.”
Scottish Whisky- The History
There are conflicting stories about whether the Irish or the Scots distilled whisk(e)y first. It’s theorized that Irish monks discovered the art of distilling perfume while traveling to the Far East between the 8th and 11th centuries. They applied some of the same techniques, except the goal was to drink it instead of wear it. It’s said that these monks distilled the first whiskey prototypes and that the process evolved from there, but after Scotland introduced the column still in the early 1800s, it took the lead in the whisky market.
The earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland occurred in 1494 in the tax records of the day, the Exchequer Rolls. An entry lists “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” Agua vitae means water of life- referring to whiskey, of course.
This was enough malted barley to produce almost 1,500 bottles of a potent spirit that would be refined and improved in the years ahead. But the increasing popularity of Scotch attracted unwanted attention from the Scottish Parliament, which imposed taxes on the spirit.
To avoid this, smuggling became the standard practice for the next 150 years. By the 1820s, about 14,000 illicit stills were being confiscated every year, and more than half the whisky consumed in Scotland was being enjoyed without the taxman taking his cut. That is until the Excise Act was passed in 1823, which allowed whisky distilling under a license fee and a tax per gallon of proof spirit. Over the next ten years or so, smuggling almost completely died out.
During the 19th century, Scotch moved out into the world, thanks to whisky giants like James Buchanan, Tommy Dewar, Johnnie Walker & James Chivas. He shared whisky with the British empire and beyond to Hong Kong, Sydney, California, Canada, Spain, Germany, and even Cape Town. The export markets they built are the foundation of Scotch whisky’s success today. You can learn more about how whiskey came to the US here.
A global industry 500 years in the making, Scotch Whisky is enjoyed in 175 countries worldwide. Each second, about 42 bottles of Scottish whisky are shipped from Scotland across the globe, supporting tens of thousands of jobs in Scotland and ensuring that millions of whisky-lovers get to experience a taste of Scotland.