Scotch whisky, often simply called Scotch, is malt or grain whisky. Originally, all Scotch whisky was made from malted barley, but in the 18th century, commercial distilleries began introducing whisky made from wheat and rye. Scotch whisky is divided into five distinct categories: single malt Scotch whisky, single grain Scotch whisky, blended malt Scotch whisky, blended grain Scotch whisky, and blended Scotch whisky. All Scotch whisky must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years, and all age statements on a bottle of Scotch whisky, expressed in numerical form, must reflect the age of the youngest whisky used to produce it.
Initially, Whisky, the name of which evolved from Celtic uisge beatha, was lauded for its medicinal qualities, being prescribed for the preservation of health, the prolongation of life, and for the relief of colic, palsy and even smallpox. The first written mention of Scotch whisky is in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, 1495. A friar named John Cor was the distiller at Lindores Abbey in the Kingdom of Fife. It became an intrinsic part of Scottish life, a reviver and stimulant during the long, cold winters, a feature of social life, and a welcome to be offered to guests upon arrival at their destinations. This increasing popularity eventually attracted the attention of the Scottish parliament, which introduced the first taxes on malt and the end product in the latter part of the 17th century. Ever increasing rates of taxation were applied following The Act of Union with England in 1707, when England set out to tame the rebellious clans of Scotland. The distillers were driven underground.
Scottish whiskies are among the world’s most revered spirits. There are varying styles, though all can be delectable masterworks in their own right. Some are flavored heavily by peat and smoke, others are light and fruity. Coastal whiskies are often flavored by the sea and a refined salinity can be found. There is always a sweetness; sometimes in omnipresence, sometimes lurking in the substrata.
There are regional distinctions in Scotch whisky much like the wine appellations of France. The robust, aromatic clarets of Bordeaux can be paralleled with the pungent, powered single malts from the Highlands. The sweet, fragrant, floral whites of Alsace are comparable with the gentle, fruity expressions from the Lowlands. Many Scotch whisky drinkers will refer to a unit for drinking as a dram.
Speyside proffers the lighter, sweeter drams. Body is brought with age and some of the heavily sherried, well-aged Speyside single malts are particularly full. The lighter, younger whiskies can be rather delightful with superb balance. The sweetness is often honeyed and delicate and peat is rarely used, nor are the drams particularly salty. Speyside whiskies are rarely finished in exotic wood.
Single malts from Islay tend to be the most pungent and peaty of all Scotch whiskies. This is particularly true to the south of the isle, where peat smoke is rife, as is tar and salinity. Further north there is not quite the peaty intensity; instead there is often plenty of fruit and refinement. There is always a good degree of balance, wherever one is on the isle.
The Islands is a diverse region, though the single malts are usually rather rich. Smoke is a recurring theme, as is balance and richness. There is often a good peat, salinity and counteracting cereal sweetness. There are no hard and fast rules for the Islands, for the terroir and production methods differ greatly between distilleries.
The Highlands is a broad appellation, though the whiskies tend to be full in body. The Highlands is divided into four regions; Northern Highland whiskies are full, cereal sweet and rich; Southern Highland whiskies are slightly lighter with dryness and fruit; Eastern Highland whiskies are full, dry and very fruity; Western Highland whiskies are full and pungent with plenty of peat and smoke.
Whiskies from the Lowlands tend to be light and gentle. The single malts are usually quite dry. Peat is very rarely used. The single malts are soft and delicate and triple distillation is practiced, indeed it is for this that the region is known. There is very little salinity and plenty of floral notes and balanced fruit.
Campbeltown single malts are rather dry and gentle smoky. The proximity to the coast proffers a salty character. One can imagine a cross between the Western Highlands and the Lowlands, with a little salinity. There are now just three whisky distilleries in Campbeltown.
Other Scotch Whisky
Blended whisky is Scotland’s best-selling spirit. A Scotch blend is made up of both malt and grain whisky. The grain whisky is easy to produce, it being distilled in a column still. It is a little more neutral in taste, thus the malt whisky is added for flavor and body. Currently, blended whisky accounts for 90% of Scotland’s whisky production.