Scotch whisky is a subject that is as expansive as the myriad of lochs, glens and mountains that contribute to the terroir of its historic homeland of Scotland. Scottish whisky in its current form has been distilled in the Highlands and Lowlands since the 18th Century but its roots run much deeper into the past. It is widely regarded that it is an adaptation of the traditional Scottish spirit ‘Uisge Beatha’, meaning ‘water of life’ in the Celtic tongue. The earliest official record of its production is in 1494 but it is highly likely that it was produced prior to this date. It’s a widely held belief that Irish monks introduced the spirit to the Scots although no true Scotsman would ever admit to this!
This precious liquid’s heritage is protected by law so that only spirit distilled within Scottish borders can be labelled as Scotch. There are other caveats as well; it must be made from either malted barley or grain fermented in copper stills and matured in wooden Oak barrels. This batch process is essential to the authenticity of the spirit, as is the insistence that it is bottled at 40% ABV or higher.
There are four different varieties of Scotch; single malt, blended, grain and blended malt (which was formerly known as vatted malt). Single malt is defined as a whisky made from 100% malt barley by one distillery. This is by far the most valuable and collected variety, especially rare bottlings from closed distilleries that can fetch four figure plus sums. Blended whisky is a spirit that’s created using a mixture of malt and grain whiskies by one distillery. This is the most popular and widely drunk variety despite the single malt’s continued rising popularity, driving up both production and price significantly. Grain whisky, as the name suggests, is made from 100% grain by a single distillery. Finally, blended malt is a product that is created by combining two or more single malts from separate distilleries together without the addition of grain whisky.
Despite only a few simple ingredients being used in the production process (malted barley or grain, water and yeast), a surprising array of different characteristics can be achieved. Gentle drams from the Lowlands can be soothing, light and fruity whilst big, bold offerings from Islay can knock your socks off with an assault of peat and smokiness. There are many variations in between to explore and it takes dedication and a whole lot of tasting to become a true whisky connoisseur!
The type of barrel used to mature the whisky accounts for the lions share of the final flavour. Factors such as whether American Oak or European Oak have been used to make the barrels, how many times the barrels have been used previously to mature Scotch or other drinks like Bourbon, Port or Sherry and the length of time the spirit has spent maturing all play their part. In more recent times, some distilleries have gone rogue by experimenting with old cognac, wine and rum casks, thus creating a modern and youthful taste that appeals to the trendy bar fraternity.
There are six distinct whisky producing regions in Scotland and they also have some bearing on the flavour of the final product. The regions are Islay, Islands, Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside and Campbeltown. The terrain, climate and other geographical factors of a region all contribute to the character, although a great deal also has to do with the different techniques and traditions employed by the distilleries as well. A good example is how coastal distilleries often produce a whisky that is saltier due to the proximity of the sea.
The world of Scotch whisky is a complex and fascinating one that thrives on time honoured practices and ancient traditions. If you are thinking of taking your first foray into this exciting realm, whether for pleasure or investment, then we are on hand to offer our expert advice and a selection of over 1000 different whiskies to suit all budgets.