Scotch Whisky: The Basics Of What You Need To Know - The Whiskey Wash

Scotch Whisky: The Basics Of What You Need To Know

Scotch whisky is an ancient spirit so full of life and vitality today it helps greatly to fuel the economy of the island nation it heralds from, to the tune of well over $7 billion last year alone. It is loved the around the world and easily the most popular form of whiskey on the market. And it tastes darn good no matter what part of Scotland it is made in.

The liquor that would eventually become the whisky made today by old and new Scottish distilleries alike was originally called uisge beatha, which is Gaelic for “water of life.” The first recorded instance of distilling happening in Scotland was 1494, when an entry in the tax records of the day, the Exchequer Rolls, recorded “eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” This water of life was enough to make around 1,500 bottles, and given this kind volume it is definitely likely liquor production had already been going on for a bit prior to that.

Whisky aging in a Scottish distillery (image via Scotch Whisky Association

Whisky aging in a Scottish distillery (image via Scotch Whisky Association)

Fast forward to the 1820s, and whisky distilling, much of it made on illegal stills, was very much in practice. The government of the United Kingdom, who by this time had long since absorbed Scotland, looked to get its cut of the financial action by passing a law which made it easier for more legal distilleries to operate, after paying a small fee of course. It also made it harder for the illicit operations to exist, which eventually led to most of them disappearing. In there place often appeared more legal operations, and thus the modern Scottish age of distilling was born.

Scottish whisky today is complex in how it is categorized, in that you have five distinct types heralding from five official regions of Scotland as recognized by the trade group known as the Scotch Whisky Association. The types include single malt (made at a single distillery with water and malted barley without the addition of other grain types), single grain (made at a single distillery with water, malted barley and perhaps other grain types), blended (mixing one or more single malts with one or more single grains), blended malt (mixing multiple single malts) and blended grain (mixing multiple single grains).

As much as the five category types have a strong influence on the final product you enjoy out of the bottle, so also does the region of Scotland the whisky comes from play a huge part in its flavor profile. There isn’t always a specific flavor which emerges from these areas, but certain trends have nonetheless appeared from neighboring distilleries. The regions include Islay (smoky and sometimes a bit salty), Speyside (lighter and sometimes fruity), Highland (generally full and dryer), Campbeltown (briny and generally dry) and Lowland (light and malty).

One big thing Scotch tends to have over other whiskey types around the world is age. Given that some distilleries have been around since the late 1700s, legal or otherwise, they have a lot of older stock which reflects centuries of distilling tradition. It is not uncommon therefore to see bottles for sale ranging north of 40 years of age, though the price tag on these is usually in the thousands of dollars due to the increasing rarity of the whisky as the age gets up there and available Scotch in older barrels dwindles.

With regards to how it should be enjoyed Scotch, like its cousins around the world, can be done up a number of ways. These include neat (no ice), with a drop of water or, in rarer cases, in a cocktail.


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