What is Scotch: A Primer to Scotland’s Whisky
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A wise man once said, “I love scotch. Scotchy, scotch, scotch. Here it goes down. Down into my belly. Mm mm mm.”
Okay Ron Burgandy might not have been wise, but he definitely knew a thing or two about scotch.
So what is scotch?
On its most basic level, scotch is a specific type of whisky that comes from Scotland and has extremely deep roots in the country.
As evidence of this, Scotland has more whisky distilleries than any other country in the world. Considering the relative size of Scotland, that’s pretty impressive.
The word whisky even comes from the Scot’s Gaelic word “usquebaugh” meaning “water of life”.
So let’s dive in and learn everything you need to know about scotch whisky: the water of life.
The Ultimate Guide to Scotch
First, a quick note on spelling: Scottish, Canadian and Japanese producers spell whisky without an “e” (WHISKY) while American and Irish producers spell whiskey with an “e” (WHISKEY).
So since we’re talking about scotch, which comes from Scotland, it’s spelled whisky.
Next, this is a pretty long and in-depth article that will teach you everything you the ins and outs of scotch.
If you’re looking for something specific, use the table of contents below.
Like I said above, scotch is basically a whisky that comes from Scotland.
Now, while all scotch is whisky, not all whisky is scotch. While there is a long list of different requirements to be called a scotch, the main difference between scotch and other whiskies is that scotch comes from Scotland. Just like tequila can only come from Mexico and Port can only come from Portugal, scotch can only come from Scotland.
Now, this is true from both a legal perspective and a practical one.
First, legally speaking and according to the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009, to be called a scotch the whisky must:
- Be mashed, fermented, distilled, and matured in Scotland
- Be matured in oak casks for at least 3 years
- Be in part made from malted barley
- Be fermented with yeast
- Be at least 40% alcohol by volume
Now from a practical perspective, scotch only coming from Scotland is also true. As you’ll see in the next section, the country’s geography has such a huge impact on the whisky’s flavor that it would be very difficult to make a scotch style whisky outside of Scotland.
To understand what scotch is made of, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of what whisky is made of.
Whisky is basically an alcohol that’s made from a grain. This means that whisky is more or less just a distilled version of beer.
What makes scotch different from other whiskies is the way it’s made and the ingredients that are used to make it.
Ingredients of Scotch
Scotch has three basic ingredients: water, malted barley and yeast
By legal definition, scotch must be made partially from malted barley. Other cereal grains, such as corn, can be added, but they must be whole (meaning not malted).
There are 5 stages of making a scotch whisky: malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation.
During the malting process, barley is soaked in tanks of water, known as steeps, for two to three days.
After it’s been soaked, the barley is spread out over a concrete floor, known as the malting floor, and allowed to germinate for 8 to 12 days.
To stop germination, the barley is dried in a malt kiln for roughly 30 hours.
It’s during this drying process that many scotches receive their characteristic smoky flavor.
The smoky flavor is a result of the barley is dried over a peat fire. Peat is soil like material that is common in boggy landscapes like Scotland.
The level of a scotch’s smokiness depends on how long it was smoked over a peat fire. Some scotches are dried over a peat fire for 18 of the 30 total hours, whereas some aren’t dried over a peat fire at all. As you would guess, the longer a scotch has been dried by a peat fire, the smokier it is.
While the common definition of scotch is that it is smoky, not all scotches carry this quality. In fact, some scotches are even fruity or floral.
Next, the now malted barley is sent to a malt mill where it is ground into a mixture known as grist.
Hot water is added to the grist and is stirred for a period of time. Next, the leftover solids are drained out to produce a sugary liquid, known as wort.
During the mashing process, starch in the malted barley is converted into sugar. This is hugely important as it’s this sugar that will be converted into alcohol in the next step.
Fermentation is a process where a bacteria or yeast converts sugars into acids, gasses and/or alcohols.
This means that it is during fermentation that distilleries create an actual alcohol.
The wort that was created in the mashing step is cooled and is sent to large vats. Yeast is then added to the mix and the process of fermentation begins.
The added yeast attacks and eats the sugar that was in the wort and coverts it to a crude alcohol.
The entire fermentation process takes about 48 hours. The end product is a liquid with a low alcohol strength known as the wash.
Next, the fermented wash is poured into copper pot stills.
The wash is heated until the alcohol in the wash becomes a vapor and rises. This vapor is collected and condensed into a liquid state.
Scotch is usually distilled twice, once in a large wash still and once in a smaller spirit still.
Scotch stills (used for distillation)
The distilled spirit is added to oak casks and is matured for a minimum of three years.
The oak casks that are used are rarely new. Scotch is often matured in casks that were originally used to mature bourbon or sherry.
Sometimes, scotches are even transferred from one cask to another. For example, a scotch might start by maturing in a bourbon cask for 9 years and finish by maturing in a brandy cask for another 3 years.
For every year that the scotch is left to mature, roughly 1-2% is lost to evaporation. This loss to evaporation is known as the angel’s share.
The angel’s share is part of why older bottles of scotch are so expensive.
Scotch being matured in oak casks
Broadly speaking, there are two types of scotch: blended scotches and single malt scotches
Single Malt Scotch
Single Malts, made by scotch brands like Glenlivet and Macallan, have recently exploded in popularity.
There is a lot of confusion around what a single malt scotch is and most of it stems from the use of the word “single” in its title.
A single malt scotch is essentially a scotch that comes from one distillery.
So it’s not even a scotch that comes from a single batch or a single barrel of whisky. It’s just from a single distillery.
This means that a single malt scotch is actually a blend of different scotches. A distillery might end up mixing 10 different single malt scotches to produce one single malt for sale.
Legally speaking, however, to be a single malt, there are three criteria:
- Comes from a single distillery
- Is made from only malted barley (no other cereals, like corn, are added)
- Is distilled in pot stills
Single barrel scotches do exist, but as flavors can vary so greatly from barrel to barrel, they’re not very common.
Blended Scotch Whiskies
Approximately 93% of all scotch whiskies are blended whiskies.
These are the more commonly known scotches like Johnny Walker, Dewars, J&B, and Chivas.
A blended scotch is a whisky that’s made from two or more single malt scotches that came from two or more distilleries.
The number of scotches that are blended together varies, but upwards of 10 different single malts can be mixed to create one blended scotch.
If a blended scotch has an age on it, like 10, that means the youngest scotch in that blend is at least 10 years old.
There are countless brands of scotch.
Below, you’ll see some of the more well known brands next to one of their more highly rated and semi-reasonably priced (under $200) bottles of scotch.
|Scotch Brand||Highly Rated Bottle|
|Johnnie Walker||Johnnie Walker Double Black|
|Dalmore||Dalmore 12 Year Old Whisky|
|Glenlivet||Glenlivet 18 Year Old|
|Macallan||Macallan 10 Year Old Sherry Oak|
|Dewar||Dewar’s 12 Year Old Special Reserve|
|Chivas Regal||Chivas Regal 18 Year Old|
|Laphroaig||Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength|
|Bells||Bells 5 Year Old|
|The Famous Grouse||The Black Grouse|
|Monkey Shoulder||Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt|
|Highland Park||Highland Park 12 Year Old Saint Magnus|
|Glenmorangie||Glenmorangie Artein 15 Year Old Private Edition|
Best Scotch for Beginners
There is no one best scotch for beginners.
Just like you prefer a specific style of beer, like pale ale or a stout, you’ll find that your tastes will favor a specific type of scotch.
here are some reasonably priced (all around $50) scotches for beginners to try:
|Scotch Brand/Bottle||Bottle Price|
|Johnnie Walker Double Black||$45|
|Ad Rattray Cask Islay||$60|
|Black Bull 12 Year Old||$55|
|The Dimple Pinch||$45|
Those 5 scotches are all blended scotches. If you want to jump in and try a single malt, try the Lagavulin 16 Year Old. It’s a little pricier (around $80), but the extra cost is definitely worth it.
Cheap is a relative term when it comes to scotch.
Like with many things, you get what you pay for with scotch. Thankfully, you can find some good cheap scotches in the $20-$40 range:
|Scotch Brand/Bottle||Approximate Bottle Price|
|Glenlivet 12 Year Old Single Malt||$30|
|The Black Grouse||$30|
|Trader Joe’s 10 Year Highland Single Malt||$20|
|Isle of Skye 8 Year||$30|
|Johnnie Walker Black||$35|
Unless you’re making a mixed scotch drink, I recommend avoiding the lower end bottles like Johnnie Walker Red or Dewars White.
The demand for scotch has been steadily increasing in recent years.
This increased demand has lead distillers to release some exclusive whiskies at unbelievably high prices.
How unbelievable? Try a 750 ml bottle of scotch that was sold for over $500,000!
Here are the 5 most expensive scotch whiskies ever sold:
|Scotch Brand/Bottle||Bottle Price|
|Macallan “M” (1940)||$631,850|
|Macallan’s Lalique Cire Perdue (1946)||$460,000|
|Dalmore 64 Trinitas (1946)||$160,000|
|Glenfiddich Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve||$94,000|
|The Macallan 1926||$75,000|
Each of the above bottles has a very interesting story behind them that you can check out in this article.
So then, what is scotch?
You could give the short answer “Scotch is a type of whisky that comes from Scotland” but as you now know, this answer is pretty incomplete.
Scotch is a whisky steeped in history that you can taste with each sip.
Another wise man (Mark Twain this time) once said, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”
Listen to the man, get a nice bottle of scotch and explore this “water of life”.