Scotch whisky (typically spelled without the "e", and also simply called Scotch) is a distilled spirit made in Scotland, and subject to laws designed to protect traditional production, blending and marketing methods. A distilled spirit resembling Scotch has been distilled in Scotland since 1495, when the Exchequer Rolls noted that eight "bolls" of malt were to be given to Friar John Cor by order of the King to make aqua vitae.
While it was possible that the ancient Celts knew of the distillation process, it became a part of monastic life in Scotland in the 11th century, where the spirit was used for medicinal purposes. With the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid-16th century, knowledge of distilling passed from the hands of monks into the general public.
Within one hundred years, taxes on the production of whisky were levied, with the result that most stills became illegal, being erected in remote locations, producing a limited amount of whisky, and being taken down again. With the Act of Union in 1707, taxes were again raised on not only the raw ingredients, but the final whisky. This led to smuggling, and violent clashes between tax collectors and illegal distillers. At its height in 1820, nearly 14,000 stills were being confiscated every year in Scotland, and yet more than half of all production had no tax paid. In 1823, the Duke of Gordon convinced the British government that it made more sense to issue licenses to producers of whisky. The result was the Excise Act, which required a £10 license and a payment for each proof-gallon of spirit made, which paved the way towards modern Scotch whisky production. Illegal distilling almost completely vanished in the next decade.
With the introduction of the continuous (or Coffey) still in the early 1830's, a new style of Scotch whisky was created, one that relied on grains other than the traditional malted barley. These whiskies were lighter, softer, and cheaper to produce than the traditional style of Scotch, and the blending of grain and malt whiskies opened the doors of Scotch drinking to millions of people.
Today, Scotch is a £2 billion industry that draws millions of tourists to Scotland. Scotch is exported to over 200 countries, and societies exist that are devoted to the enjoyment and study of Scotch.
If you want to read the regulations, here they are (SWR 2009, in .pdf). Basically, the SWR mandates a few things in common to all Scotch whisky:
- Produced in Scotland from malted barley (the source of the enzymes that convert starch to sugars), other grains, and water
- Processed at the distillery into a mash
- Enzymatically converted by naturally occurring enzymes into a fermentable base
- Fermented only by the addition of yeast
- Distilled at an alcoholic strength no more than 189.6 proof
- Matured in Scotland at an excise warehouse in oak barrels of no more than 700 liters for at least 3 years
- Retains the color, aroma, and taste of the raw materials used to make it
- Is bottled at at least 80 proof
- Contains no additives other than water to reduce the spirit to bottling proof and caramel coloring.
Production of Scotch is relatively simple. Barley is soaked, allowed to sprout, then dried (traditionally over a peat fire, but now mostly with natural gas). At this point, unmalted barley or other grains can be added if the end result is Grain whisky. It is then ground into a coarse flour and water is added, making what is called mash. Enzymes in the barley work on the starch in the mash to convert them into sugars, making a liquid called wort. Yeast is added, and the wort is fermented, then distilled into low wine. This low wine is distilled again into Scotch, which is then aged in barrels of different types until it is ready to be filtered and bottled. The Lowlands region has a tradition of distilling a third time, which makes for a lighter, more delicate spirit.
Now, you'll notice that the regulations say that the grains must be processed at the distillery into a mash. Very few distilleries malt their own barley anymore -- most buy it from a specialist.
After distillation, Scotch is typically brought down to a barrelling proof of about 125, and filled into used barrels that have typically held either Sherry or Bourbon. Recently, a trend has started of "finishing" Scotch for a short period of time in barrels that have held other kinds of alcohol, notably Chateau d'Yquem's Sauternes, Madeira, Port, Burgundy, or Bordeaux.
After aging (which must be at least three years, and can be as long as fifty or sixty years), the barrels can be "married", or blended together, though the youngest whisky in the married blend (which can be labelled a Single Malt) is the number that is put on the label. Water is added to bring the spirit down to bottling proof (at least 80, but sometimes higher -- some producers release a "cask strength" which is not diluted), the Scotch is brought down to near freezing and "chill-filtered" to remove oils and fats that might make the Scotch hazy when water is added. It is then often colored with caramel and bottled.
Recent trends in Scotch production have producers releasing non-chill filtered, non-colored, cask strength, or single-cask Scotches, as many consumers feel that the less adulteration the spirit undergoes the better it is.
The SWR also recognizes five mutually exclusive categories of Scotch, of which two are major and three minor:
- Single Malt Scotch -- produced at one distillery only from malted barley and water in a pot still
- Single Grain Scotch -- produced at one distillery from malted barley, water, and other whole cereal grains - not from one grain
- Blended Malt Scotch -- a blend of more than one Single Malt, from different distilleries
- Blended Grain Scotch -- a blend of more than one Single Grain, from different distilleries
- Blended Scotch -- a blend that can contain both malt and grain Scotch from multiple distilleries
There are also five historical regions of Scotch production, each connected with a certain overarching common style of Scotch production. Some of these regions are tiny, with few producing distilleries, but some are geographically immense, and have dozens of producers. The regions are:
- Highlands -- A large geographic region in the north of Scotland. Dalmore, Glenmorangie and Oban are here. Highland Scotch tends to be rounder and fairly soft, with dried fruit and heather honey notes.
- Lowlands -- known for three distillations. Auchentoshan, Bladnoch and Glenkinchie are the three remaining distilleries. Lowland Scotch is rather delicate, with a fresh, green aspect that make them great in spring and summer.
- Speyside -- A tiny subregion of the Highlands, but with many distilleries: Macallan, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, and Balvenie. Speyside Scotch tends to marry oceanic character with the honeyed aspect of Highland Scotch.
- Islay -- (pronounced Eye-luh) Island Scotch. Nine distilleries: Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Port Charlotte, and Kilchoman (built in 2005). These are the peaty ones. Scotches that smell like a burning medicine cabinet, a roaring campfire, seaweed, tires, or iodine.
- Campbeltown -- A tiny subregion southwest of the Highlands. Three active distilleries: Springbank, Glen Scotia, and Glengyle. With such a small sample, it's hard to define an overarching style here, but Campbeltown Scotch tends to be a bit more smoky and heavy than the Lowlands, but without the heavy peaty notes of Islay.
Some people include an "Island" region, which covers the Isle of Jura (Isle of Jura), the Isle of Skye (Talisker) , the Orkney Islands (Highland Park), and the Isle of Mull (Tobermory). Others place the Islay and Island regions together due to their similar flavor profiles.
Many factors influence the flavor profile of Scotch, with the most prevalent being use of peat in the malt drying process, water source, type of barrel used for aging, where the Scotch is aged, and for how long the Scotch is aged. Probably the most recognized of these is the use of peat, a historic source of fuel in Scotland made up of partially decayed plant matter. Burning peat smells a bit like the ocean, but also strongly of tar and camphor and smoke. Historically, stills were built near water sources, which were jealously guarded by the people who used them to make Scotch. Different amounts of peat influence and mineral content changes the flavor and texture of the water used to produce the wort and to ultimately dilute the Scotch to bottling proof.
Once the Scotch is filled into barrels, many things happen. The first is that the barrels used are nearly always "refill" barrels -- they have previously held alcohol of some sort, which decreases the availability of wood tannins to the Scotch. The Scotch is also flavored by wine held within the wood of the barrel, which leaches into the Scotch as the pores of the wood expand and contract with temperature changes. While Scotch must be aged for three years in a barrel, many producers let their Scotch age for longer periods of time.
Each Scotch has an age that balances the natural flavors of the spirit with the aromas and flavors of the wood. Islay Scotch may need more time in a barrel to round over the aggressive smoky, medicinal flavors that are present. A Lowland Scotch may need a shorter time in barrel so that the wood does not dominate the more delicate flavors of the Scotch. Finally, where the Scotch is aged makes a dramatic difference in the finished product. Scotch aged in coastal regions takes on oceanic flavors like seaweed, iodine and salt, and typically takes longer to "age" as temperature and humidity swings are lower than in the interior of Scotland.
While Scotch can be useful in cocktails, older examples should be drunk either neat, or with an addition of a bit of cool water, which can help "open" the spirit's aromas and flavors.