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Scotch whisky
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Scotch whisky

Scotch whisky, often called simply Scotch, is a type of alcoholic beverage made in Scotland. (The Scotch and Canadian spirits are spelled "whisky"; the Irish and American ones "whiskey"). The main distinction in the flavour of Scotch is from the use of peat in the distilling process. The name whisky is a transformation of the word usquebaugh, itself a transformation of the Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha spelled uisce beatha in Irish Gaelic, literally meaning the "water of life".

Table of contents
1 History
2 Methods of production
3 Types of Scotch
4 External links


Whisky has been produced in Scotland for hundreds of years. It is generally agreed that Dalriadan Scots monks brought distillation with them when they came to Caledonia to convert the Picts to Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. Friar John Cor recorded the first known batch of scotch whisky June 1st 1495. The first taxes on whisky production were imposed in 1644, causing a rise in illicit whisky distilling in the country. In 1823, Parliament eased the restrictions on licensed distilleries, while at the same time making it harder for the illegal stills to operate, ushering in the modern era of Scotch production.

Methods of production


There are two different distilling methods used to create Scotch whisky: grain distilling and malt distilling.

Grain whisky

Grain whisky distillation begins when the grain, usually wheat or maize, is mashed with water. An enzyme, needed to break down starches in the grain to sugars, is added, followed by yeast to begin fermentation. Grain whisky is distilled in a continuous operation in a Patent still, also known as a Coffey still after Aeneas Coffey who developed it in 1831. Only seven grain distilleries currently exist, most located in the Lowlands. They produce the majority of spirit (whisky before it has been aged) used in blended whisky.

Malt Whisky

Malt whisky distillation begins when the barley is malted, or allowed to begin germination. Malting releases enzymes that breakdown starches into sugars. The malted barley is then dried, often over peat fires, which adds much of the flavor to the final product. The dried malt is ground and soaked in water, dissolving the sugar and producing wort, the sugary liquid. Yeast is then added, and the wort is allowed to ferment. The liquid, now at about five per cent alcohol, is called wash. The wash is moved into the pot stills for the first of two or three distillations. Once all the distillations are complete, the unaged spirit has an alcohol content of about 60 per cent by volume.


Once distilled, the product must be left to mature in specialized barrels called casks; usually these casks previously contained sherry or bourbon, but more exotic casks such as port, cognac, calvados, and Bordeaux wine are sometimes used. Bourbon production is a nearly inexhaustible generator of used barrels, due to a regulation requiring the use of new oak barrels. The aging process results in evaporation, so each year in the cask causes more loss of volume, making older whisky more expensive to produce. The 0.5-2.0% lost each year is poetically known as "the angels' share". The distillate must age for at least 3 years to be called Scotch whisky, although most single malts are offered at a minimum of 8 years of age. Some believe that older whiskies are inherently better, but others find that the age for optimum flavor development changes drastically from distillery to distillery, or even cask to cask. Older whiskies are inherently scarcer, however, so they usually command significantly higher prices.

Colour can give a clue to the provenance and type of whisky, although the addition of spirit caramel, legal in most markets, can be used to darken an otherwise lightly colored whisky. Old, sherried, whisky is usually very dark in colour - think Coca-Cola. Old, un-sherried, whisky is usually a golden-yellow/honey colour. Some whiskies can be almost clear, even after 10 years and more in wood. The late 1990s saw a trend towards fancy 'wood finishes' - reracking whisky from one barrel into another of a different type to add the 'finish' from the second to the maturation effects of the first. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottling number 1.81, for instance, is known by some as "the green Glenfarclas": it was finished in a rum cask after 27 years in an oak (ex-Bourbon) barrel and is the colour of extra-virgin olive oil; this is an homage to the legendary "Green Springbank", also aged in rum casks.

Types of Scotch

Single Malt

Single Malt Scotch is a malt whisky that is distilled entirely at a single distillery, and is not blended with grain whisky. Noted single malts include Highland Park, Talisker, The Glenlivet, Lagavulin, Scapa and Laphroaig.

If the whisky comes from one cask only, it frequently referred to as Single Cask. Whisky in the cask, depending on the age and the initial filling strength, can exceed 60 per cent alcohol by volume. Most whiskies are bottled between 40 per cent (the legal minimum) and 46 per cent alcohol by volume; if the whisky is not watered down, or is slightly watered down but still at a relatively high strength, it is frequently labelled Cask Strength. Note that Cask Strength Scotch does not have to be from a single cask, i.e. a Single Cask Scotch, nor vice versa, although this is often the case.

Regional variants

Scotland is traditionally divided into five regions for the classification of single malts; to a greater or lesser degree, the whiskies in a given region may have similar characteristics. The regions are:

Some writers separate malts from islands other than Islay into a separate, sixth category, and some combine Highland and Speyside malts into a single category.

Blended Scotch

A Blended Scotch Whisky combines grain and malt whiskies from several different distilleries. This is normally cheaper and generally considered inferior to single malt, with a few noted exceptions. However, over 90 per cent of the whisky produced in Scotland is blended Scotch. Blended Scotch Whiskies generally contain between 10 and 50 per cent Malt Whisky, with the higher quality brands having the highest per cent malt. Master Blenders combine the various malts and grain whiskies to produce a consistent "brand style'. Theoretically a blend based on several very good malts might be better than a poor single malt. (To quote Sean Connery: "Scotch, straight up. Any Single Malt will do.") Notable blended Scotch whiskies include Johnnie Walker, Cutty Sark, Famous Grouse, and Chivas Regal.

Vatted Malt

Recently, Vatted Malt Whisky, or Pure Malt Whisky, has appeared on the market. Vatted malts consist of several Single Malts mixed together in a large vat and allowed to age for a short time. Noted vatted malts include Chivas Brothers Century, which contains 100 single malts.

Single Grain

Another recent trend is the release of Single Grain Scotch Whisky, which, as its name suggests, is unblended grain whisky from a single distillery. Single grain whiskies include Black Barrel and Cameron Bridge.

External links