Beginner but trying to up your “Scotch knowledge”? There’s no shame to that. If you’re still exploring your way around Scotch, knowing what it is made of would be an excellent start. Though popular, people tend to think that Scotch is the same with bourbon or whiskey. Well, this is not entirely wrong. But it surely is not right either.
Scotch whisky, also known as Scotch, is a type of distilled spirit produced in Scotland from selected cereals, malt, yeast, and water. As a rule of thumb, they are distilled two to three times. Traditionally, Scotch was only made using malted barley. But in the late 1900s, whiskies made from wheat and rye became popular. For it to qualify as Scotch whisky, its production should follow the procedures as specified by the law.
On 23 November 2009, a legislation was passed to govern the production, labeling, and packaging of Scotch Whisky. The legislation was titled Scotch Whisky Regulation (SWR) 2009. It presently offers a legal definition of what is Scotch Whisky.
As stated by SWR, for a whisky to call itself Scotch whisky, it must be produced at a distillery in Scotland using water and malted barley (to which whole grains of other cereals may be added). The grains should be mashed, the drink should be aged in a Scotland warehouse where they are placed in oak barrels for at least three years, and it should have no added substance (with the exception of water and certain caramel coloring).
You may wonder why people passed such stringent qualification over the production of an alcohol. Well, their history of whisky production will answer this question.
History of Scotch
Scotch whisky is based on an age-old Scottish drink called uisge-beatha, meaning “water of life”. In 1494, the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland recorded the earliest known distillation of whisky in the country. The distillery was managed by a friar named John Cor. Interestingly, the oldest reference of production is in Ireland, not Scotland. During the mid-1600s, the Scottish government started to tax the production of whisky in the market. The initial taxation, which was very steep, led to the increase of illegal distilling companies and unlicensed turned wild from the mid-1700s up to the early 1800s.
(Trivia: In Pennsylvania, people started to riot and revolt when Alexander Hamilton taxed whiskey in 1791. The legislation was eventually repealed in 1802. Talk about people taking their drink seriously.)
The illicit economy became so big to the point that it disrupted the legal production of whisky. In order to compete and survive, licensed manufacturers started to use rawer grains and cheaper materials to reduce their tax bills and to sell their bottles.
Eventually, the steep taxation became a loss-loss scenario to the consumers, the companies, and to the overall local economy (well, except those illegal companies who benefitted). As a response, several legislations have been passed to govern a farer production, distribution, labeling, packaging, and advertising of Scotch. One most popular would be their recent legislation titled The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009.
And the rest is history!
Difference Between Scotch and Bourbon
It’s mainly about the geographical difference of the bottled spirit. Whereas Scotch is only distilled and manufactured in Scotland, Bourbon is only produced in the US. Bourbon is based on maize while Scotch is distilled from malted barley.
With regard to the name, the Scots spell it “whisky” (without an ‘e’) while Irish people spell it “whiskey” (which is more popular in the US). As an unwritten rule, only Scottish people use the term “whisky”. Almost everyone in the world spells it with the “e”. Scots like to spell their words shorter just to increase their drinking time.
Know Your Scotch
Scotch whisky can be grouped into two production-types namely, the single and the blended. A single whisky refers to those products processed under single distillery. Again, just to eliminate any confusion, the qualifier “single” does not refer to the number of grain but to the number of distilleries. They are required to be distilled by batch in pot stills.
Blended, on the other hand, are anything from 15-50 different single whisky, mixed with a “secret” formula developed by blending companies. Blended scotch has become an art and a science after decades of observation and experimentation. Its primary aim is to create a scotch brand with distinct and definitive character. As such, it is not allowed to move astray from the standard flavor once legalized. With regard to its character, consistency is always the key.
Based on these two major processes, the SWR legislation delineated five categories of Scotch Whisky. These are:
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
This type is produced using only water and malted barley. Anything with impurities and extra ingredients will not be labeled as such.
Single Grain Scotch Whisky
This one is produced from water and malted barley, then mixed with whole grains of other cereals. Its taste is usually lighter than those made with pure malted barley.
Blended Scotch Whisky
This one is pretty straightforward. It is basically a mixture of single malt scotch whiskey (may be one or more) with single grain scotch whisky (maybe one or more). These whiskies should be from different distillers. Blended scotch commands about 90% of produced whisky in Scotland. Yes, it’s that popular!
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
When a blend consists of two or more single malt scotch whiskies produced by varying distilleries, it qualifies as blended malt scotch whisky. This type may be the least popular on this list.
Blended Grain Scotch Whisky
When a blend consists of two or more single grain Scotch whiskies produced by varying distilleries, it qualifies as blended grain scotch whisky.
In terms of flavor, these five are pretty much mutually exclusive despite some shared history.
Geography of Production
When it comes to Scotch, the geography of production matters a lot. We should remember that not all of Scotland makes Scotch. That’d be senseless. In reality, there are only five regions that matter when it comes to Scotch: Campbeltown, Islay, Highland, Lowland, and Speyside.
- Campbeltown used to be the mecca of Scotch distillation. Unfortunately, its alcohol industry went down for the past decades. As of now, there are three Scotch distilleries in this region. They are known for their slight salty and smoky Scotch. Try to get some for your collection.
- Islay produces the strongest and the smokiest single malt Scotch. This one is pretty definitive. The region’s exposure to the high wind coming from the seas of the west coast is believed to the determinant of their whiskies’ strong punch.
- Highland is one of the larger producers of whisky in Scotland. They are known for their full-bodied whiskies with hints of peat (due to the smoking of green malt). But because of its geographical range, the region produces varied Scotch flavor experience (sometimes with an extreme difference).
- Lowland whisky industry has declined for the past years. There are only three distilleries remaining in this region. In the past, they are popular for their light-bodied single malt Scotch.
- Other than Highland, Speyside also boasts the magnitude of their whisky industry. It houses the highest number of whisky distilleries in Scotland. Geographically, the Spey river cuts across the region. Many distillers in Speyside use river water in their distillation process (which gives their whiskey a discerning character and taste).
As mentioned, established laws require Scotch whisky to be older than three years (it can only be aged in an oak barrel). But many companies still age their product for much longer. This is to further enhance the flavor of the drink.
(Trivia: The “Angel’s Tax/Share” refers to the small portion of whisky that evaporates in the barrel. It is said that 4% of barreled whiskey evaporates every year. In the past, the Scots believe that angels enjoy the 4%, casually checking if it tastes good.)
Unlike wine, a whisky does not mature in a bottle. A 15-year-old whisky will remain 15-years-old even if you properly store them with care. To know the age of the Scotch, just look at the age-statement at the side of the bottle. Those with age-statement are regarded as “guaranteed-age whiskies”. For blended scotch, the age-statement should reflect the youngest produced whisky in the mix.
However, there are bottles without actual age-statement. Given their legal regulation, what is certain is that all whiskies in that mix are at least three years old.
Strength of Scotch
After distillation, a scotch usually offers 63.5% of alcohol by volume. Based on SWR, distillers are required to bottle the minimum strength of 40% alcohol by volume. For beginners, a couple of glass would be strong enough to pack a punch and spell tomorrow’s hangover.
In Summary: What is Scotch made of?
Technically, Scotch whisky is simply made of selected cereals, malt, yeast, and water. That’s it. But it’s also more than that. Its production is governed by laws. Its history and geographical-embeddedness make it more valuable. A bottled whisky can only be called Scotch if it was produced in Scotland. And every type of Scotch offers different narrative and flavor experience. In addition, you may also check out our tips on how to store scotch.