The word ‘whisky’ is derived originally from the Gaelic ‘uisge beatha’, or ‘usquebaugh’, which in turn was derived from Latin expression aqua vitae meaning ‘water of life’.
While whiskies are produced in several countries – Ireland, USA, Japan, Canada, India, Germany, Australia, Sweden and many more, very few can hold a candle to the “Scotch”. For most of us it is just a glass (or a dram) of whisky, but the craftsmanship that has been honed over centuries in Scotland to make it a feat of “molecular engineering” is exemplary.
“Scotland is the home of whisky where every whisky lover returns eventually”!
What does Scotch Whisky Mean? Simply put “Scotch whisky” means a whisky produced i.e. fermented, distilled and matured in Scotland. There are five whisky producing regions in Scotland with over 130 distilleries spread across these regions – Speyside, Islay, Highlands, Lowlands and Campbeltown. For a whisky to be called “scotch” stringent rules have been laid down by the Scotch Whisky Association, Edinburgh that need to be adhered to. The most relevant of these are:
- Whisky should be made of only water and malted barley, plus other cereal grains (optional)
- Whisky should be mashed, fermented, distilled to no more than 94.8% ABV, and matured in oak casks not exceeding 700 litres for a minimum of three years in Scotland
- Whisky should not contain additives other than water and caramel colouring
- Whisky should retain the characteristics of its raw materials and production, and maturation methods
- Whisky should be bottled at no less than 40% ABV
So now that we know what it takes for a whisky to be called “scotch”, let us explore different categories of scotch whiskies.
Scotch whisky can be divided into five categories:
- Single Malt Whisky: made from malted barley and distilled in batches in copper pot stills at a single distillery. The word “single” refers to the fact that the whisky is product of one distillery rather than a single batch or a single cask. Some of the well-known brands are: The Glenlivet, The Macallan, Glenfiddich, Ardbeg & Glenmorangie.
- Single Grain Whisky: made from a different grain usually corn, wheat, rye etc. in column or pot stills. Some grain whiskies may have a small portion of malted barley added to them. Some well-known brands are Girvan Patent Still, Loch Lomond Single Grain and Haig club.
- Blended Malt Whisky: As the name suggests, it is a blend i.e. mix of single malts only, from multiple distilleries. No grain whisky is added into blended single malts. These are also called “vatted malt”. Monkey Shoulder, Johnnie Walker Green Label and Flaming Heart by Compass Box are the well-known brands in this category.
- Blended Grain Whisky: as the name suggests is made by mixing grain whiskies from more than one distillery. It is actually rare to find a blend consisting of only grain whiskies. Snow Grouse (designed to be drunk cold, straight out of the freezer), Royal Salute Snow Polo Edition (first blended grain whisky by Royal Salute, launched in 2019) and Hedonism by Compass Box are three examples in this category.
- Blended Scotch Whisky: is a combination of mature malt and grain whiskies from different distilleries. There is no fixed ratio of malt whiskies vs grain whiskies and it varies from brand to brand. This is the largest category amongst the Scotch whiskies, comprising 90% of overall exports. Blended Scotch whisky is all about consistency and reliability, made to same exacting standards. And even though they may not be as sexy as a single malt, they are bread and butter for every distillery. The well-known brands in this category are Chivas Regal, Johnnie Walker, Famous Grouse, Ballantine’s and Teacher’s.
Please note – if you have heard the term double malt Scotch, such a whisky does not exist. But what this term means is that a bottle of Single Malt Scotch is aged in two or more different casks. The proper term for such a whisky is double wood or triple wood.
The best way to learn about whiskies and understand the nuances of different styles of Scotch whiskies is to keep trying them. The more you try the better you can perceive the differences.
As Mark Twain famously quoted, “Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whisk(e)y is barely enough”
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