Scotch is one of the most highly regulated spirits in the world. There are just under 100 distilleries operating in Scotland, and they all must abide by the Scotch Whisky Association’s rules. The alcohol has to be made entirely in Scotland and aged there in oak casks for at least three years and one day. (Most of the casks are used bourbon barrels made of American oak. Some distilleries also age whisky in old sherry, wine and even rum casks). The final product has to be a minimum of 80 proof (40% ABV).
There are two major categories of Scotch: single malts and blends. Single malts, like The Glenlivet or The Macallan, are made from 100 percent malted barley and are the product of just one distillery. A blended Scotch, like Johnnie Walker or Chivas Regal, is a combination of single malts from many different distilleries & aged grain whiskies. (This smooth whisky is produced in a column still and can be made from any kind of grain, rather than just malted barley.)
Scotland is divided into six whisky-producing regions; Speyside, Lowlands, Highlands, Campbeltown, Islands and Islay. Although each whisky is unique, the malts produced in each region have some common characteristics which separate them from whiskies from other regions. These differences are the result of several factors, for example the use of different raw materials, climate variations and different production techniques.
Islay is a small island west of the Scottish mainland and is the home of many well-known malt whiskies. Although a few milder versions exits, Islay whisky is smoky, peaty and salty and has quite a bit of tang and tar thrown into the mix. The island once had 23 distilleries operating at the same time but the number of active distilleries is now down to eight. The lastest of which is a new distillery named Kilchoman that was established in 2005.
As the name suggests, the Lowlands is a flat region without mountains. It is also the southernmost part of Scotland. Whisky from the Lowlands is smooth and slightly fiery. It is also very light in salt, peat and smoke as opposed to many other whiskies. Any Lowland whisky is a fine aperitif.
Speyside is the undisputed center for whisky in Scotland when it comes to the number of distilleries. The region has received its name from the River Spey, which cuts through the area. Many of the distilleries use water straight from the river, in their production process. Speyside is geographically part of the Highlands but is considered a separate region because of its size and the different characteristics of Speyside whisky as opposed to other Highland whisky. If you wish to introduce a friend to the world of whisky, a Speyside is a good choice with its rich flavor, complexity and relatively mild character. The town of Elgin is the centre of the region.
The Highlands is the largest of the whisky producing regions in Scotland. The whisky is often powerful, has a rich flavor and is quite smoky although slightly less so than whisky from the Islands. Compared to the Lowlands, Highland whiskies often taste very different from each other. This is partly due to the size of the region which allows for greater differences in the microclimate, but variations in raw materials and productions techniques also play an important part. The word ‘glen’ is commonly used in the name of both Highland and Speyside distilleries and means ‘valley’.
The region Campbeltown was once a flourishing whisky region and the city of Campbeltown was considered to be the whisky capital of Scotland. In 1886 there were no less than 21 distilleries in and surrounding the city. Today only three distilleries remain. Campbeltown is still referred to as a separate whisky producing region, but today the reason is mostly historical.
It is not uncommon for this region to be confused with Islay but Islands is in fact a separate production region which consists of the islands Mull, Orkney, Jura, Arran, Shetlands and Skye. It is a source of constant debate whether Orkney belongs to the Islands or in fact should be counted as part of the Highlands region. Whisky from the Islands may be described as a milder version of Islay whisky and is often appreciated by those who have enjoyed whisky for a few years. The well-known whisky Talisker is produced on the beautiful Island of Skye. The Blackwood Distillery is the most recent addition to Scotland’s family of distilleries and is currently being built on one of the Shetland Islands.
HOW TO DRINK SCOTCH:
To appreciate Scotch in all its peaty glory, it should be sipped straight, but don’t be afraid to add a bit of bottled water. That may sound like sacrilege, but it helps to open up the whisky’s flavors and aromas, and it’s actually how most experts and master distillers prefer to taste the spirit. For younger or more full-flavored whiskies, feel free to add ice or club soda. Scotch also goes well with ginger ale or in cocktails like the Rob Roy, Blood and Sand and Rusty Nail.
NOTEWORTHY BLENDED SCOTCHES:
NOTEWORTHY SINGLE MALTS:
Aberlour, Aberfeldy, Ardbeg, Ardmore, Auchentoshan, The Balvenie, Bladnoch, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Cragganmore, The Dalmore, Dalwhinnie, Glen Grant, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, Glenkinchie, Glenmorangie, The Glenrothes, Highland Park, Isle of Jura, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, The Macallan, Oban, Scapa, The Singleton of Glendullan, Speyburn, Springbank, Talisker
The Column Still - The taller the stills, the lighter the particles have to be to reach the top during distillation, and the resulting scotch has a lighter, more floral character than the heavier, oilier ones from lower stills.