What is scotch? The short answer is that it’s whiskey produced in Scotland. The long answer is that it’s whiskey produced in Scotland in accordance with all Scottish laws that apply to the whiskey making process … which includes the condition that it must be produced in Scotland. The longer answer details the more important of these laws.
There are five types of scotch. But don’t panic. This only means there are five categories of scotch. There are actually over one hundred distilleries over the five scotch regions, producing an even greater number of distinct whiskys, so there’s plenty to try. We’ll point out the differences between the five types of scotch and between scotch from the five regions. We’ll also look at the differences between scotch and other whiskeys.
And yes, I shall be switching spelling as I go along using whisky for scotch and whiskey for everything else. I usually just keep to whiskey because that’s what I’m used to (although the rule is whiskey if made in America and whisky elsewhere except Ireland and any brand that wants to be an exception) but as this article is specifically about scotch I thought I’d better look like I knew what I was talking about.
By the way, for those of you who came here because you’re interested in finding out more about a particular brand of adhesive tape, it’s your lucky day. Something amazing will come out of your mistake as you will discover the wonders of a much more interesting and delicious type of scotch.
Why Is Scotch Called Scotch?
I couldn’t find any official answer to this question, so I’ll just tell you my thoughts on this. (Translation: I couldn’t find any official answer to this question, so I’ll make something up.)
According to Merrian-Webster the definition of scotch is Scottish, and the definition of Scottish is ‘of, relating to, or characteristic of Scotland, Scots, or the Scots’. The Collins Dictionary agrees but then adds that some people disagree with this meaning.
If scotch does mean Scottish, then it’s interesting to note that a general term that could be referring to anything Scottish is referring to a specific product. Which is why ordinarily you would have to add the product you’re referring to, for example Scotch beef or Scotch egg. Yet somehow, when it comes to whisky, if you merely say the equivalent of ‘Scottish’ everyone knows exactly what you mean. Make of that what you will.
What Is Scotch – the Longer Answer
Here are the most important legal requirements for scotch. This is not an exhaustive list but it’s all you need to know to understand exactly what scotch is.
Where It’s Produced
As mentioned, scotch whisky must be produced in Scotland. More precisely this means that all stages of the whisky making process from malting to maturing must be done in Scotland.
Scotch must be made from water and malted barley. Other grains can be included but they must be whole grains.
It can only be fermented by adding yeast.
The Distillation Process
Scotch must be distilled to an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% ABV.
Malt whisky must be distilled twice (although some distil it three times) in pot stills so it retains the more flavorful congeners. Grain whisky is distilled in column stills twice, three times or up to 20 times.
Scotch is matured in oak barrels for at least three years but often for eight, ten, twelve or fifteen years. The best single malts are aged for 12 to 21 years.
Scotch cannot contain any added substances other than water and plain caramel coloring.
ABV Strength When Bottled
When bottled scotch must have a minimum alcoholic strength of 40% ABV.
The Age Statement on the Bottle
If there’s an age statement on a bottle of scotch it must be the age of the youngest whisky it contains. With such an age statement it’s known as a guaranteed-age whisky. If there isn’t an age statement then the whisky is a no age statement whisky, but of course legally all the whisky in the bottle must be at least three years old.
How Is Peat Used in Scotch?
Since by law all Scotch whisky must contain malted barley, sometimes peat is used to fuel the fire in the drying part of the malting process.
Unlike other grains that are ground in a gristmill and cooked with water to break down the cellulose walls that contain the starch granules, barley is specially treated to access its starches in a process called malting.
The barley is soaked in warm water after which it’s spread out on the floor of the malting house and left to partially sprout or germinate. This takes about five days. When the barley grains open the starch secrets the enzyme amylase which will be used to convert its starches to sugar.
The germination process is stopped by spreading the barley on the grids of a kiln to dry with hot air from below. Large parts of Scotland are covered with peat bogs. Peat is soil made of decayed moss matter and is used to fuel the fires of the kiln as they dry the damp barley.
Because peat smoke is pungent, the barley becomes infused with it and gives the final product its smoky, peaty flavor. The level of peatiness a scotch has will depend on how long the barley was dried in a peat-fuelled fire. As this varies from whisky to whisky so will the intensity of its peaty flavor.
Can Scotch Be Made Outside of Scotland?
No. Since one of the requirements of scotch is that it’s completely produced in Scotland, no matter how closely you imitate the way scotch is made in terms of the ingredients, distilling, maturation etc, if you’re one centimeter outside of Scotland it’s whiskey.
Many Japanese whiskys are very similar to scotch because although they are now developing their own style, its industry’s pioneers modelled their product on scotch, using a similar whisky making process. But it’s still not scotch.
The truth is that this is not just a technical legal matter. Even if the being-produced-in-Scotland law was removed you could not make real scotch outside Scotland.
This is because, the grains and water of Scotland have a particular taste due to its natural environment. Since the water and grains of other countries are different, even if the process of making scotch was replicated precisely, the resultant product would not have the same taste and would therefore not be scotch.
What Is Scotch Made From – a Closer Look
Originally all Scotch was made from malted barley but nowadays it’s often made from other wholegrains, most commonly wheat, corn and rye. If it’s made from another grain it must still contain some malted barley.
This means that all scotch will be made from either malted barley only, or another whole grain or grains with some malted barley.
Or some sort of blend of the two.
The Different Types of Scotch
There are five different types of scotch.
Single Malt Whisky
Malt whisky is whisky made from malted barley. Single Malt Whisky is malt whisky made at a single distillery. Usually it’s blended (although this is not real blending) with the same whisky from other casks and years to create a consistent and recognizable taste as each run is slightly different. Single Malt Whiskys must have been distilled at least twice in pot stills.
Single Grain Whisky
Grain whisky is made from whole grains other than barley although they still contain some malted barley. This means the single in Single Grain Whisky cannot refer to the grain as there will always be at least two. The single refers to being produced at one distillery. Single Grain Whisky can be distilled in column stills.
Blended Malt Whisky
This is scotch made from a blend of two or more Single Malt Whiskys from different distilleries.
Blended Grain Whisky
This is scotch made from a blend of two or more Single Grain Whiskys from different distilleries.
This a mixture of one or more Single Malt Whiskys with one or more Single Grain Whiskys. This is real whisky blending where sometimes even 50 different whiskys are combined in precise, formulaic and highly secret proportions so that a brand can produce a whisky of definite and recognizable character and taste. Most scotches are blended.
What Are the Scotch Regions?
There are five scotch regions.
Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, Campbeltown and Islay
The Lowlands start at the south of Scotland on the border with England and end further north at approximately Glasgow on the west and Edinburgh on the east.
It has approximately 18 distilleries.
Its whiskys are considered the lightest (with Single Malts often tripled distilled to increase the alcohol content but leaving the final whisky lighter-bodied as it removes the heavier compounds) and most delicate of all the Scotch whiskys, having a gentle, elegant palate and very little peat, so they’re soft and smooth with a slightly fruity, citrusy, floral nose and sweet finish. They have a malty, zesty flavor, and you may be able to detect some honeysuckle, cream, ginger, toffee, toast and cinnamon too.
North of the Lowlands are the Highlands. It’s the largest scotch region covering the entire north of Scotland and it includes a sub region of whisky producing islands even further north.
The Highlands have over 30 distilleries and the islands have 17, making 47 in all.
It’s known for medium bodied whiskys, that are stronger than those from the Lowlands but lighter and more luxurious than those from Islay. Therefore, you’ll get bold flavors including heather and dried fruit and notes of peat and honey in a much more robust and dry body.
However, since it’s the largest region with its distilleries spread far and wide over different types of natural environments, it produces a wide variety of whiskys. Some are peated, heavily sherried or if its distillery is closer to the coast have a salty tang from the sea. Others are fresh, light and grassy.
In the northern part of the Highlands the whiskys are full bodied and spicy. In the southern part they are lighter and fruity. To the east the whiskys are still fruity but have a little more body. In the west they’re full bodied, peaty with salty tang from the sea. Those from the islands tend to be sweet, smokey with an influence from the sea.
Once part of the Highlands, Speyside is now its own distinct whisky region. It’s located in the north-east of Scotland surrounding the River Spey which provides its distilleries with water.
With 50 distilleries it has the largest number of any region.
In general, its whiskys are sweet, fruity and spicy with hints of apple, nutmeg and vanilla. Its Single Malts are smoky and complex.
However, with the largest number of distilleries and therefore producing the largest amount of scotch, its whiskys will also have a wide range of characteristics from lighter, grassy, flagrantly floral whiskys to those that are sweeter, richer and textured.
This is a small western coastal town that used to have over 30 distilleries but being reduced to only three it’s nowadays Scotland’s smallest whisky producing region. Its whiskys are fruity, peaty, sweet and smoky. There will be notes of sea salt and a briny taste along with vanilla and toffee flavors.
And the distinctive flavor of wet dog (also called wet wool). Yes, you read that right.
Islay is a small island off the west coast of Scotland. It has 9 distilleries including one of the oldest ones in Scotland. The island is covered in peat which is exposed to rain and sea spray making it particularly pungent. This gives Islay whiskys a pungent, peaty, smoky, earthy and oily flavor with a hint of salty sea air, brine and seaweed.
Scotch Whiskys Are Often Finished
Don’t worry, I’m not saying that the world is constantly running out of scotch, I’m talking about something called secondary maturation or finishing. This is when the maturation process is extended for about a year, and whisky is put into a second set of casks that previously held something flavorful.
Scotch is usually matured in casks that previously held Bourbon but may be finished in casks that previously held port, madeira, or other wine. Finishing adds another layer of complexity to the whisky as even more, different though complimentary flavors are infused into the whisky from the wood of the new barrels.
What’s the Difference Between Scotch and Whiskey?
Now we know what scotch is, it’s good to know what the differences between scotch and other whiskeys are.
It all comes down to differences in the whiskey making process parts of which are determined by the law of country in which the whiskey is made.
The reason why these differences are important is because despite there being only one way to make whiskey, there are numerous slight variations in production each of which will have a huge impact on the final taste of the whiskey.
So let’s take a look at some other whiskeys and compare them.
As mentioned, many Japanese whiskys are very similar to scotch. The only difference between the two will be the country of production.
Irish whiskey regulations are almost identical to those for Scotch whisky, except of course that it can only be made in Ireland or Northern Ireland.
The differences are that the Irish malting process rarely uses peat to fuel the kiln when drying the barley, their pot stills are much larger than those in Scotland and their Malt Whiskeys are often distilled three times in a pot still not just twice.
American whiskeys must be made in America, and usually contain more than 50% of one type of grain, for example corn (maize), rye or malted barley. They are mainly distilled in column stills.
They must be aged in new charred oak barrels but there’s no legal minimum aging period. If they’re aged for anything more than two years, they are designated as straight whiskey of whatever grain type is used. A straight whiskey without the grain being named will have less than 51% of one specific grain.
Corn whiskey does not have to be aged, though if it is it must be in uncharred or used barrels.
Whiskey must be bottled at no more than 40% ABV. Only water may be added to the final product and they cannot contain any additives that affect their color or flavoring, to keep them pure.
Various American whiskeys are made in specific ways. Bourbon is made from at least 51% corn (maize) and usually distilled three times. Tennessee whiskey is bourbon made in Tennessee, but it’s filtered through sugar maple charcoal before being aged to eliminate impurities, mellow the flavor and jump start the aging process.
Rye whiskey is made from at least 51% rye and aged in charred oak barrels for at least two years. Corn Whiskey is made from 80% corn and either not aged or aged in uncharred or used barrels. Malt Whiskey is made from at least 51% malted barley. Rye Malt Whiskey is made from at least 51% malted rye and Wheat Whiskey is made from at least 51% wheat.
Canadian whiskys must be produced in Canada but do not require a specific grain in their production and are often a blend of two grains or more. The grains that are more commonly used are corn and rye but could be wheat or barley.
They have to be aged for three years but there’re no restrictions on the type of barrel that can be used (new or used, charred or uncharred).
They must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV and may contain caramel or flavoring.
Canadians commonly refer to all Canadian whisky as rye although it doesn’t need to contain any rye at all. This is because historically, Canadian whisky was made from rye as it was one of the few crops that could survive Eastern Canada’s harsh winters.
So what is scotch? It’s whiskey produced in Scotland in accordance with all Scottish laws that apply to the whiskey making process. There are five different types of scotch, Single Malt, Single Grain, Blended Malt, Blended Grain and Blended and five scotch regions each producing whisky with particular characteristics. The difference between scotch and other whiskeys is simply a matter of the variations in how they’re made.
One more thing. Scotch is also a way of tricking people who are interested in adhesive tape into trying whiskey.