Scotch whisky

From Academic Kids

Scotch whisky, often called simply Scotch, is a distilled spirit made in Scotland. (Generally, though not always, the Scottish, Japanese and Canadian spirits are spelled "whisky"; the Irish and American ones "whiskey"). 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".

Scotch whisky is divided into at least 3 distinct categories: Single Malt, Blended and Vatted.

A bottle of an independent bottling of
A bottle of an independent bottling of Royal Brackla Single Malt

Legal Definition

To legally be called Scotch whisky, the spirit must conform to the standards of The Scotch Whisky Act of 1988, which mandates that the spirit

  1. Must be distilled at a Scottish distillery from water and malted barley, to which only other whole grains may be added, have been processed at that distillery into a mash, converted to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems, and fermented only by the addition of yeast,
  2. Must have an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% by volume so that it retains the flavor of the raw materials used in its production,
  3. Must be matured in Scotland in oak casks for not less than three years, and
  4. Must not contain any added substance other than water and caramel colour.


Whisky has been produced in Scotland for hundreds of years. It is generally agreed that Dalriadan Scottish 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

Types of whisky

Malt whisky must contain no grain other than malted barley and be distilled in pot stills. Grain whisky may contain unmalted barley or other malted or unmalted grains such as wheat and maize and is typically distilled in a continuous column still, known as a Patent or Coffey still, the latter after Aeneas Coffey who developed it in 1831. While there are scores of malt whisky distilleries, only seven grain distilleries currently exist, most located in the Lowlands (central Scotland).


Whisky production begins when the barley is malted, or allowed to begin germination. Malting releases enzymes that break down starches into sugars. The malted barley is then dried, often over fires containing peat, which adds much of the flavor to the final product. The dried malt (and in the case of grain whisky other grains) 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. For malt whisky, the wash is moved into pot stills for the first of two or three distillations, while for grain whisky the wash is distilled in a column still.


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 darker in colour. 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.

Chill filtration

Many whiskies are chill-filtered before bottling. This is a process in which the whisky is chilled to near 0C (32F) and passed through a fine filter. This removes some of the compounds produced during distillation or extracted from the wood of the cask, and prevents the whisky from becoming hazy when chilled, or when water or ice is added.

However, chill filtration also removes some of the flavor and body from the whisky; some consider chill-filtered whiskies to be inferior for that reason.

Types of Scotch whisky

Under the new Scotch Whisky Association rules of 2005, it is much easier to sort out the meanings on the labels of Scotch whisky. There are two major categories, Single and Blended. Single means that all the product is from a single distillery, while Blended means that the product is composed of whiskies from two or more distilleries. A Single Malt is thus a malt whisky from one distillery, and a Single Grain a grain whisky from one distillery. A Blended Malt is malt whisky from more than one distillery, a Blended Grain is grain whisky from more than one distillery, and a Blended Scotch Whisky is a mixture of malt and grain whisky.

Single malt

Single malt Scotch whisky is malt whisky that is distilled entirely at a single distillery, and is not blended with grain whisky. Glenfiddich is the best selling single malt Scotch whisky in the world, accounting for 20% of single malt whisky sales, while Glenmorangie is the best selling single malt in Scotland. Others include Balvenie, Glenlivet, Highland Park, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Scapa and Talisker.

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 at between 40 per cent (the minimum legal limit) 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 several regions (between six and nine) 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:

See also Classic Malts of Scotland

Vatted Malt

Vatted Malt Whiskys are one of the less common types of Scotch: a blend of single malts from more than one distillery and with differing ages. Vatted malts contain only malt whiskys - no grain whiskys - and are usually distinguished from other types of whisky by an absence of the word 'single' before 'malt' on the bottle, and the absence of a distillery name. The age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle is the one used on the label - so a vatted malt marked '8 years old' may easily include whiskys over 30 years old. Examples include Pride of Islay.

Blended Scotch

Blended Scotch Whisky constitutes over 90% of the whisky produced in Scotland. Blended Scotch Whiskies generally contain between 10 and 50 per cent Malt Whisky, with the higher quality brands having the highest per cent malt, and were initially created for the English market, where pure malt whiskys were considered too harshly flavoured (the main two spirits consumed in England at the time being Brandy in the upper classes, and Gin in the lower ones). Master Blenders combine the various malts and grain whiskies to produce a consistent "brand style'. Notable Blended Scotch Whiskies include Johnnie Walker, Cutty Sark, Famous Grouse, and Chivas Regal.

Single Grain

Notable Single Grain Scotch Whiskies include Black Barrel and Cameron Bridge.

Independent bottlers

Most malt distilleries sell a significant amount of whisky by the cask for blending, and sometimes to private buyers as well. Whisky from such casks is sometimes bottled as a single malt by independent firms such as Cadenhead, Murray McDavid, Signatory, and others. These are usually labeled with the distillery's name, but not using the distillery's trademarked logos or typefaces. An official bottling (or proprietary bottling), by comparison, is one from the distillery (or its owner). Most independent bottlings are from single casks, and they may sometimes be very different from an official bottling.

There have been occasional efforts by distillers to curtail independent bottling; Allied Domecq, owner of the Laphroaig distillery, initiated legal action ( against Murray McDavid in an effort to prevent them from using "Distilled at Laphroaig Distillery" in their independent bottlings of said whisky. Murray McDavid subsequently used the name "Leapfrog" for a time, before Allied backed off.

William Grant & Sons, which owns three malt distilleries, adds a measure of one of its other distilleries' whisky to each cask of malt it sells to independent bottlers. This prevents independent bottlers from bottling the contents of the cask as a single malt.

To avoid potentially sticky legal issues, some independent bottlings do not reveal the source of the whisky, using an alias or a geographical name instead. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society uses numbers to identify distillers; the distiller list is made available to members.


External links

ja:スコッチ・ウィスキー lt:Škotiškas viskis zh:蘇格蘭威士忌


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