A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Scotch Whisky
Updated: May 1, 2020
Scotch 101. Everything you've ever wanted to know about Scotch and more.
“The proper drinking of Scotch whisky is more than indulgence: it is a toast to civilization, a tribute to the continuity of culture, a manifesto of man’s determination to use the resources of nature to refresh mind and body and enjoy to the full the senses with which he has been endowed.” – David Daiches, Scotch Whisky 1969
No other spirit commands quite the imagination and sophistication of Scotch whisky. Hearing the name conjures up images of the James Bond type celebrating after a successful mission, or Ron Swanson in pretty much any scene of Parks and Recreation. It’s associated with kings, statesmen, and business executives alike; an expression of humanity’s ability to create something refined and luxurious from the simplest bounties of nature. A sip of Scotch whisky is a taste of history and the beginning of a lifelong journey.
Like a fine wine, Scotch seems to the common man a refined product, only to be enjoyed by someone with a superhuman palate and an equally superhuman wallet. Unlike wine, there doesn’t seem to be a cheap or simple way to try it for yourself. Although Scotch can be expensive and confusing, you wouldn’t be reading something called A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Scotch Whisky if you weren’t at least curious to give it a shot. Scotch can be enjoyed by anyone with a proper introduction and, in this article, I will tell you everything you need to know about Scotch and how to get started with it.
History of Scotch Whisky
The first recorded mention of Scotch was found in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls of 1494. An entry lists, “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae” (water of life). This would have been over 1,500 bottles by today’s standards, suggesting that distilling this miraculous brew was an already established process. This process was the work of barbers and clergymen who were the medical professionals of the age and prescribed Scotch or ‘aqua vitae’ as a cure for various ailments. If you need an excuse to start drinking Scotch remember, it’s medicine.
By the end of the 16th century, Scotch, although illegal under English rule, was consumed all over the country. Distillation methods improved and Scotch survived government regulation, taxes, and the ire of the British to become a prominent Scottish industry by the 1700s. In the 19th century, the invention of the column and continuous whisky stills improved the taste, consistency, and production capabilities of Scotch.
This occurred around the same time that the Phylloxera beetle almost destroyed France’s vineyards, and the nation’s wine, cognac, and brandy stores nearly disappeared. By the time the French had recovered, Scotch had replaced brandy as the international spirit of choice.
Scotch has survived numerous wars, economic crises, and the yolk of American prohibition to become the enthralling nectar we know today. Techniques and practices have changed, but Scotch is still made with the same imagination and dedication as the Scottish monks of old.
What is Scotch?
Now that we have thoroughly explored the history of Scotch, it’s time to talk about what it is and some important terms. Scotch is simply whisky from Scotland. Just like a bottle of wine can only be called Champagne if it comes from that region of France, a whiskey can only be called Scotch if it comes from Scotland. The only other “rules” for Scotch whisky are that it must be bottled at a minimum alcohol content of 40% abv or 80 proof and mature in oak barrels for at least three years in Scotland. Outside of these distinctions, Scotch whisky is very diverse.
Single vs Blended
If you pick up a bottle of Scotch, you may notice terms like ‘single malt’ or ‘blended Scotch.’ These terms can be confusing when you first get started but are quite simple. There are five primary types of whisky produced in Scotland as shown in the illustration below.
The word ‘single’ in Scotch whisky just means one distillery and ‘malt’ is just shorthand for malted barley. Therefore, a single malt Scotch is made in one distillery from 100% malted barley. Macallan, Glenlivet, and Lagavulin are examples of single malt Scotch whiskies. Single malts are the strictest category of Scotch whisky and often the most expensive.
Single grain Scotch is similar to single malt in that it is produced in a single distillery. Unlike single malt, however, single grains can be distilled from any combination of grains like wheat, corn, rye, and barley instead of just one.
Blended Scotch, just as the name suggests, is made from a blend of two or more Scotch whiskies. A blended malt is made from two or more single malts, a blended grain is made from two or more single grains, and a blended whisky can be made from any combination of any Scotch. Because of this flexibility, blended Scotches tend to be the cheapest to produce and buy. Monkey Shoulder and Johnny Walker are two of the most popular blended Scotches.
The Different Scotch Producing Regions
In the world of wine, names like Bordeaux, Napa, and Loire Valley say more than just where the wine was made; they reveal what kind of flavor one can expect. This regional intricacy is also true of Scotch where taste varies greatly with geography.
There are five official Scotch producing regions in Scotland with a sixth emerging region gaining a lot of attention in recent years. Common distilling practices define these regions, and while far from a perfect indicator of a bottle’s actual flavor, do provide a very general idea.
Islay pronounced (eye-La) is a little Scotch producing island along the west coast of Scotland. The flavor of Islay Scotch is the most distinguishable of all the regions, and some bottles can quite literally taste like a campfire. Islay Scotch is known for its strong peaty, smoky flavor with a dry finish and is what most people immediately associate with Scotch. This smoky, peaty quality is due to the use of pea to heat the barley as it is malted. Although this quality is signature of Islay Scotch, the intensity varies by the bottle and by the distillery, with Bruichladdich’s Octomore being the most heavily peated and Bunnahabhain one of the least.
The intensity of Islay Scotch often means you love it or you hate it, but that isn’t set in stone. When I first discovered Scotch, someone gave me a bottle of Lagavulin 16 as a gift, and I couldn’t take more than one sip. Now it is one of my favorite drams for staying warm in the winter. Although not necessarily a “beginner” Scotch, you may find you have a taste for it, and if you don’t at first, it’s important to try and revisit later as you become more comfortable with Scotch.
Once considered a sub-region of the Highlands, Speyside is located in the East of Scotland and is home to the most significant number of distilleries of any region and almost half of all distilleries in Scotland. Speyside Scotch whiskies can be viewed on the opposite spectrum of Islay whiskies and impart a sweet, light characteristic. Speyside Scotches are also thought to be the country’s most complex and carry flavors of honey, vanilla, and fruits, like apples and pears. Certain Speyside distilleries, such as Macallan, are known for their use of sherry casks that contribute a dried fruit, nutty and savory spice flavor to the finished bottle. Speyside Scotch can also have a subtle smokiness.
The Highlands region is the largest by landmass in the country, and due to its varied landscape, is where you can find the most flavor variety in a single region. If you draw a line between Edinburgh and Glasgow, roughly everything above that line is considered the Highlands. Highland Scotches are generally bold with a hint of dried fruit, but the actual flavor varies greatly. Peat, honey, and heather take the lead from the lower to central Highlands, whereas a more smoky and subtle saltiness can be found in Scotch distilled closer to the northern coast.
Located just above England, Lowland Scotches are almost entirely devoid of the smoke and peat common farther north. The two words that first come to mind when sipping a Lowland Scotch are soft and smooth. This area is famous for utilizing the triple distilling method, which removes heavy components like oil and protein and leaves the final whisky lighter. Auchentoshan still uses this method today. Scotch from this region is often called the ‘Lowland Ladies’ due to their lighter, floral tones and notes like toffee and cinnamon.
The small western peninsula of Campbeltown used to boast more than 30 distilleries. Prohibition and global economic depression hit Campbeltown particularly hard, however, and now the town is home to only three remaining distilleries. The flavor of Campbeltown Scotch is unique, with briny, smokey notes mixed with fruit, toffee, and vanilla. The area is also known for its distinctive – probably need an exceptional palate to enjoy— flavor of wet dog, also called wet wool. Anything is worth trying so don’t knock it until you do.
The islands are an unofficial Scotch producing region that spans the length of Scotland’s northwestern coast, excluding Islay. There is no easy way to categorize the flavor of Islands Scotch, and they can vary between smoke, brine, oil, black pepper and honey and more sweet and floral notes as well. Highland Park, Talisker, and Jura are the most famous distilleries in this area.
A Final Note on Age
Now that you understand the history, types, and regions of Scotch you’re probably itching to buy yourself a bottle. Not so fast eager beaver, if you want to save yourself a lot of money potentially, we have to talk about age. I’m sure you have picked up a bottle of Scotch and seen a number on it; 10, 12, 16, 25. You’ve also probably correctly assumed that this indicates age. You’ve probably also noticed that the price of Scotch from the same distillery could vary drastically based on that number.
A bottle of Dalmore 12 for instance, will cost around $60, whereas a bottle of Dalmore 50 (if you can even get your hands on it) will cost you $60,000! If age is just a number why does this number matter so much?
First off, the age statement indicates the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle. Distilleries will use whisky from different barrels to create their final product, and the age statement reflects the youngest barrel used in that blend. A higher number also does not indicate a younger whiskey aged longer. A Macallan 18 is not a Macallan 12 with six more years of aging, it is an entirely different blend. An important note as well is that unlike wine, whisky does not continue to age after it is bottled. A Macallan 18 will still be a Macallan 18 even if it is opened 50 years later. An older Scotch will usually have a more mature flavor which is desirable to many Scotch drinkers. This comes at a cost though, literally.
An older bottle is almost always more expensive than a younger bottle from the same distillery. This is mostly due to the loss of liquid through the angel’s share. The angel’s share is the amount of whisky that evaporates from the barrel before it is bottled. In Scotland, the annual lose to angel’s share is around 2%. This means that after 20 years, only about half of the original whisky is left in the barrel! To compensate for this loss, distilleries charge a higher amount for old Scotch.
Your First Bottle of Scotch
Now that you know everything you need to know about Scotch, it’s time for the fun part, drinking it. In the next article, I will tell you how to get started tasting and some tips to fully enjoy the world of Scotch without breaking the bank.
Next Article: How to Start Drinking Scotch Whisky