Whisky that is produced in Scotland is Scotch Whisky. However, within Scotland, the ruins of Lindores Abbey lie on the outskirts of the small town called Newburgh and very close to the river Tay. It is about an hour drive north of the city of Edinburgh. It’s known as the birthplace of whisky and it can be traced back to 1494. It is the oldest noted evidence of distilling. There are many types of whiskies. The two basic types of Scotch are malt whisky from 100% malted barley and grain whisky which can be made from any grain (usually maize or wheat) but has to include a fraction of malted barley too. There are numerous categories that have to be declared on the label:
- Single malt whisky – malt whisky from a single Distillery
- Single grain whisky – grain whisky from a single Distillery (unusual)
- Blended malt whisky – a mixture of malt whiskies from different Distilleries
- Blended grain whisky – a mixture of grain whiskies from different Distilleries (unusual)
- Blended whisky – a mixture of malt and grain whisky, usually from different Distilleries
Regions- Traditionally, Scottish Distilleries have been grouped into regions. The official whisky regions are Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, Campbeltown and Islay. The different whisky regions are reputed to produce their own distinctive styles of whisky.
Age- By law, to be allowed to be called Scotch Whisky it has to be matured in Scotland in oak casks for at least 3 years. Some Distilleries sell products younger than 3 years old. These have to be called spirit. Single malt whisky is commonly bottled at ages from 10 to 21 years, but there are also younger and much older ages.
Production of Malt Whisky- Barley is malted by soaking it in water and letting it begin to sprout. The germination is then stopped by hot air to which peat smoke may be added. The malt is then coarsely ground & mashed with hot water. This extracts the sugars from the malt. This wort is drained & fermented with yeast for at least two days, accompanied by heavy bubble action and the production of carbon dioxide. The result is the wash which has an alcohol content of about 7%. Distillation is done in copper pot stills. Because this ancient method is not very efficient, this has to be done at least twice. Most Distilleries use double distillation, but some distil three times. The final spirit usually has a strength of about 70%.
Maturation- Scotch whisky must be matured in oak casks – Bourbon & American. Only a very small fraction of Scotch is matured in all new casks. The process of re-filling whisky into a fresh cask for the final months of the maturation is called finishing. Most whisky casks are re-used several times by Distilleries. Maturation takes place in warehouses. Since the casks are not totally airtight some of the spirit evaporates during maturation. This is called the angels’ share, depending on the climate & the location of the cask in the warehouse, this loss is typically between 1% and 2% per year.
Blending & Vatting- Most whisky you find in shops is a mixture of several casks. This is obvious for blends, but also single malt whisky is usually not bottled from single casks. The process of mixing a batch of casks selected for bottling is called vatting because prior to bottling the casks are filled into huge vats where they are “married” for a while. The process is basically the same for single malt bottlings with the difference that only casks from a single Distillery are selected.
Bottling- For bottling most whisky is diluted with water to a lower alcoholic strength. The legal minimum is 40%. Whisky contains fatty components that are dissolved at casks strength, but when diluted below 46% they can turn it cloudy. This is why many whisky producers apply chill-filtration to remove them. The whisky is cooled down just above freezing and then run through a fine filter that holds back the fatty substances. Especially big whisky brands also add caramel coloring (E150a) to the whisky to ensure that each bottled batch has the same color. Some whisky is bottled undiluted at natural cask strength, and there are also bottlings of single casks.
Even though single malt is usually regarded as the most sophisticated type of Scotch whisky, about 90% of Scotch is sold as blended whisky. Currently there are about 100 malt Distilleries in Scotland and a handful of industrial scale grain whisky Distilleries. There is also a market for full whisky casks which allows independent bottlers to sell whisky of various Distilleries under their own label.
Scotch single malt whisky comes in a seemingly infinite variation of aromas & flavors. You will find heavily peated and smoky single malts like Laphroaig that may even shock you, if you haven’t tasted them before, creamy and fruity whiskies like Glenlivet but also the heavy sherry cask matured The Macallan or Glenfarclas malts. Sometimes even two whiskies from a single Distillery can be totally different.
How to enjoy Scotch whisky in the best possible manner has always been a matter of controversy. Some drink it neat, some add water, some add ice, and others use it with mixers. It’s a matter of choice.