A Beginner’s Guide to Scotch

by Rhett Williams

Scotch is without a doubt the most complex and diverse of whiskies. Despite being geographically small, Scotland is home to over a hundred distilleries - more than the rest of the world put together (though this is likely about to change as more and more open every year). For historical, practical, legal, and geographical reasons, there are a range of flavours, aromas, and production methods involved - so many that whisky writers have overflowing websites and books with only their favourites. I felt compelled to do another whisky post just on Scotch alone. It’s a daunting prospect to enter a world of so many different great but expensive whiskies, so here are some things you should know.

How many kinds of Scotch are there?

While whisky can be separated by region, there are also some legal definitions:

Single Malt: a product of one distillery, made from only malted barley, yeast, and water.

Blended: a combination of single malt and grain whiskies from one or a number of distilleries that have been matured separately before being combined.

Blended Malt/Vatted Malt: a blended whisky containing a mixture of only single malts from multiple distilleries.

Grain: whisky made from one or any number of grains other than malted barley, usually by column still, and used for blending.

How is single malt made?

The most important of Scotch (not just because they’re considered the best, but because blends don’t exist without them) is the single malt. These are made by first soaking barley in water, which tricks the grain into growing. The husk breaks down as shoots are produced, giving access to the starches and enzymes within. This process is called “malting.” The growth is halted by drying out the barley using a heat source, historically by burning peat moss (giving the whisky a smoky flavour and aroma), later by coal ovens, and now usually by electric ones. The dried barley is ground into flour and mixed with hot water to remove the starches and enzymes into solution. The grains are removed, and yeast is added to convert the starches to sugars and the sugars to CO2 and alcohol. After a few days, what’s left is essentially a sour beer, which is then distilled (usually twice). The first compounds to distill not only taste bad but can be poisonous, and the last ones are unpleasant as well, so it’s the middle run that is kept. This is put into barrels and matured for a minimum of three years, usually ten to eighteen. This is where most of the flavour of the whisky is created and honed, and the end products are usually blended to achieve consistency.

What kinds of barrels are used?

There are no barrel regulations for Scotch, so you will see a range of woods being used, sometimes even on the same whisky. American or French oak, new or used, sherry or bourbon, and all manner of combinations. Over time the whisky will absorb compounds from the wood, adding flavours like vanilla, toast, butter, spice, smoke, caramel, tobacco, as well as colour. The wood also softens the alcoholic edge. Because most Scotch barrels have been previously used and are rarely toasted or charred, the absorption process tends to take longer than other types, such as American. This is why single malts are aged typically at around twelve years, whereas bourbon is aged at around half that. 

How does Scotch differ by region?

While these are generalizations, there are flavours and methods consistent with where the whisky is made. Here are the major regions and their characteristics:

Highlands: due to climate, barley is historically more difficult to grow in this region, so less whisky was produced. It was also illegal at one point to distill here, so smaller stills were both sufficient and necessary. These smaller stills allow more compounds and oils to pass through, yielding a thicker and more flavourful malt.

Ex. Ardmore, Dalmore, Glenmorangie, Oban.

Lowlands: the invention of the column, or continuous still, allowed for considerably faster production. These were built first near the city ports, such as Glasgow, where there was a better climate and therefore larger supply of barley. Bigger stills mean more surface area of copper for compounds to be removed, making cleaner, lighter, and smoother spirits.

Ex. Auchentoshan, Bladnoch, Glenkinchie.

Speyside: this is technically part of the Highlands, but about two thirds of all Scottish distilleries reside here so it is considered a region of its own. Close proximity to the Spey River allow distilleries easy-access to a water supply for whisky-making. Easier production meant higher volumes, so Speyside distilleries adopted not just larger stills but faster methods of drying the barley than peat, such as coal, then oil, gas, and so on. Speyside whiskies tend to be sweet, fruity, soft, and approachable, with typically less or even no smoke. Most of the distilleries here are younger and are used for blending and don’t even sell single malts.

Ex. Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Aberlour, Aberfeldy, Balvenie, Cragganmore, Glenfarclas, Macallan, Mortlach.

Campbeltown: the Mull of Kintyre was at one time the main export point to North America and had a large number of distilleries. Now there are barely a handful left and this is not considered a Scotch region as it once was.

Ex. Springbank.

The Islands: The invention of trains, railways, and coal-burning brought to the mainlands more efficient methods of drying barley than burning peat. The trains weren’t able to travel to the islands, however, so the traditional methods lived on and today peat is both a historical and defining characteristic of island whisky. The most prolific and famous of the islands is Islay, home to eight distilleries all producing a range of big, peaty, smoky malts.

Ex. (Islay) Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, (other islands) Talisker, Highland Park, Jura, Arran.

Where should I start my single malt journey?

If you’re new to whisky, the most approachable place to start is the Lowlands or Speyside. These are approachable, soft, and often sweet-tasting whiskies. Speyside also produces the top-selling and cheapest of single malts, Glenfiddich 12 and Glenlivet 12. These are the Scotches you’ll encounter most often, but spending a little extra will get you a much warmer welcome to the party. Try the Balvenie Doublewood, Glenfiddich 15, (fruit, wood, vanilla), or Macallan 12 (fruitcake, spice, citrus, toffee). If you can spend a little more, try Aberlour A’bundah (dried fruit and spice), or the Highland options Dalwhinnie 15 (honey), and Glenmorangie Original (citrus, oak).

If you like sweeter and softer spirits like higher-priced bourbon or rum, Speyside is, again, a good start. 

If you like more rustic and harsh spirits, like cheap whiskey or big-bodied bourbons, try some Highland malts from Dalmore (wood, cocoa, citrus), or Oban (honey, peat, dried fruit). Also look into some non-Islay island whiskies, such as Highland Park 12 (honey, oak, fruit, spice, peat) or 18 (amazing balance of everything Scotch).

If you are adventurous and like the idea of drinking smoke, or if you like a good mezcal, try the Island whiskies. If smoky spirits are new to you, start with Arran 10 (butterscotch, mint, fruit), or one of my favourites, Talisker 10 (pepper, cocoa, oak), which have more balanced levels of peat. If you want to jump into the peatiest, Lagavulin 12 (citrus, smoke) and Bowmore 12 (seasalt, fruit, spice, smoke) to start and if you’re ready for that slap to the face of brine, medicine, and smoke, try Ardbeg 10, Bruichladdich 10 or 16, and Laphroaig Quarter Cask.

Like any spirit, be wary of heavy marketing and trust whisky writers, bartenders, and your own research. Higher price-points don’t signify higher quality.

Should I try some blends?

Absolutely, but be warned that there is a lack of regulation on them, so on average you’re getting lower quality products. The worst blend is an astounding difference from the worst single malt. You often get what you pay for, so avoid anything cheap. BlackGrouse is a fine cheap blend, while Johnnie Walker Gold, or Compass Box are fine choices at higher cost. However, at this point you could arguably spend the same amount to get a great single malt. The blend experience can be just as rewarding, but because there is a quality risk, I suggest starting your adventure with single malts and doing research before spending too much on a blend. If you’re new to Scotch, avoid cheap blends at all costs and don’t make any rash judgments because of them.

For tips on how to enjoy your whisky, see the previous post - but I highly recommend you don’t add anything but distilled water. Considering the cheapest single malts are $55 (in B.C. where I’m from anyway), it’s not worth it to remove any flavour by means of ice and (god forbid) soda. I also recommend finding local Scotch tastings, which happen more than you realize and many are free. This is a great opportunity to find out what you like and don’t like without making any financial commitments. 

Cheers! 

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