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
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
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
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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