The History Of Whisky Production In Scotland

If you have ever gone into a whisky shop or visited an online whisky exchange you will be have been surprised by the different arrays of whiskies on display. But have you ever wondered what is it that makes this drink so special? In order to fully appreciate scotch single malt whisky it’s essential to know how it is produced and where to buy high quality Scotch whisky. On the Internet there are many places to purchase good quality Scotch, like a whisky exchange or online whisky shop.

Origins of Whisky

It is possible that the distillation process was started in ancient Babylon around 2000 BC. Although this wasn’t to distil spirits, but for perfumes. It is thought that the art of distilling spirits was developed around the 13th century in Italy, where wine was distilled to extract the alcohol. Then the practice spread to Ireland and Scotland.

In the Gaelic language (the language spoken by the Irish and Scots) the words ‘whisky’ literally means “water of life”. It is thought that the process of distilling grains came from Ireland and that the Scots may have learned whisky distillation from the Christian missionary monks, who had travelled over from Ireland. Although the Socts claim to have the earliest recorded accounts of distilling spirits, no one can be certain just when the drink from distilled grains was produced.

In order for a whisky to be called ‘Scotch Whisky’ it has to have been produced in Scotland and have been matured in wooden casks, on Scottish ground, for at least 3 years. Whisky is produced in other countries and the spelling of it depends on where it is produced. Whiskey produced in the US and Ireland has the ‘e’ at the end. Whereas whisky produced in Scotland, Canada and Japan don’t have the ‘e’ at the end. Although many countries have tried to produce their own whiskies, nothing can compare to the uniqueness of a fine Scotch single malt.

What Is Needed For High Quality Whisky?

The three main factors to make a good quality Scotch single malt are: pure water, barley and peat. Scotland has been blessed with all three of these factors. The Scottish climate produces high quality barley. Although Scottish distillers prefer using Scottish barley, the source isn’t important. For making high quality whisky the barley needs to have a higher sugar content. The water from the hills is clean and pure and fresh peat is in abundance. The water in Scotland is naturally ‘soft’, it is in abundance and is naturally filtered through peat. This all combines to give Scotch whisky a unique taste.

Blended or Single Malt?

There are generally 2 main types of Scotch whisky – blended and single malt (although in the past few years some distillers have been selling ‘grain whisky’). Any whisky produced in Scotland has to be matured in casks, usually oak, for a minimum of three years. Unlike wine, whisky doesn’t mature in the bottles. All the maturation process happens in the casks, where some evaporation occurs (called the angels share).

A blended whisky is a blend of different whiskies, from different distilleries combined with a grain whisky. The age of whisky on the bottle will be the age of the youngest whisky in the blend. Some high quality blended whisky can contain whiskies that have been matured in casks for 50 years!

A single malt whisky will be produced from one distillery and not be blended with other whiskies. The minimum age for a single malt is 8 or 10 years. The older the whisky then the smoother the flavour will be.

So what is better – a single malt or blended whisky? This is a matter of opinion. A high quality blended whisky can be even richer in flavour and smoother to the palate than a cheaper single malt. In general though, single malts are classed as the best type of whisky.

When it involves whisky there’s nothing like scotch whisky (or, as we say in Scotland “a wee dram”). It retains a unique and original flavour which has not changed throughout the centuries.

In order to view a range of good quality whiskies you can visit a whisky exchange or whisky shop. There you will be able to browse through the various brands and see what region of Scotland there are from, how ‘peaty’ the whisky is and what is unique to that specific whisky.

Scott Gibson is an expert on the production techniques of single malt whiskies. He has travelled extensively to write about this subject.

Frequently Asked Questions on Scotch Whisky

What Is Scotch Whisky?

This is a drink which is distilled in Scotland from barley, water and yeast. It has to be produced in Scotland, matured in oak cask for at least 3 years. It is sold as “blended” or “single malt”.

What does the term “single malt” mean?

Single malt has to have been produced at only one distillery. The word ‘malt’ comes from the fact that the barley has been ‘malted’. This is a process whereby the grains are made to sprout and then dried over peat fires. It must also be distilled in a pot still.

What does the term “blended” mean?

Blended whisky is a blend of whiskies from different distilleries. It can include single malt whiskies and also grain whisky. The age on a bottle will determine the age of the youngest whisky.

What does the term “blended malt” mean?

Whisky that is sold as ‘blended malt’ will contain only malt whiskies which have been blended to obtain a unique taste. These will can’t single malts and they have no grain whisky added.

What is “grain whisky”?

This is produced from grains like un-malted barley, corn or wheat. Most of the grain whisky production in Scotland is for use in the blended varieties. It is possible to buy single grain whisky. This will contain whisky from one distillery without it being blended with other whiskies.

When was blending introduced?

Blending was started around the 1860’s in Edinburgh. It was generally felt that whisky was too strong a flavour to be enjoyed for everyday drinking. So by blending whisky it was possible to have milder flavours. Also the quality at that time of whiskies from distilleries was questionable and by blending whiskies it was possible to produce whiskies that were more constant in quality.

Which spelling is correct – whisky or whiskey?

Generally dictionaries will provide both spellings. If they are from Scotland, Canada and Japan then the word is written without the ‘e’. If they are from Ireland and USA then the ‘e’ is used in spelling.

Can Scotch whisky only be made in Scotland?

Yes. Whisky which is sold as ‘Scotch whisky’ must have been wholly produced and matured in Scotland.

What are the regional areas for whisky production in Scotland?

Scotland has six whisky producing regions – Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Islands, Islay, and Campbeltown. Each region will have it’s own unique characteristics and by tasting a single malt an expert should be able to tell which region of Scotland the drink is from.

What are the characteristics of each region?

Highland – not so peaty in flavour with hints of sea air.

Speyside – light peaty flavours and a sweetness to the taste.

Islay – Strong, sometimes pungent peaty flavours.

Lowlands – dry and mild taste. Not very peaty.

Islands – because of the geographical difference it’s difficult to categorise these whiskies.

Campbeltown – dry and pungent with peaty overtones.

Scott Gibson is an expert on single malt whisky and has first hand knowledge of the processes in the production and marketing of whisky in Scotland.

Whisky Types And Varieties

There are a number of different types of alcoholic beverages, and in the midst of all of these, whisky stands out as different. With different types and varieties made from fermented grain mash, this highly desirable beverage has a number of different varieties. For example, there are different types of grain that is used in the production of whisky, such as barley, malted barley, maize, wheat and rye. The finished product is usually stored in an oak cask, and it gets better with age. Choosing the right variety of whisky that will best suit your palate can be quite a challenge and can pose a great deal of confusion. The list below can make this task a bit easier for you!

Scotch

One of the most popular varieties of whisky, Scotch is made from peat dried malted barley which has been distilled after fermentation. This distilled mixture is then blended with corn rye whisky. The corn rye is distilled at 180 proof whereas the initial distillation of the fermented barley is done at 140 proof. The end result is a light bodied smoky flavored drink that has its origins in Scotland.

Malt Whisky

Made out of malted barley, this type of whisky follows the traditional method of fermenting and distilling, and is very widely available. The pot in which it is made is traditionally shaped like an onion.

Single Malt Whisky

This type of whisky comes out of just one distillery and is not blended with any other type of whisky. It is made purely out of malted barley and bears the trademark of the distillery in its taste, which is specific to the distillery. This can be further blended with other varieties of this beverage for those who would like to have variations in the taste of Single Malt Whisky.

Vatted Malt Whisky

Malt whiskies from different distilleries are taken together and blended to form Vatted Malt Whisky. There are different types of labels that denote this type of whisky. Look out for labels that say “Malt, “Pure Malt” or “Blended Malt”, and you will know that this is Vatted Malt.

Straight Whisky

This type of whisky is distilled at nothing more than 160 proof and is known for its full flavour, aroma and body. The minimum strength of the finished product is 80 proof, contains no additives apart from water, and is left to age for at least 2 years in charred oak barrels. Depending on the type of dominant grain used in the mash, the name of the whisky is labeled. When corn is used, it is known as Straight Corn Whisky and when wheat is used, it is known as Straight Wheat Whisky.

Blended Whisky

Blended Whisky is usually a blend between grain whisky and malt whisky. As grain whiskies are generally accounted to be of lower quality taste, a blend of malt whisky improves the quality of the final product. Blended Whisky is a product derived on blending malt whiskies of a number of different distilleries.

Grain Whisky

Malted as well as unmalted barley, apart from other grains such as maize and wheat are used to produce grain whisky. It was first in the 1930’s that this type of whisky was produced, as a special still was invented for the purpose of its production. Used primarily in blends, this whisky is also good for consumption by itself.

Cask Strength Whisky

Cask Strength Whisky is whisky that is bottled as soon as it is taken from the cask, without any dilution. The alcohol content in this type of whisky is higher due to this.

Pure Pot Still Whisky

Pure Pot Still Whisky is whisky that is distilled in a pot-still, using mash that is composed of malted and unmalted barley. It is a product of Ireland and can be found exclusively there.

Rye Whisky

Rye Whisky is not very popular and is generally used in mixed drinks. However, many whisky lovers like it because of its heavier body that is made out of a fermented mash of a minimum of 51% rye.

Bourbon Whisky

A product of the United States, Bourbon Whisky is the finest spirit made in this nation. With at least 51% corn, this whisky is distilled at nothing less than 160 proof and stored in new charred oak barrels. The flavour is sweet and full bodied.

Irish Whisky

A blended malt of half oats and half barley is used to make Irish Whisky. There is no sweet or smoky flavour and has a blended taste of its own.

Canadian Whisky

Produced primarily in Canada, Canadian Whisky is usually made with corn. However, it can also contain wheat, barley or rye. The mash is distilled at a rather high proof and prior to bottling, it is filtered. Stored in either a new or an old barrel, it is expected to be left to age for at least 2 years before use. The taste is slightly sweet and is basically light.

An Underated Category of Booze Now Demands Some Attention

For a long time, Canadian whisky has been the boss of the bottom shelf. Out of the 200 million or so bottles that are sold in the United States every year (ranking it behind American straight whisky – bourbons, ryes, and Tennessees – as a category), about half are destined for shots and high-balls at the local dive bar. Proof positive of the good sense of the price-conscious American drinker: Canadian whisky is a much better product than it’s American blended equivalent.

Generally, American blended whisky is made by diluting straight whisky like bourbon or rye with vodka: unaged neutral sprits and water. Blended whisky from Canada, however, is made like Scotch and Irish blends, in which the diluting agent is instead a true whisky, albeit a very light one, that has been aged in barrels – base whisky, they call it. In Canada, the straight whiskies mixed with this are, of course, not Scottish malts or Irish potstill whiskeys, but rather local “flavoring whiskies,” many of which bear a familial resemblance to our bourbons and ryes. A smoother and richer blend is the result.

Since it’s not 1950, specializing in blended whisky is no longer a great commercial strategy. The American market has now left this category to our northern neighbors, with a focus instead on higher-priced, higher-intensity straight whiskey, whether it’s small batch, cask strength, wine-barrel finished, or just plain bourbon or rye. Just about all the rye that previously went into American blend, for example, is now being sold as straight whisky. Up until now, this all seemed to be fine with the Canadians. They continued focusing on their standard shot-grade blends, along with a couple of very popular, equally traditional high-end ones, letting the whole 21st-century whisky renaissance pass them by.

Finally, Canadian distillers are realizing that’s not a smart idea. For the first time in years, we’re starting to see interesting new whiskies out of Canada: straight whiskies (those flavoring whiskies bottled without blending), richer blends, whiskies aged in innovative ways.

For example, the brand “Lot No. 40” ($57), is a legitimate rye (by law and tradition, Canadian whiskies are allowed to call themselves “rye” even if there is no rye in them). It’s made from a mix of malted and unmalted rye and it’s spectacular: dark, spicy, and very, very grainy – liquid pumpernickel.

“Collingwood” ($27) is a traditional Canadian blend that has had staves of toasted maple put in the barrels for a time. These give it pleasant maple notes.

Canadian Club and Crown Royal I thought I knew all too well until taking another look at them. The regular Canadian Club ($15) might be a little spirity, but it’s clean, smooth, and pleasant. Then there’s the Small Batch Classic 12 ($22) from Canadian Club, which throws off appealing hints of maple and fig newton and fresh-split oak. Crown Royal Reserve ($40) is similar to Crown Royal, but adds dark chocolate rye to the mix making it elegant and perfectly balanced.

Whisky Regions of Scotland

Just as France has its wine regions, Scotland has its whisky regions. Each one produces whiskies of various qualities which, even to the novice, are noticeable in taste, colour and aroma. Every distillery in Scotland has its own story to tell and peculiar traditions, adding to the romance and mystique of Scotch whisky distilling.

A visit to a whisky distillery is an unforgettable and unique experience, and no matter where you are in Scotland there will be a distillery nearby. A trip round Scotland isn’t possible for everyone, so it helps to be informed about the characteristics of each region’s whisky, and tailor visiting distilleries to individual taste.

Lowlands

The lowland region covers the area from the border with England and from the Clyde estuary to the Tay estuary. The main feature of lowland whiskies is their dry, light flavour and colour, mainly due to the lighter lowland barley and smaller amount of peat used in the barley drying process. Although they are light, they have a sweet, almost fruity taste and make a great aperitif, perfect for the newcomer to Scotch whisky drinking. Notable lowland whiskies are Auchentoshan, Bladnoch, and Glen Kinchie.

Highlands

This is the largest of the Scottish regions and stretches from the lowland boundary right up to the north coast, and from west coast to east coast, taking in all the mountains, glens and moorland between. It is also the most complex of whisky regions because of the different sub-regions, each one producing whiskies of different qualities.

Northern Highland

Northern Highland whisky tends to be stronger tasting with a complex array of flavours and aromas. Hints of heather and spice mingle with light peaty, smokiness to give a medium-bodied character. Some whiskies even have a very slight tinge of salt, perhaps due to the coastal locations of most distilleries. Notable northern Highland whiskies include Glenmorangie and Brora.

Southern Highlands

Whisky from the southern highlands is typified by its gentleness. The soil in the rolling hills is light and produces similarly light tasting barley which forms the bulk of whisky’s taste. It is also very fragrant and flowery, with a soft, sweet taste. Celebrated southern Highland whiskies are Glengoyne, Edradour, and Tullibardine.

Western Highlands

The western highland whiskies are more robust in character than those of other Highland regions. Slightly peatier than inland whiskies, they have well-rounded flavours, and are very smooth on the palate. Notable western Highland whiskies are Oban, Glen Lochy and Ben Nevis.

Speyside

Although Speyside is in the highlands, it is classed as a whisky region because of its high concentration of distilleries. This is the heartland of whisky with two thirds of all Scotland’s distilleries, some of them the most famous in the world. Rivers such as the Spey and Livet flow from the Cairngorm mountains and their waters’ purity is hallowed by distillers.

Speyside whiskies are light and sweet, elegant and complex. They are not peat-heavy and have only a hint of peaty smokiness. Some Speyside whiskies are household names, such as Glenlivet, Macallan, Glenfiddich and Aberlour.

Campbeltown

Situated near the bottom of the Kintyre Peninsula, Campbeltown was once a major centre for Scotch whisky distilling with around 30 distilleries. Now there are only three. Their whiskies have a distinctive full-bodied “maritime” flavour and aroma and are among the less peaty malts. The three Campbeltown distilleries are Glengyle, Glen Scotia and Springbank.

Islands

Among whisky connoisseurs, the “island region” isn’t really a region at all. Some argue that it can’t be a specific region because some of the islands are very far apart, for example, Arran and Skye, whose whiskies have very different flavours. However, the islands of Mull, Jura, Skye, Arran and Orkney “traditionally” make up the Island malts. All have peaty, smoky bodies and full flavours, but there are marked differences in taste, colour and aroma. Famous island whiskies include Tobermory (Mull), Isle of Jura, Talisker (Skye), Highland Park (Orkney), and Arran Single Malt.

Islay

Islay (pronounced “eye-luh”) is so famed and loved by whisky experts it is classed as a region in its own right, although it is nearby the other west coast whisky producing islands. Its eight distilleries distill the strongest whiskies in Scotland and are distinctive by their rich, peaty flavours with hints of the sea, deep colouring, and full bodies. Islay’s better known whiskies are Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig.

Sage Advice

Scotch Single Malt Whisky is a very strong alcoholic drink. Once a taste for it has been acquired, the palate becomes more alive to its full, complex flavours, and its smoothness makes it a pleasure to drink. Please enjoy your dram responsibly.

Harry Young works for Toltech Internet Solutions and writes on behalf of Loch Melfort Hotel – a 3-star, 2 AA Rosette hotel on the romantic coast of Argyll in the Scottish Highlands. With superb views in a tranquil setting, fresh, local produce and fine single malt whisky and ales, it is the ideal base for visiting highland and island whisky distilleries.