Scotch whisky is whisky made in Scotland. In Britain, the term whisky is usually taken to mean Scotch unless otherwise specified. In other English-speaking countries, it is often referred to as "Scotch".
This definition is currently under review and new legislation is expected in the spring of 2008.
Today only a handful of distilleries have their own maltings; these include Balvenie, Kilchoman, Highland Park, Glenfiddich, Glen Ord, Bowmore, Laphroaig, Springbank, Tamdhu, and Edradour. Even those distilleries that malt their own barley produce only a small percentage of the malt required for production. All distilleries order malt from specialised maltsters.
This process is referred to as "mashing," and the mixture as "mash". In mashing, enzymes that were developed during the malting process are allowed to convert the barley starch into sugar, producing a sugary liquid known as "wort".
The wort is then transferred to another large vessel called a "wash back" where it is cooled. The yeast is added, and the wort is allowed to ferment. The resulting liquid, now at about 5–7% alcohol by volume, is called "wash" and is very similar to a rudimentary beer.
There are two types of stills in use for the distillation: the pot still (for single malts) and the Coffey still (for grain whisky). All Scotch malt whisky distilleries distil their product twice except for the Auchentoshan distillery, which retains the Lowlands tradition of triple distillation.
For malt whisky the wash is transferred into a wash still. The liquid is heated to the boiling point of alcohol, which is lower than the boiling point of water. The alcohol evaporates and travels to the top of the still, through the "lyne arm" and into a condenser—where it is cooled and reverts to liquid. This liquid has an alcohol content of about 20% and is called "low wine".
The low wine is distilled a second time, in a spirit still, and the distillation is divided into three "cuts". The first liquid or cut of the distillation is called "foreshots" and is generally quite toxic due to the presence of the low boiling point alcohol methanol. These are generally saved for further distillation. It is the "middle cut" that the stillman is looking for, which will be placed in casks for maturation. At this stage it is called "new make". Its alcohol content can be anywhere from 60%–75%. The third cut is called the "feints" and is generally quite weak. These are also saved for further distillation.
Grain whiskies are distilled in a column still, which requires a single distillation to achieve the desired alcohol content. Grain whisky is produced by a continuous fractional distillation process, unlike the simple distillation based batch process used for malt whisky. It is therefore more efficient to operate and the resulting whisky is less expensive.
The ageing process results in evaporation, so each year in the cask causes a loss of volume as well as a reduction in alcohol. The 0.5–2.0% lost each year is known as the angel's share. Many whiskies along the west coast and on the Hebrides are stored in open storehouses on the coast, allowing the salty sea air to pass on its flavour to the spirit. It is a little-known fact, however, that most so-called "coastal" whiskies are matured in large central warehouses in the Scottish interior far from any influence of the sea. The distillate must age for at least three years in Scotland to be called Scotch whisky, although most single malts are offered at a minimum of eight years of age. Some believe that older whiskies are inherently better, but others find that the age for optimum flavour development changes drastically from distillery to distillery, or even from cask to cask. Older whiskies are inherently scarcer, however, so they usually command significantly higher prices.
Colour can give a clue to the type of cask (sherry or bourbon) used to age the whisky, although the addition of legal "spirit caramel" is sometimes used to darken an otherwise lightly coloured whisky. Sherried whisky is usually darker or more amber in colour, while whisky aged in ex-bourbon casks is usually a golden-yellow/honey colour.
The late 1990s saw a trend towards "wood finishes" in which fully matured whisky is moved from one barrel into another one that had previously aged a different type of alcohol (e.g., port, Madeira, rum, wine, etc.) to add the "finish".
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottling number 1.81, for instance, is known by some as "the green Glenfarclas". It was finished in a rum cask after 27 years in an oak (ex-bourbon) barrel and is the colour of extra-virgin olive oil. This is in homage to the legendary "Green Springbank", also aged in rum casks. Another notable example is the "Black Bowmore", released in batches in 1993, 94 and 95 after 29, 30, 31 years in ex-Oloroso sherry casks. The name betrays the density of colour and complexity of flavour naturally imparted into what was originally water-clear spirit in 1964.
Occasionally distillers will release a "Cask Strength" edition, which is not diluted and will usually have an alcohol content of 50–60%.
Many distilleries are releasing "Single Cask" editions, which are the product of a single cask which has not been vatted with whisky from any other casks. These bottles will usually have a label which details the date the whisky was distilled, the date it was bottled, the number of bottles produced, the number of the particular bottle, and the number of the cask which produced the bottles.
Chill filtration also removes some of the flavour and body from the whisky, which is why some consider chill-filtered whiskies to be inferior.
Scotland was traditionally divided into four regions: The Highlands, Lowland, Islay and Campbeltown.
Speyside, encompassing the Spey river valley in north-east Scotland, once considered part of the Highlands, has almost half of the total number of distilleries in Scotland within its geographic boundaries; consequently it is officially recognized as a region unto itself.
Campbeltown was removed as a region several years ago, yet was recently re-instated as a recognized production region.
The Islands is not recognized as a region by the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association) and is instead considered part of the Highlands region.
R L Stevenson ,in 1880,wrote in his poem "The Scotman's Return From Abroad"
The king o' drinks, as I conceive it,
Talisker,Islay or Glenlivit
There have been occasional efforts by distillers to curtail independent bottling; Allied Domecq, owner of the Laphroaig distillery, initiated legal action against Murray McDavid in an effort to prevent them from using "Distilled at Laphroaig Distillery" in their independent bottlings of said whisky. Murray McDavid subsequently used the name "Leapfrog" for a time, before Allied backed off.
William Grant & Sons, which owns three malt distilleries, adds a measure of one of its other distilleries' whisky to each cask of malt it sells to independent bottlers. This prevents independent bottlers from bottling the contents of the cask as a single malt.
To avoid potentially sticky legal issues, some independent bottlings do not reveal the distillery of the whisky, using a manufactured brand name or a geographical name instead such as Old St Andrews.
Scotch whisky labels contain the exact words “Scotch whisky”; “Whisky” is sometimes capitalised. If the word “Scotch” is missing, the whisky is probably made elsewhere. If it says Scotch “whiskey” or “Scottish” whisky, it might well be counterfeit.
If a label contains the words “single malt” (sometimes split by other words e.g., “single highland malt”), the bottle contains single malt Scotch whisky.
“Vatted malt,” “pure malt,” or “blended malt” indicates a mixture of single malt whiskies. In older bottlings pure malt is often used to describe a single malt (e.g. “Glenfiddich Pure Malt”).
The label may identify the distillery as the main brand or as part of the product description. This is most likely the case for single malt. Some single malt whisky is sold anonymously or with a fictitious brand name. This does not indicate quality, but successive bottles may be completely different. The only reliable way to identify the distillery is to use a reference.
Alcoholic strength is listed in most countries. Typically, whisky is between 40% and 46% abv. A lower alcohol content may indicate an “economy” whisky or local law. If the bottle is over 50% abv it is probably cask strength.
Age is sometimes listed as well. For example, if a bottle is labelled as 12 years old the youngest whisky in the bottle has been matured in cask for at least 12 years before bottling.
A year on a bottle normally indicates the year of distillation and one cask bottling, so the year the whisky was bottled may be listed as well. Whisky does not mature once bottled, so the age is the difference between these two dates; if both dates are not shown the age cannot be known from the bottle alone.
A Rare Blen: An extensive new guide to Scottish distilleries is winning much praise from the experts of our national tipple. The twist is that the author is a woman born in Japan.
Jan 22, 2007; MISAKO Udo's infatuation with Scotch whisky was sparked by a teenage encounter with a White Horse - of the 40 per cent ABV...