Scotch Whiskey - History, Regions & Production techniques

An Introduction to Scotch Whiskey

The History of Scotch Whiskey

Looking back at old tax records, it appears that well-established distilling was taking place in Scotland as early as 1494, but it wasn’t until the 16th and 17th centuries that the process was drastically improved.

Uisge-beatha, the Scottish Gaelic name for the Latin “aqua vitae” (meaning water of life), was brewed by monks for its medicinal qualities. It was believed to help with ailments like palsy and smallpox and was even taken as an elixir to prolong life.

The dissolution of the monasteries helped spread the knowledge of distillation to the public, and in turn, bringing scotch to the mainstream of Scottish social life.

An excise tax was introduced in the 17th century, which increased at the beginning of the 1700s. Distillers were driven underground, and smuggling became a common practice for nearly 150 years afterward.

In 1823, the tax was revised, and over the course of the next decade, distillers resurfaced and became the foundation for the famed scotch whiskey industry.

Regions of Scotch Whiskey

Single malt scotches are grouped by region, specifically into four main areas:

  • The Highlands (which also include Speyside and the Islands): this is the largest of the regions and is home to some of the best-known Scottish distilleries, such as Dalwhinnie, Glenmorangie, and Oban. These whiskeys tend to be less smoky and can be slighter sweeter depending on how far west the distillery is located.
  • The Lowlands: whiskeys from this region tend to be on the mellow side and have a drier finish. These can be a good option for someone who is new to whiskey and can still be appreciated by a connoisseur. Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie are among notable distillers from the region.
  • Islay: the geographic location of this region has a huge impact on the flavor of its whiskeys. The sea and rain, as well as the abundance of peat, create a distinct, bold smokiness that is easily identifiable to the Islay spirits. Ardbeg, Bowmore, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig are among notable distillers.
  • Campbeltown: Once home to over 30 distilleries, there are now only three in this region, which are Glen Scotia, Longrow, and Springbank. Campbeltown scotch whiskeys have a distinct flavor which tends toward a salty finish and hint of peatiness, although typically less smoky than Islay whiskeys.

How Scotch Whiskey Is Made

Scotch whiskey starts with high-quality barley, which is germinated on malting floors. The barley gets dried out in a kiln, at which point peat can be added to give a notable smoky flavor.

The dried barley then goes through a mashing process which involves adding water in three stages. The quality of the water is actually quite important to the overall quality of the scotch that is produced. A sweet liquid called “wort” is created, and then yeast is added to begin the fermentation process.

Pot stills are used for the actual distillation process, and the shape of the pot stills affects the final product. The still is heated, which leads to evaporation and condensation of the alcohol and other liquids inside, which are then vaporized and condensed back into liquid form.

This process happens twice, leading to approximately 68% alcohol by volume (ABV).

The distilled liquid is colorless at this point and is typically aged in oak casks that may have been previously used for other scotch whiskeys, bourbon, or sherry.

Single malts are typically aged upwards of eight years but must be aged for at least three years to qualify as a scotch whiskey by law.

Characteristics of Scotch Whiskey

Scotch whiskeys are easily identifiable and differ greatly between regions. Water from the sea and rain, peat, and the Scottish climate are all factors that add to the unique and highly sought-after flavor of this popular spirit.

Scotch whiskey can be light and delicate, with floral, grassy notes such as those found in Oban. Meanwhile, fruity and spicy notes can be found in brands like Dalwhinnie. Rich, full-bodied, smoky whiskey gets its complexity during the aging process, like a Blair Athol 12yo. Additionally, full-bodied, heavy smoke whiskeys are traditional to Islay and include distillers like Lagavulin and Talisker.

Prolific Producers of Scotch Whiskey

Glenmorangie Distillery was found in 1843 by William Matheson in the Scottish Highlands. Select craftsmen, known as ‘The Men of Tain,’ work diligently to produce an award-winning single malt.

Ardbeg is a well-known distiller that boasts over 200 years of history. Located on the Scottish Isle of Islay, Ardbeg is easily identifiable by its intensely smoky and deeply complex flavor. Deemed ‘the untamed spirit of Islay,’ this award-winning spirit is not for the faint of palette.

Glenkinchie traces back to 1825, to a site called Milton Distillery. In 1837 it was renamed Glenkinchie, and in 1853 it was sold to a farmer who turned it into a sawmill. Close to 30 years later, Glenkinchie Distillery was revived and went on to become an influential industry leader in the Scottish Lowlands.

Springbank is a Campbeltown distillery that dates back to 1828 on the site of Archibald Mitchell’s illicit still. It is currently run by Hedley G. Wright, a fifth-generation family member – Mitchell’s great, great grandson. Springbank relies on tradition, crafting their entire product onsite and delivering three unique single malts.

Blended vs. Single Malt Whiskey

The debate on blended vs. single malt whiskey is rooted in Scottish spirits, whereby blended scotch whiskeys are a mix of malt and grain liquors from different distilleries. This gives them a lighter, less smoky flavor that lends itself to easy drinkability. Blended malts do not contain other grain whiskeys.

Single malt whiskey refers to the product coming from a single distillery. Single malts are often associated with single malt scotches (although they are also produced in other countries) and tend to be more expensive than blended varieties.

Blended whiskeys account for over 90% of the scotch whiskeys consumed around the world.

What Makes a Whiskey Expensive?

There are whiskeys to suit most price ranges, some for as low as $15 and others entirely unaffordable for the average consumer.

There are many factors that influence the price of whiskey, such as the cost of raw ingredients. Organic ingredients that are locally sourced for small batch and craft whiskeys tend to come with a higher price tag as the producers do not benefit from buying large quantities of the ingredients like larger producers do.

Overhead costs, such as the size of the labor force and the location of the distillery, also need to be factored into the price of the final product. A craft distillery that is located in a prime part of town to attract foot traffic will also incur higher rental costs.

Location is also important for the consumer, as different areas are subject to different taxation rates. An imported product can also be more expensive than something crafted locally.

Generally speaking, age is the most important factor in the price of whiskey. Although there are other factors to consider, the older the whiskey, the higher the price tag. Alcohol is expensive to insure, especially when storing lots of flammable product over a period of time. Storing is also expensive because of the space required to do so as well as a slow turn around time between production and sales.

Distillers also need to factor in product loss during the aging process.  As spirits age in a cask, a natural evaporation process occurs that results in a 1 to 2 percent loss of overall volume, meaning there is less product to sell. This is known as the “angel’s share.” The duration of the aging process will determine how much product is lost, resulting in less whiskey that is able to be sold. The less there is of something, the more rare, desirable, and expensive it becomes.

While branding and marketing do not affect the actual quality of the product, as with any packaged consumer good, the hype can increase the price tag. Distillers that have an identifiable and desirable brand are able to mark up costs because people are willing to pay a premium for their product. As part of branding efforts, distillers may also invest in costly production and packaging methods that are passed on to the consumer.

Enhance your Whiskey Experience

Now that you’ve gotten a lesson in scotch whiskey, it’s time to learn how to enjoy it as much as we do over at whiskeyglasses.ca. Here are a few suggestions to help you enhance your experience.

  • Know your palette. Scotch whiskey is quite diverse in terms of flavor, so be sure to opt for something that caters to your palette preference. Islay scotches pack a powerful smoky flavor that is just right for some but overwhelming for others. Similarly, a blended variety can be smoother and softer in flavor but might not appeal to someone who is looking to go bold.
  • Add a drop of water. Adding a small drop of water can help open up a scotch and actually mellow out the flavor. This is a great tip even for those who take their whiskey neat.
  • Add ice. This is a highly divisive and subjective choice, but it’s your drink so enjoy it as you like it! Just like adding a drop of water, adding ice will significantly mellow out the flavor of your scotch. Proceed with caution though: as the ice melts it will water down your whiskey, which is great if you’re looking to dilute it but not if you want to maintain its bold integrity. Try whiskey stones if you want to keep your scotch cold without watering it down.
  • Take a whiff! Scotch is best enjoyed when it is experienced with all your senses. Examine its color, which will be affected by the duration of aging as well as by the cask used. Then, inhale its sweet or smoky aroma, and start with a small sip.
  • Use the right glass. Choosing the right class for your whiskey is similar to pairing the right glass to your wine. The shape of the glass as well as its thickness can play an important role in your overall drinking experience. At whiskeyglasses.ca, we’re committed to helping you find the perfect glass. Shop our gallery for a variety of options to suit all your whiskey needs.

Whichever spirit you choose and whatever method you use to enhance your experience, please make sure to consume responsibly.

Check out our wide selection of whiskey glasses at whiskeyglasses.ca. We have glasses and tumblers in a variety of sizes and styles to enhance your whiskey-drinking experience.