What is Scotch? The history and FAQs.

19/11/2020
Updated: 24/12/2020
4 mins read
What is Scotch? The history and FAQs.

Scotch. Not to be confused with a brand of sticky tape or the protective covering for your couch.

We are, of course, talking about the delicious alcoholic beverage. 

But what exactly is Scotch? How does it differ from other types of whiskey? That is what we are going to take a look at in this article.

Where does Scotch come from?

If you had not already guessed, Scotch comes from Scotland. If it does not come from Scotland, well, it just isn’t Scotch! 

Scotch with lemon and ice

In the same way, champagne can only be called champagne if it comes from a particular region in France and Melton Mowbray Pork Pies have to be made in Melton Mowbray. The Scotch whiskey Act of 1988 also specifies that the whiskey has to be made in Scotland to be called Scotch, but various other guidelines have to be followed. 

You can find out the full details of the Scotch whiskey Act by clicking here

What is Scotch made from?

In a single malt Scotch whiskey, there are just three ingredients: malted barley, water, and yeast. 

It is then distilled and matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years. This incredibly simple ingredient list combined with the fundamental processes makes Scotch whiskey so pure and distinctive in its flavor.

Even before sourcing locally was a trend, distilleries used ingredients grown close to home for logistical and availability reasons. Scotland's climate is well suited to growing barley, so it is the base of a single malt Scotch whiskey. 

Man pouring scotch on glass

Distilleries of single malt Scotch whiskey look for barley grains with low nitrogen content, large grain size, the potential for good enzymes, and the ability to germinate intensively. High starch content is also needed. Barley that is high in nitrogen is used for grain whiskies or as animal feed.

What are the different types of Scotch whiskey?

Like most alcoholic beverages, there are various categories of Scotch whiskey. The Scotch whiskey Act defines these as the following:

  • Single malt Scotch whiskey: This must be distilled at a single distillery
  • Single grain Scotch whiskey: Like the single malt, this must be distilled at a single distillery but is made from cereal grains as well as malted barley
  • Blended Scotch whiskey: This version is a blend or more single malt Scotch whiskies and one or more single grain Scotch whiskies
  • Blended malt Scotch whiskey: This combines two or more single malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries
  • Blended grain Scotch whiskey: Finally, this is a combination of single grain Scotch whiskies which have been distilled at various distilleries. 

How can you tell if a Scotch has been peated, and how do they do it?

Once you start drinking Scotch, something you will be able to tell straight away is whether it has been peated or not.

Peating is a decisive element when it comes to connoisseurs of Scotch; some like it, some do not. 

Scotch on glass with ice

When we talk about peating, we are talking about the process of drying the malted barley over a peat fire. This process gives the barley a distinctive flavor. Imagine a deep, smoky flavor, somewhat reminiscent of campfires and barbecues. This method of drying out the malted barley happens because to produce malted barley; fresh green barley needs to be germinated.

Following this,  the process needs to halt as quickly as possible. Distillers use a kiln for this, and in the past, peat was the cheapest, most accessible, and most abundant source of fuel in the country, which is where the taste comes from. Eventually, alternative fuel sources took over peat, but some producers of Scotch whiskey still use peated barley in varying amounts.

Does the aging process continue after the Scotch has been bottled?

Unlike wine and other spirits, the maturation process of Scotch whiskey only takes place in the barrels. Once bottled, the process stops, and the aroma, flavor, and coloring are preserved at that time. If a Scotch was matured for five years in the barrel (remember, it is a minimum of three years for it to count as Scotch) and then left on the shelf in a bottle for ten years, it is still only five years matured. 

What type of barrels are used to mature Scotch whiskey?

When it comes to Scotch whiskey, barrel aging is essential. 

When whiskey comes from the still, like all spirits, it is pure and colorless. As with many of its aromas and flavors, much of the natural color found in whiskey comes from the barrel. 

Originally, most barrels used for aging Scotch whiskey were used in the United States to mature Bourbon. 

Scotch on glasses

Although Bourbon is typically aged in new oak barrels, Scotch whiskey is almost always aged in used barrels. It is a perfect, mutually beneficial arrangement between the manufacturers of Bourbon and Scotch whiskey.

 Other types of barrels are also used, with the second most common type of barrel being former Sherry barrels, followed by old rum barrels, which add to the flavors making each brand of Scotch have its own very individual taste. 

Concerning the former use of an oak barrel, there are no rules. Here is some more information about the different types of whiskey barrels. 

Which spelling is correct: whisky or whiskey?

A question that puzzles people the world over; both are correct, depending on where you are. There is an E - 'whiskey' in Ireland and the USA, and in Scotland (where Scotch is made!) and Canada, there isn’t - ‘whisky’.

Some fun facts about Scotch

  • Scotch whiskey contributes nearly £5 billion a year to the UK economy.
  • Scotch whiskey contributes nearly £5 billion a year to the UK economy.
  • Scotch exports earned £156 every second in 2019.
  • The average measure of whiskey contains just 64 calories – fewer than a banana.

Ashleigh Cain

Ashleigh is a key part of the editorial team at Whiskey Rocks. You'll often find her either writing educational articles or reviewing the latest artisan whiskeys. Her favorite drink? Ashleigh loves smokey scotches like Laphroaig, but you'll also often find her with an old fashioned in hand.

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