What is Scotch?
What’s so special about Scotch? For one, it’s whisky spelled without the “e.” But that’s the tip of the tip of the very big iceberg. Fortunately, as varied as the world of Scotch whisky can be, and as intimidatingly unpronounceable as many distillery names seem, there are some unifying factors that underlie the whole grand thing.
Getting technical: Scotch can be made with other grains, but it must contain malted barley. Malted barley is really the defining grain of Scotch, as important to Scotch as peat (or as important as peat can be to a certain variety of Scotches, as we’ll see). Single malt Scotch is pot-distilled, which means the distillate will retain more of the flavorful congeners (carefully separated out from the bad stuff, of course, by a Master Distiller, likely with a great thick accent), but Scotch can also be column-distilled (more common when it’s a blend of pot-distilled Single Malt and column-distilled grain whiskies).
As for alcohol content: Scotch can only be distilled to 94.8% ABV, which is higher than bourbon. But, like bourbon, it has to be bottled at minimum 40% ABV—and, like bourbon, Scotch can be bottled at higher, hotter “Cask Strength,” where no water was added after aging to bring the ABV down (most Cask Strengths clock in in the 50 and 60% ABVs). Unlike bourbon—which has no aging minimums—Scotch has to age in oak casks (typically previously used oak casks) for at least 3 years. And while Single Malts are made by one distillery (that’s what the “single” refers to), many blended Scotches are actually made with malts gathered from various distilleries and combined by a Master Blender. Thus, cooperation is key to Scotch’s varied and burgeoning industry (Japanese whisky, made after the fashion of Scotch, goes a different route.)
Even with these underlying factors, variety abounds*, in part because Scotch is produced in a handful of distinct regions, with distilling traditions and environmental conditions that heavily influence the final flavor of the Scotch. One major factor you’ll notice immediately as you get into Scotch is whether it’s been peated—which is to say, whether the malted barley has been dried over a peat fire, resulting in a distinctive smoky, oily, even campfirey flavor (among others). Peat can act as a dividing line in Scotch appreciation: some like it, some don’t. Another factor that influences Scotch is what it was aged in. While bourbon can only be aged in new barrels, Scotch can be aged in previously used barrels—and, in fact, is often aged in those previously used bourbon barrels, as well as casks used for Sherry, Port, Madeira, wine, rum, brandy, and beyond. Scotch is even more historically fussed-over than bourbon (and with good reason), and by now many distillers will age their Scotches in one kind of barrel, and “finish” them (for briefer periods) in another. Basically, it’s an incredible refined, but still somehow profoundly rustic, party in your mouth.
Truly, Scotch could taste like anything from flowers to Christmas spiced fruitcake to—unused—Band-Aid to heather, honey, full-on Girl Scouts of America-sanctioned campfire, seaweed brine, walnuts, toffee, dried fruit, and, yes, malt. But very helpful in the world of Scotch navigation is a rough consistency in styles (at least as far as environment can influence them) from region to Scotch-producing region. Very roughly, with some single malt characteristics:
Highlands: A large geographical area, so large that characteristics vary depending on coastal influences (or a lack thereof); depending on where it’s made, you’ll find notes of salinity, spice, light smoke, fruit, florals, heather, honey, often with a dry finish. Dalmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenmorangie, Oban, Loch Lomond
Speyside: A subdivision of Highlands, but the distinctive—and most prolific—Scotch producing region there is; sometimes lightly peated, but more often sweeter (and/or Sherry-finished), with notes of honey, fruit, vanilla, spice, etc. Glenfiddich, The Balvenie, Glen Livet, The Macallan
Islands: Also a subdivision of Highlands, referring to a group of islands at the very northernmost tip of Scotland, including Skye, Jura, and Orkney. Although coastal and slightly saline, with aging notes of nuts, fruit, spice, et.c, not as aggressively peated as Islay. Highland Park, Arran, Talisker
Lowlands: Another large geographical area with rolling hills, generally unpeated Scotches, lighter-bodied, generally unpeated, delicate sweetness and light fruit. A very good beginner region. Auchentoshan, GlenkichieIslay: Pronounced Eee-luh. Known for strong maritime influence, with strong, saline Scotches that can go aggressively peaty but can also express medicinal, iodine, and maritime flavors (in addition to character from malt and wood-aging). Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Laphroaig, LagavulinCampbeltown: Not a region you’re as likely to encounter, as only a few distilleries still operate there, although they all produce distinctive Single Malts. Glen Scotia, Longrow, Kilkerran