A Guide to Scotch Whisky

Scotch Whisky Edinburgh Food Tour

A Guide to Scotch Whisky

When was Scotch whisky first made?

The truth is, we don’t know for certain; it may have been made by Christian monks, or farmers may have figured it out. However, the first written record of it dates from 1494, in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls. That’s right, we have over 500 years of experience distilling whisky! These early records actually refer to ‘aqua vitae’, which is Latin for ‘water of life’ – yes, that’s how important whisky is to us! In the Scottish Gaelic language, this translates to ‘uisge beatha’, and that first word was eventually Anglicised to ‘whisky’.

How is Scotch whisky made?

Now, whisky production is an art, so the exact process varies for each distillery, but here’s the basics. Barley grains are steeped in water, spread out to germinate for about a week, then put in a kiln to dry out. This dried malt is ground up and mixed with hot water to convert the starches into sugar, creating mash. The mixture is cooled and yeast is added, which feeds on the sugars to create alcohol – this is fermentation. After about two days, you have a liquid called wash, which contains 6-8% alcohol.

Obviously, that’s a lot lower than we want, so the wash gets batch distilled twice in a pot still, to increase it to around 60%. The whisky then matures in oak barrels for several years, which will have previously contained whisky, bourbon or sherry, to give it its flavour and colour. During that time, 2% of the whisky can evaporate each year, which is known as the ‘Angel’s Share’.

How is Scotch different to other whiskies?

Officially, any spirit distilled from grains is a whiskey, so Scotland isn’t the only country to produce it. To be officially a Scotch whisky (always spelled without the ‘e’), it has to be made in Scotland, and mature in pre-used oak casks for at least 3 years. Most stay in the casks for much longer though, and bottles have an age statement (12 year, 21 year etc) to indicate this. Scotches are usually amber coloured, and smooth in taste, sometimes smokey as well.

American whiskey is either bourbon, made from corn and charcoal filtered; or rye whiskey, made from both corn and rye. These are grain whiskies, distilled just once in column stills, and matured in new barrels – this process is faster and more economical than the Scotch process. These can be a little harsher and have more ‘heat’. Irish whiskey uses various grains, and is triple distilled in pot stills, resulting in a sweeter flavour and golden colour. There’s also Canadian whiskey, which uses corn, sometimes with rye; and Japanese, which uses barley and is most similar to Scotch.

What is the difference between single malt and blended, and which is better?

‘Single’ is a slightly deceptive name, as simply means the whisky was made at a single whisky distillery – though it can, in fact, contain a blend of whiskies from within that distillery. The age statement on these bottles then is the youngest whisky in the mix. A single malt is made with only malted barley, while a single grain Scotch whisky uses one or more other varieties of grain (produced as the American whiskies above). Blended whiskies then, are sourced from multiple distilleries; a blend can contain just malts, just grains, or both. A master blender takes care of this, as it’s not an easy task to get the balance just right!

Some people argue single malt Scotch whisky is better and higher quality (and comes with a higher price tag!) but blended whiskies sell the most worldwide. Single malts tend to have more distinct, earthy flavours, while blends are more neutral and not as strong. Really, it all comes down to personal preference!

What are the different varieties of Scotch whisky?

With over 100 active Scotch whisky distilleries in the country, producing thousands of varieties of whisky between them, there’s plenty to choose from! However, they are broadly divided into geographical regions, with different flavour profiles:

Highlands – variety of flavours, often smooth, sweet, dry, fruity, West Highlands more smokey

Lowlands – light, soft, dry, floral

Speyside – light, sweet, honeyed, nutty

Islay – smokey, peaty, pungent

Islands – variety of flavours, can be rich, smokey, fruity or briny

Campeltown – dry, gentle smoke, briny

What are the best Scotch whisky brands?

The definition of ‘best’ varies for everyone, but here are a few suggestions. For blended whiskies, some of the most popular Scotch whisky brands include Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, Monkey Shoulder, Ballantine’s, Bell’s, and The Famous Grouse. Blended whiskies are often a good introduction for those new to the world of whisky, and more affordable than the single malts.

When it comes to the best single malt Scotch whiskies, we’ve listed a few from each of the regions:

Highland – Glenmorangie, Dalwhinnie, Old Pulteney

Lowland – Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie, Linlithgow

Speyside – Macallan, Balvenie, Aberlour, Glenfiddich

Islay – Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain

Islands – Talisker, Highland Park, Jura

Campeltown – Springbank, Glengyle, Glen Scotia

What is the best way to drink Scotch whisky?

We talk about drinking whisky as a ‘dram’, which is a single measure of the spirit. You can drink it ‘neat’, on its own; ‘on the rocks’, with ice; or with some cold water. Ice or water can take out some of the heat and harshness, and open up the flavours. There’s no ‘right way’ to drink it, it’s all personal preference. And while less well-known perhaps, there are also plenty of Scotch whisky cocktail recipes available!

Where can I try Scotch whisky in Edinburgh?

In almost every pub in the city, of which there are over 700! A good option is to look for a ‘flight’ of whisky, which is a tray of four different kinds, so you can taste test several. Some of our pub recommendations include Whiski Rooms (North Bank Street), The Bow Bar (Victoria Street), Usquabae (Hope Street), Arcade (Cockburn Street), The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (The Vaults, Leith), and Teuchter’s Landing (The Shore, Leith). The Scotch Whisky Experience is also a popular attraction, which has an interactive exhibit on the history of whisky, and a restaurant, bar, and shop. And of course, we made sure that The Orange Food Tour finishes up with a dram of single malt whisky!

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