Scotch Whisky 101

Everything you need to know about Scotland's great export

willie-lafiteby willie-lafite

Fine Scotch whisky can be confusing and intimidating, considering the best bottles will run you well over $50. Most people don’t even spell it right. (It’s only whiskey with an “e” when it’s made here in the United States or in Ireland.) As the manliest of boozes, being fully versed in how Scotch is made and where it comes from is an impressive trick, and even more important to know when shopping for pricey Scotch at the liquor store.

Scotch comes from either malt alone or malt and grain, and the most common ones you’ll see on store shelves are single malt (made entirely from malted barley whisky from one distillery) and blended whisky (made from both malt and grain whiskies made at more than one distillery). There is also the uncommon single grain whisky (multiple grains such as barley, wheat and rye, made at a single distillery) and blended malt whisky (a blend of only barley malts from more than one distillery).

From Barley to Barrel to Bottle

A malt is made by soaking barley in water until it starts to germinate, and then drying it. Malting is also the stage at which distillers may add smoke from burning peat moss to give the Scotch a richer, smoky flavor. Then comes the mash, when the malt is ground up (this is when other grains may be added as well). In the mash stage, the barley enzymes convert to sugar, then yeast converts the sugar to alcohol (and that’s how beer is made, technically). That beer-strength mix is then distilled to give the whisky its strength. After multiple distillations, the mix can reach as high as 95 percent alcohol. The whisky is then diluted and aged in oak casks (giant barrels of varying size and origin from distiller to distiller) for at least three years (and much longer for the high-end stuff) and then filtered and bottled. The final product tends to be around 40 to 45 percent alcohol. Now you know how to make it, but where in Scotland does it come from? Read on, dear drinker.

Where’s My Scotch? Islay, Campbeltown and Lowland Regions

There are five recognized regions for Scotch production in Scotland, plus the unrecognized “Islands,” which are just that: Scotland’s islands, not including the island of Islay, which is its own region for Scotch production. There is one officially unrecognized Scotch-producing island of particular importance, however: Orkney, off the northern coast, home to the highly prized Highland Park distillery as well as the newly popular Scapa.

The island of Islay is located off Scotland’s southwest coast and is home to less than 10 recognized distillers. The southern portion of the island is home to very peaty, distinct Scotches, the most important of them here in the U.S. being Laphroaig.

Campbeltown, the southwest Kintyre peninsular extension of the Highland, was once one of Scotland’s most important Scotch-producing regions, but it’s now home to just three distilleries, one of them being the family-owned Springbank, known for its single malts.

The Lowland region of Scotland has lost most of its distilling traditions, with just three distilleries remaining there as well.

Speyside and the Highland

Scotland’s largest Scotch-making region geographically is the Highland, and its distillers are spread far and wide, with different styles coming from its numerous Scotches. Popular Highland Scotches include Dalwhinnie, Glenmorangie and Oban. But Scotland’s most important region for Scotch is indisputably Speyside, which lies on the northeast coast of Scotland, surrounded on all sides by the Highland. Top names in Speyside include The Macallan, The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich and Balvenie, and styles range from light and floral to dark, smoky and raisined. Now you know. And knowing is half the battle. (The other half is keeping your wits about you while drinking straight, 90-proof Scotch whisky.)