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A guide to Scottish whisky

Whisky casks stockpiled outside a Scottish distillery
Whisky is one of Scotland’s greatest exports, with around 41 bottles of Scotch being shipped around the world every second. The story of our national drink dates back more than 500 years, and involves smuggling, secret distilleries, and a very famous tax collector ...

A brief history of Scotch

The earliest written record of whisky distillation in Scotland dates from 1494, with an entry in the Exchequer Rolls that reads: ‘Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.’ Aqua vitae is Latin for ‘water of life’, which in Scots Gaelic translates as uisge beatha. At some point, possibly over centuries, uisge became the modern word whisky.

Historically, farmers would distil their surplus grain at the end of the harvest season – Friar John’s eight bolls was enough malted barley to produce around 1,500 bottles of potent spirit. By the mid-17th century the popularity of whisky had caught the eye of parliament, who sought to benefit from the booming market and introduced the first taxes on Scotch in 1644.

However, such taxes soon led to a flurry of illicit whisky distilling across Scotland, and smuggling became common practice for the next 150 years. The game of cat and mouse between the excisemen and the secret distillers led to some ingenious strategies, with even honest members of the clergy hiding their Scotch under the pulpit to avoid the taxman.

One such taxman was none other than our national bard, Robert Burns, who trained as an exciseman in the 18th century before making his name as poet. His love of Scotch is well documented, especially by Burns himself – in 1785 he wrote his ode to whisky, Scotch Drink, which tells of the warmth and friendly welcome that good spirits can bring. On Burns Night it’s traditional to accompany the haggis with a few drams of his favourite drink.

In 1823 the Excise Act was passed, which allowed people to legally distil whisky in exchange for a licence fee and a payment per gallon. This effectively killed the illicit trade, and beckoned in the modern era that saw the introduction of grain whisky and blended whisky. Later on in the 19th century, producers like Johnnie Walker and Tommy Dewar started shipping their spirits all over the globe, paving the way for today’s multi-billion pound industry.

How Scotch whisky is made

Detail of inside mash tun while making Scottish whisky

Single malt whisky is made from three basic ingredients: water, malted barley and yeast. The water and barley are mashed together first, and then the yeast is added to create alcohol. By law, Scotch whisky then has to be distilled and matured in Scotland in oak casks for at least three years.

Here’s a fun fact: when whisky comes out of the still it’s as clear as water. It takes on the beautiful golden colour we’re so used to from the casks in which it’s matured.

Types of whisky

There are three types of Scottish whisky – single malt, single grain and blended. Single malt is made using malted barley. Single grain is typically made from corn with a bit of malted barley. And blended whiskies are made by combining the other two.

Interestingly, blended whiskies are often named after their founders, for instance Johnnie Walker or Bell’s, whereas many single malt whiskies take their name from the distillery in which they were made, like Balvenie, Laphroaig and Glenfiddich (which means Valley of the Deer). There are other whiskies that are related to Scotch, including Irish whiskey, Kentucky straight bourbon and rye, but the unique flavour and bouquet that our whisky gets from the natural elements of water, peat and the Scottish climate is mysterious and not easily imitated.

Culloden Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Schiltron Single Malt Whisky

Whisky regions

Whisky barrels in Scottish traditional distillery Dalmore

There are five recognised Scottish whisky regions – Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown – and each is known for producing Scotch with different characteristics, due to the natural conditions of the region.

Speyside is the most densely populated whisky region in the world. It’s home to the River Spey and fertile glens, and the distilleries there are famous for producing whiskies that are low on peat, but full of fruit, and they’re commonly matured in casks that were previously used to make sherry. Lowland whiskies are known for being soft and smooth, with a gentle flavour that makes them perfect for pre-dinner drinks, while Islay tends to produce fiery, heavily peated whiskies that leave a smoky taste on the tongue. Both Campbeltown and Highland whiskies are recognised for being quite varied. The Highland region in particular covers such a large area that it produces both light fresh whiskies and salty coastal malts.

That being said, there are all kinds of whiskies being produced in every region, with peaty malts now arriving from Speyside and smooth-drinking Scotch from Islay. The best thing to do to get to know them better is to practise using your palette and your nose to sniff out the flavours you like best.