What is Scotch?

Scotch glasses

‘Scotch’ might be a brand of sticky tape to some or the prefix of a popular picnic snack to others. To most, though, it means whisky of course. But what exactly defines it? What is it that makes whisky Scotch, and what else should you know? Here are nine Scotch FAQs.

Does it have to come from Scotland?

Yes. Just as Champagne has to be produced in the Champagne region of France to be labelled as such, Scotch whisky can only be produced in Scotland. But that’s only one stipulation of the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009, the legislation under which the production, bottling, labelling, packaging and advertising of Scotch whisky remains governed. Based on the Scotch Whisky Act of 1988, the Regulations make for interesting, although perhaps not bedtime, reading.

What do the Scots drink?

According to the 2017 Britain’s Biggest Alcohol Brands report, published by The Grocer, The Famous Grouse was the UK’s tenth biggest alcohol brand by off-trade value, and the only brand of Scotch whisky to make it into the report’s top ten. Although the report isn’t broken down by country, The Famous Grouse commands a significant presence in Scotland. Statistics aside, many enthusiasts will find it difficult to single out a favourite dram on account of the myriad of styles and flavours within the category.

How does it become peated?

In order to produce malted barley, maltsers must germinate green (fresh) barley and then quickly halt the process of germination. This is done in a kiln. In days gone by, the majority of barley was kilned over peat fires, peat being the most abundant and accessible source of fuel across the country. Alternative fuel sources eventually took the place of peat in kilns, but many producers today still rely on peated barley in varying proportions in their mashbills. Peated barley is known to result in tarry, smoky flavours within whisky. For more information about peated whisky, read our guide here.

Which should I start with?

The world’s favourite whisky boasts a glorious variety. While this offers lots of room for exploration, it can also be somewhat difficult to know where to start. To help you along, World Whisky Day Ambassador Aly Mathers has taken your favourite tipple – be it rum, beer or even mescal – and recommended a Scotch you’re likely to enjoy.

What are the whisky regions of Scotland?

There are no official Scotch whisky regions. However many people find it useful to apply some manner of geographical boundaries to differentiate what is produced throughout the country, particularly when new to the category. Ordinarily, these boundaries define five areas: Speyside, Islay, Campbeltown, Lowlands and Highlands and Islands (although Islands is often considered a region in its own right). It’s worth mentioning that the regional characteristics that helped define these regions are less exclusive than they were when the regions were established. Heavily peated whisky, for instance, doesn’t have to just come from Islay. That’s why some people are reluctant to apply geographical constraints when talking about whisky today.

What are the different categories of Scotch whisky?

The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 define five types of Scotch whisky. These are:

Single malt Scotch whisky which must be distilled at a single distillery.

Single grain Scotch whisky which is also distilled at a single distillery but made from cereal grains rather than just malted barley.

Blended Scotch whisky which combines one or more single malt Scotch whiskies with one or more single grain Scotch whiskies.

Blended malt Scotch whisky which is a blend of two or more single malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries.

Blended grain Scotch whisky which is a blend of single grain Scotch whiskies, which have been distilled at more than one distillery.

How many calories are there in Scotch whisky?

Clocking in at a mere 64 calories, a 25ml measure has fewer calories than a banana!

What is blended whisky?

The advent of blending was one of the most significant developments in the history of the spirit. It came about at a time when producers were keen to ensure consistency across their bottlings. Every cask of whisky matures in its own way; blending allows producers to effectively lessen any resulting differences and, through reliance on recipes, arrive at a consistent product. Blended whisky is still big business, accounting for 90 per cent of all Scotch whisky shipped across the world.

Does it go off?

In theory, no. If a bottle is sealed with a screw top (as is generally the case today), it is not possible for oxygen to come into contact with the whisky, thus preventing oxidation (the going-off process). Even in the case of older bottles sealed with corks, though, oxidation is minimal because of the high levels of ethanol, which absorbs oxygen in the first instance. Wine, with its lower ethanol content, is somewhat different. Some wines can benefit from oxidation in the bottle over time (and time to breathe prior to serving). Others are more suited to being kept light and fresh, and are thus closed with screw tops and not generally decanted. In conclusion, your sealed whisky will remain largely unchanged over the years. Once you’ve opened it, however, the process of oxidation begins. You’d generally want to finish a bottle within a year of opening, and two at the most – bearing in mind that the less whisky it contains, the quicker oxidation will take place.