The Beginner’s Guide to Scotch Whisky

Inka Larissa sipping scotch whisky

Too often I hear someone say they’re interested in getting into scotch whisky but find the whole category intimidating. There are too many things you need to take into consideration or just a lot of choice to know where to start. With this guide to scotch whisky I wanted to cover some basics to help you to feel more comfortable when scanning through a whisky list or trying to understand what is said on the label.

You should never feel embarrassed to ask the bartender for their advice and recommendations. The perception around whisky has changed and it is not limited to a certain group of people. It is very likely the bartender has a strong enthusiasm over the category and would love to help a novice to find the best dram for their taste. In my experience, asking for advice and talking about whisky will not only widen your knowledge but spark your interest even more.

Are you ready to start your whisky journey?

The production

Scotch whisky is made with three ingredients: water, yeast and cereals, and there are five stages in the production process: malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation.

To be called scotch, the spirit must be distilled and matured in Scotland for at least three years and bottled at a minimum 40% ABV.

I don’t want to go into too much detail right at the beginning and put you off from reading the rest of the article. If you are interested in the step-by-step production of scotch whisky, you can find more details in my previous articles, Whisky Production in Pictures and Whisky in the Making.

scotch whisky stills at Lindores Abbey

Scotch whisky definitions

Single Malt Scotch Whisky – Distilled at a single distillery from water, yeast and malted barley. It is made according to a traditional batch process using copper pot stills.

Single Grain Scotch Whisky – Distilled at a single distillery from other grains (such as wheat or corn) with or without malted barley. It goes through a continuous distillation process (also known as patent still distillation). Single Grain Scotch is rarely sold on its own and is mainly used for blends.

Blended Scotch Whisky – A blend of one or more Single Malt Scotch Whiskies and one or more Single Grain Whiskies. This category is the most sold around the world, making up over 90% of the scotch whisky sales worldwide.

Blended Grain Scotch Whisky – A blend of Single Grain Scotch Whiskies from different distilleries. Distilled using the continuous distillation process.

Blended Malt Scotch Whisky – A blend of Single Malt Scotch Whiskies from more than one distillery.

Scotch whisky regions

Scotland can be divided into six different whisky regions: Speyside, Lowlands, Highlands, Islands, Campbeltown and Islay; however, Islands is often considered to be part of Highlands instead of its own region. Each region has a unique flavour profile, although, as always, there are exceptions to every rule. It is also good to remember these are simply guidelines, not regulations. Scotch whisky producers are experimenting more and more with various casks and methods, therefore the region-specific styles are getting less obvious.

Speyside – Accounts for over 60% of Scotland’s single malt whisky production. Speyside is a sub-region of the Highlands. Most Speyside whiskies have been matured in ex-sherry casks.

Flavour profile: sweet, fruity, spicy, vanilla, full-bodied

Highlands – Largest of the whisky regions, covering a wide range of flavour profiles.

Flavour profile: malty, fruity, sweet, spicy, salty, slightly peaty, grassy

Islands – As mentioned above, Islands is often included in the Highlands rather than as its own region. I find it easier to separate the two as the area would otherwise be even bigger with a huge range of styles. Each island has its own flavour profile.

Flavour profile: peated, salty, oily, spicy, sweet

Campbeltown – The region used to be busy with over 30 distilleries, but today they have only three: Glen Scotia (light & grassy), Springbank (strong & peaty) and Glengyle (salt & citrus).

Flavour profile: peaty, sweet, fruity, salty, grassy

Lowlands – The region produces a lot of grain and blended whisky. The whiskies are often lighter in character; however, the area is growing in whisky production and flavours are expected to expand. The Glasgow Distillery Company, for example, recently released a peaty single malt.

Flavour profile: unpeated, citrusy, light, floral, grassy, sweet

Islay – Scotch coming from Islay is considered to have the strongest flavour profile. Most Islay whiskies are heavy on the peat. These whiskies are often described as having a medicinal and salty flavour. An acquired taste, so might not be the best one to start with. Try Bunnahabhain, for example, for non-peaty and fruitier dram.

Flavour profile: peaty, salty, oily, fishy

laphroaig distillery
Isle of Arran

Cask influence

The type of wood used, age, size and the previous liquid in the cask all contribute to the final product. It is said that 60–80% of the taste comes from the cask.

Most whisky casks are made from either American white oak or European oak. American oak gives a softer, sweeter taste with notes of vanilla and caramel, while European oak is spicier and has a stronger wood input. The bigger the cask, the longer it takes the liquid inside to mature.

All casks are toasted but not necessarily charred. Toasting will caramelise the wood sugars. This process brings those nice vanilla and caramel notes from American oak and releases more tannins and spices from European oak. The spirit inside then soaks in these flavours.

In Scotland, the same cask can be used for years and years, although it is uncommon for a cask to be refilled more than three times. So obviously, after the first fill you will have a second fill, which averages around eight to twelve years, and, confusingly, the third and final fill is known as the refill. After the third fill, the inside of the cask may be shaved to show new wood before re-toasting and charring.

scotch whisky warehouse

Before being used for scotch whisky, the cask may have had bourbon, various types of sherry, port, wine, rum, tequila or cognac in it. The previous liquid would have affected the cask and therefore will contribute to the flavours of the final spirit. The master blender may use a range of the same casks, for example different fills of ex-bourbon, or mix and match a variety of casks to create a perfectly balanced whisky.

The cask’s location will also have an impact. If the warehouse is next to the sea, on an island or in the middle of the Highlands, then the air quality, temperature and humidity will be different and will influence the end product. Also, its place in the warehouse will contribute based on the light and temperature it is exposed to. A higher temperature will increase the angel’s share, the natural evaporation, and speed up the maturation time. When the temperature is high the oak’s pores will open up, allowing the liquid to interact more with the wood. During each year of maturation, the angel’s share is about 2%.

When it comes to the influence of the cask, there are many factors that contribute to the final flavours and aroma. You can find a more detailed explanation in my previous article Types of Casks and How They Influence Whisky.

scotch whisky barrels in Islay

How to drink it

Whisky is best served neat, sometimes with a drop of water to bring out the flavours. I recommend you first try it neat and then decide whether it needs a little water (we are literally talking about a drop or two), rather than assuming it is always best to add water. Keep whisky at room temperature as cold suppresses the flavour notes. This is also the reason you should not use ice with scotch whisky. Ice will both make your drink too cold and, as it melts, it will keep diluting the whisky more and more. That way your drink will not stay consistent but will change from ice-cold to watery – both can ruin the flavours. It takes years to make whisky, so let’s give it the appreciation it deserves.

I recommend you try to take part in tastings or purchase whisky tasting packs as this way you get to try a range of whiskies and learn more about the special nuances of each dram. Especially when you are a newbie to whisky, tastings will offer advice and information on each bottling and you have the chance to find the style(s) that best work for your taste buds. There is a huge range of whiskies with unique flavour profiles so don’t feel defeated if you don’t get into it straight away; you just haven’t found the ones that work for you. Also, as your taste for whisky develops, you may find that the ones you didn’t used to like are now becoming solid favourites.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has kindly offered a membership discount code for my lovely readers – you can get 15% off the membership (normally £65 a year) with the code INKA15. Valid until 27th June 2020 and across the EU and the UK.

A great way to explore the world of single malt scotch whisky. It also makes a wonderful gift for any whisky enthusiast. The Society is currently offering a range of virtual tastings through their social media channels to make sure you can still share whisky in good company, even in this period of social distancing. You can read more about the SMWS here.

Inka Larissa drinking scotch

Fun whisky facts

There are currently 133 operating scotch whisky distilleries in Scotland.

Two million people visit the scotch whisky distilleries each year.

There are currently around 20 million casks of whisky maturing in warehouses in Scotland.

The first ever scotch whisky distillery opened by a woman was only in 2017!

What is holding you back from getting into scotch whisky? What is the most recent whisky you tried?

scotch malt whisky society tasting

*Some of the links used are affiliate links. If you buy through the links, I may receive a commission for the sale. This has no effect on the price for you.

**This article is NOT sponsored by the SMWS, I simply asked if they would like to offer a code as I am a huge fan and would love to encourage other whisky lovers to connect with them.

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