Drinking a dram of good scotch is an experience that doesn’t really need any translation. But whether or not you’re new to the category, you might encounter some unfamiliar terms. This guide will have you speaking scotch like a master blender in no time.
What Is Scotch Whisky?
Simply put, scotch is a type of whisky made in Scotland from a mash bill of water and malted barley or other grains. Scotch was distilled as early as the 15th century, when it was called uisge beatha, or “water of life.” But it wasn’t a protected spirit of Scotland until 1993, and its production parameters were strictly defined by the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009 (managed by the Scotch Whisky Association). These rules stipulate that scotch must be matured for a minimum of three years in oak barrels, it must be distilled below 94.8% ABV and bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV, and it may not have flavorings or sweeteners added.
How Is Scotch Whisky Made?
For malted Scotch whisky, barley is steeped in water and spread out on malting floors, then mashed. The malt is dried in a kiln, which halts germination; the kiln might be fired by peat during this process, which contributes a smoky flavor. The dried malt gets turned into a flour-like grist in a rolling mill; it’s then moved to a mash tun and mixed with hot water to kickstart a chemical reaction that creates fermentable sugars. The resulting sweet liquid, known as wort, is then cooled, filtered, and added to washbacks, or containers made of sturdy materials like wood and stainless steel. Yeast gets added to the washback and fermentation occurs, in which the living yeast produces alcohol. A beer-like liquid, called wash, is distilled twice in single-batch pot stills, then goes into oak casks, where the maturation process begins. To legally be called Scotch whisky, the liquid must be aged for a minimum of three years.
Grain whisky, which typically includes some malted barley, undergoes a similar process. The non-malted cereals used, most often wheat, are precooked and added to the mash bill. The mashing and fermentation processes are similar to those of malt whisky, but the liquid is distilled in a continuous or Coffey still. Most matured grain whisky is used for blending.
Types of Scotch Whisky
These are the five categories of scotch, as dictated by U.K. law.
Single malt whisky must be distilled at a single distillery with only water and malted barley, and it is made by batch distillation in copper pot stills. Considered the gold standard of Scotch whisky, this type accounts for just 10% of Scotch whisky production.
This type of scotch is distilled at a single distillery with water, whole grains of malted or unmalted cereals besides barley (most often wheat), and sometimes malted barley in continuous column stills. Single grain whisky is relatively uncommon; you’re more likely to find grain whisky in a blend.
Blended grain whiskies include single grain whiskies from multiple distilleries. In general, grain whiskies are less intense than malt whiskies.
Blended malt whisky comprises a mixture of single malt Scotch whiskies from various distilleries.
Blended scotch is the most common type of Scotch whisky: It accounts for 90% of globally exported scotch, and comprises a blend of single malt and single grain whiskies, with the exact components and proportions generally known only to the master blender.
These are other terms you’re likely to come across when you’re shopping, sipping, or saying slainté.
ABV, or alcohol by volume, is a measure of how much pure alcohol, or ethanol, is contained in a liquid. Scotch whisky must contain a minimum of 40% alcohol by volume.
The age statement tells how many years the whisky has spent in the barrel before bottling. Scotch whisky is aged for a minimum of three years. In the case of blended whiskies, the age statement must reflect the age of the youngest whisky used in the blend.
Angel’s share is the distillate that evaporates through the wood from the cask during maturation. The Customs & Excise Act allows for 2% of Scotch whisky to evaporate each year. As the whisky matures, the angel’s share decreases.
Casks are barrels used for aging alcohol that are often made of staved timber and closed metal hoops. Scotch whisky must be matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years.
Cask finishing refers to a whisky being transferred from one cask to another (oftentimes one that formerly held a different type of alcohol, frequently sherry) for a secondary, shorter period of maturation. For example, a whisky might be matured in new or used oak but finished in casks that formerly held oloroso sherry.
Cask-strength whisky is bottled at the proof from which it came out of the barrel. It hasn’t been diluted with water, meaning it has a higher proof than regular whiskies. Typically, cask-strength scotch will have an ABV of at least 55%.
Patented by Aeneas Coffey in 1860, a column or Coffey still consists of two stainless steel columns, which are capable of continuous distillation. Coffey stills, which are more efficient than single batch pot stills, are used for grain Scotch whiskies.
A cooper is a person who makes wooden casks, barrels, vats, and similar vessels from staved timber. Cooperage refers to the trade.
Fermentation creates alcohol, but distillation refers to the separation and removal of alcohol from a liquid made of one or two parts. Using single batch pot stills or continuous column stills, distillers convert alcohol into a vapor, then condense the vapor back into liquid form and add other ingredients in order to control the alcohol levels and taste of the final product.
A dram is a single serving of neat whisky. Although the National Measurement and Regulation Office in the U.K. requires bars to serve either a 25-milliliter (just under one fluid ounce) pour or a 35-millimeter (about 1 1/4 ounces) pour, the term is also used colloquially and really depends on who is doing the pouring—or drinking.
Oftentimes a distiller will transfer matured whisky from one cask to another, and the liquid is “finished” in the second cask for a shorter amount of time, imparting additional flavor. The second type of cask used could be a barrel that once held liquids including sherry, bourbon, or wine.
“First fill” refers to a cask used to age whisky that was once used to hold bourbon, port, sherry, wines, or other spirits. When the cask is filled with whisky a consecutive time, it is called a refill. A first-fill cask will impart more flavor into a distillate than a refill cask, and the cask will lose its influence with each refill.
The smallest of the Scotch whisky regions, the town of Campbeltown is known for distinctive whiskies that show smoky, oily, and briny notes influenced by the seaside location.
An expression is simply a different version of whisky from the same producer. Variations could include the age, distillation process, or barrel type.
Glenmorangie, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet… “Glen” is a common precursor to many Scotch whisky distillery names. In Gaelic, “glen” translates to “in the valley of,” and many Scotch distilleries use the name of the valley in which they’re produced. For example, Glenfiddich is “valley of the deer.”
A glencairn is a specific type of glass made for drinking scotch, which officially debuted in 2001. Creator Raymond Davidson designed it with similar characteristics to the copita, or a sherry nosing glass. It includes a wide crystal bowl that shows off the whisky’s color and a tapered mouth, which allows drinkers to experience concentrated notes on the nose.
Grist is a flour-like substance made by crushing dried malt in a rolling mill. Grist is combined with temperature-controlled water to create a fermentable substance that is turned into alcohol with the addition of yeast.
The Highlands cover the most geographical ground of all the Scotch whisky regions, and as such, the whisky produced in this region varies quite widely, from full-bodied and sweet Northern Highland whiskies to peaty Eastern Highland ones that often evoke Islay malts.
Nicknamed “Whisky Island,” this small island off the southern coast of Scotland is known for heavily-peated whiskies such as Laphroaig. Peat covers much of the land and is often used to fuel the fire in the malting process for single malts, resulting in smoky-flavored expressions.
A kiln is a vessel for drying malted barley using hot air. It is heated indirectly, sometimes by a peat-fueled fire.
Whiskies from the Lowlands region are typically characterized as soft and gentle, attributes that they owe to their distillation process. Like many Irish whiskeys, Lowland malt whiskies are often triple-distilled instead of double-distilled, resulting in lighter and softer expressions.
Barley is a type of cereal grain, similar to wheat or corn. Barley is malted when it is steeped in water and spread out on a malting floor; the grain germinates, or sprouts, before it is dried and heated. Many beers are also made with malted barley.
Small variations between casks mean that it’s impossible for every matured whisky to taste exactly the same. To ensure consistency of the product, producers will “marry” different single malt casks, creating a uniform flavor profile.
A mash bill is the composition of grains in a whisky. For example, single malt Scotch has a mash bill of 100% malted barley; a single grain whisky might have a mash bill of 60% wheat and 40% malted barley.
A mash tun is a vessel used in the malting process to mix ground malted barley, or grist, with temperature-controlled water. This process creates wort, a fermentable liquid.
This acronym stands for “no age statement,” and has become increasingly common in recent years. For a no age statement whisky, a producer will disclose no information on how long the liquid has matured. NAS whiskies are often controversial: While some point to a lack of transparency, others argue that age statements don’t always reflect the quality of the liquid inside the bottle, in part because a blended whisky’s age statement only reflects the age of the youngest whisky used.
Some drinkers use the words “peaty” and “smoky” interchangeably. The smoky flavor in a whisky comes not from the peat itself but from the process of firing a kiln with peat, the smoke of which imparts its flavor into the whisky. Some drinkers also discern a medicinal or iodine-like element to the flavors imparted by the peat smoke.
Peat is formed by the decomposition of organic material such as heather, mosses, and grasses, which turn into bogs that grow throughout Scotland and have long been used as an energy source in the country. A peated whisky is made when malted barley is smoked in a kiln using a fire fueled from peat, which imparts smoky flavors.
Typically made of copper, a pot still is a distillation vessel that is used on a batch-by-batch basis. The pot might be heated by a steam jacket lining the outside walls, a steam coil inside the pot, or a burner underneath the pot. All single malt whiskies are made in pot stills.
When peat fuels the kiln during the drying process, it releases phenols, which often give whisky a smoky character. An acronym for phenolic parts per million, the PPM determines the phenol content of a whisky after kilning. The higher the PPM, the peatier the whisky will taste. A heavily peated single malt has a PPM of around 40 to 50; the highest-PPM whisky made so far is Bruichladdich’s Octomore 8.3, with a PPM of 309.
Teaspooning is blending very small amounts of another distillery’s whisky into a single malt whisky cask. Although the single malt whisky remains virtually unchanged, it must legally be labeled as blended malt. Typically, producers will use this method as a workaround when they don’t want their distillery associated with the product they are selling to buyers. However, some brands have intentionally marketed their whiskies as teaspooned in recent years, such as The Balvenie, which adds a teaspoon of Glenfiddich to its Burnside expression.
Wash is the beer-like liquid that results when living yeast is added to wort, or a mix of dried malt and hot water.
A washback is the container in which wash, a beer-like liquid formed by a mix of wort and yeast, is created. It is typically made of sturdy materials like wood or stainless steel.
Whiskey vs. whisky
Most whiskey made in Ireland and the United States includes the “e.” Scotland (by law), Japan, Canada, and India omit the “e.” Although whisky is the older spelling, it’s believed Irish producers began adding an “e” in the 19th century to differentiate their product from the Scottish version, and this new spelling caught on elsewhere.
Wort is the sweet liquid that results from mixing dried malt and hot water, which kickstarts a chemical reaction that creates fermentable sugars.