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World of scotch

The Scots created a world of whisky, but they left out the roadmap. Let’s hit the trail and find the right scotch for you. BYOBagpipe.

October 27, 2020

The Scots created a world of whisky, but they left out the roadmap. Let’s hit the trail and find the right scotch for you. BYOBagpipe.

Here's the deal with scotch whisky

What makes scotch “scotch”?

Two big rules to scotch whisky. The first is that scotch has to be made and aged in Scotland, believe it or not. The second big rule is that it must mature in oak casks [in Scotland] for at least three years. These are the non-negotiables.

What kinds of Scotch are there?

Two. “Single malt” scotch comes solely from malted barley fermentation and distillation in lovely pot stills in a single distillery. “Blended” scotch incorporates whiskies from several Scottish sources and may contain other grains like wheat or rye. Single malts bring structure, fantastic intensity and a real feeling of history/atmosphere. The more laid-back blends tend to be smoother, fruitier, and sweeter like bourbon.

How is scotch different from bourbon?

Scotch is primarily a malted barley product aged in second-use barrels (recycle!). Bourbon out of the United States must be at least 51% corn - an American favorite - and mature in new, charred oak.

What kinds of barrels do they use for scotch whisky?

Distillers use all kinds of oak casks. American ex-bourbon casks are favorites for their vanilla toastiness. Many whiskies age in old sherry, madeira or port casks, all of which can add vinous flavors like dried fruit, chocolate and spice. Some start with American oak and then “finish” in sherry or cognac casks to get the best of both hemispheres.

Is all scotch smoky/peaty?

Nope. Peat is an historically abundant fuel source in Scotland, and it’s great at drying malted barley. Peat smoke naturally imbues the barley with flavorful phenols that some love and some hate. Many famous distilleries like The Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Glenfiddich, and Macallan use “unpeated” malt, but many still use at least some peated malt because drinkers love it so. Part of your whisky journey will be deciding if you like peat, and if so, how much?

What does scotch whisky taste like?

Scotch has a ridiculous range of flavors. It can be fruity and delicate, sweet like honey, comfortably malty, or smokier than a campfire. Great distillers can meld all those flavors into something truly ethereal.

Where do I begin with scotch whisky?

Out here on the edge of Europe, where the North Sea whips the coast and rain rarely falls vertically, the Scots have over 120 distilleries to warm bones and start conversations. Where do you start? Do you like malty, fruity, floral or smoky whisky? Light or full-bodied? We know it’s hard to order 120 different bottles of scotch, so let’s start with one or two and get your journey off on the right foot.
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  • Scotch Whisky Regions

    What are the different scotch whisky Regions?

    The “Scotch whisky regulations 2009” names 5 areas: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Campbeltown, and Islay.

    Are the scotch whisky regions really that different in flavor?

    There are certainly some differences, but there aren’t any laws requiring distillers to make their whisky in a certain style. The climate where the whisky ages plays a role in the finished product - think salt spray, seaweed and other maritime flavor. However, it’s not as important as the “terroir” is for wine. Regional character for scotch developed more through habit: distilleries found a winning process and stuck with it. We’ll make some wild regional generalizations here, but there will always be exceptions.

    What is Lowland scotch whisky like?

    Lowland malts tend to be delicately fruity and citrusy with less smoke than other regions. If you’re just wading into scotch’s waters, these bright, crisp whiskies might be your speed. Some Lowland distilleries that embody this style are Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie, just outside of mighty Edinburgh.

    What does Highland scotch whisky taste like?

    Highland whiskies vary like the rugged mountain weather, resulting in the widest flavor range of any region. You can start with the crowd-pleasing Glenmorangie, a lighter Highland whisky with notes of nuttiness and vanilla from its American oak cask aging. The Southern Highlands focus on malt showcases like Deanston. Aged in both sherry and bourbon casks, Glengoyne (another Southerner) is medium-bodied, wonderfully balancing both fruit and malt character. Decadent Dalwhinnie 15 is thick with honey notes and the viscosity of a supercharged, slightly smoky mead. Oban 14 has a distinct “maritime” feel of seaweed and salt, while still managing to be sweet and pleasantly smoky. It’s a fool’s errand to try to pin down the Highland style, but you should have no problem finding something in your wheelhouse.

    What does Speyside whisky taste like?

    Speysides typify some of the most enticing fruit flavors in scotch, but each fruit profile is different. Iconic Speysider The Glenlivet 12 Year is surprisingly tropical with balanced sweetness and American oak vanilla character lingering in the background. Glenfiddich is splendidly light, drinkable, and fruity. Contrast those with Macallan 12 aged in sherry casks, where you’ll get deep, dark flavors of figs, sherry and chocolate.

    What does Islay scotch taste like?

    Islay is a sparsely populated island in western Scotland that’s renowned for its peaty, smoky single malts. Some swear by it and others never quite acquire a taste for it. Many Islays are pretty darn smoky, but they’re rarely one-note. Ardbeg’s definitely up there as far as jaw-rattling peaty flavor goes, but it also has notes of sea spray, seaweed and licorice. 16 year-old Lagavulin is indeed smoky but suspiciously complex: it’s fruity, rich, and has hints of the maritime environment where it ages.

    What does Campbeltown whisky taste like?

    There are only three distilleries in little Campbeltown. They tend to be at once sweet, smoky, meaty and seductively slick. A 15 year-old Springbank typifies this Campbeltown character.

    Good scotch

    Is single malt scotch really better than blended?

    Single malts are usually the most flavorful, sought-after and priciest scotch whiskies. Don’t dismiss blended scotch, though. The freedom to blend different whiskies allows for greater variety and flavor possibilities. Blends also tend to be cheaper so you can play “mad mixologist” with lower stakes. They make great cocktails, but some of them are actually among the world’s most renowned beverages: think Johnnie Walker Blue.

    What’s the best, affordable single malt scotch?

    The Glenlivet 12 year-old is affordable but legit. It’s delicate and approachable, but has wonderfully complex fruity flavors, so it agrees with newbies and connoisseurs alike. Glenmorangie excels at a similar game, but it’s a bit nuttier and maltier. Pick your favorite! If you want a smoky Islay to challenge your palate,  Laphroaig’s 10 year old offering will give you plenty to think about. Talisker is a bit pricier, but has a better balance of smoke, fruit, and maritime character.

    What’s a good scotch for a gift?

    For red wine drinking friends, sherry-aged Macallan is a strong choice, thanks to its wine-like character. For a Bourbon drinker, the sweetness of a 14 year-old Glenfiddich might do the trick. For someone who’s trying to get into peated whiskies, the gift of Lagavulin 16 might just make you a legend, mate.

    Drinking Scotch

    How do you drink single malt scotch?

    We generally drink single malts straight; it’s special stuff and you deserve to enjoy it unadulterated. A few drops of water helps unlock the flavor, but you can drink it on the rocks if you insist. Glencairn whisky glassware is key for focusing aromas.

    Scotch and cocktails

    What’s in a scotch and soda?

    Take scotch out of the pub and onto the patio with a scotch and soda. Grab 2 ounces of blended scotch and top it off to taste with soda water over ice. Blasta!

    Scotch cocktails

    Blended scotch is a versatile mixer. Mix it with lemon juice over ice for a “Scotch sour”, or the appropriately-named “Rob Roy”, which combines scotch, vermouth and bitters. You can use single malt in a cocktail like an old fashioned, but be sparing so you don’t lose that great flavor.

    You look about ready to close the computer, pull a cork and pour a dram. So jump onto our search page and find a bonny scotch with Drizly.