The Scotch Whisky Guide

The Scotch Whisky Guide

When I was asked to write a guide on Scotch whisky, it was as if the skies opened and the angels sang. For many years, Scotland has produced some of the finest whiskies the world has ever seen. As such, I have come to not only appreciate the complexity and intricacies of a fine bottle of Scotch, but I’ve developed an adoration, nay, an obsession with Scotch whisky and its continual pursuit of perfection. It is my distinct privilege to have the opportunity to share my love of Scotch with you in this primer that will focus primarily on the world’s most beloved single malt Scotch whiskies.

Scotland

Scotland

The History of Scotch Whisky

The first written mention of Scotch was found scribed on June 1st, 1495 in Volume X on page 487 of the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland where it reads “To Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae VIII bolls of malt”. The Exchequer Rolls were records of all royal income and expenses. In this particular entry, it documents that Cor was given eight bolls of malt to make aqua vitae throughout the months of 1494. What this shows is that despite being the earliest written reference, distillation was well under way come the fifteenth century. If we only take into account the eight bolls given to Cor in 1494, we can estimate that 1500 bottles of whisky were produced that year. Evolving from a Scottish drink called uisge beatha (meaning “water of life”), whisky began to circulate throughout the country, causing policymakers to begin taxing it come the year 1644. Unfortunately, despite the government’s attempt to regulate and draw income from such a popular drink, distillers began to sell it illegally and sales flourished across Scotland. By 1780 there were eight legal distilleries in all of Scotland competing against more than four hundred bootleg operations. By 1823 Parliament realized that in order for the legal producers to be able to compete with the pirates, they would have to ease restrictions and this decision is what gave birth to the famous ‘excise act’.

The popularity of whisky swelled again in 1831 with the invention of the column still. Now, thanks to new technology, distilleries were able to mass produce a smoother spirit at a significantly lesser cost.

Then in 1880, Scotch whisky became a global phenomenon thanks to a new microscopic insect that preyed on the grape vines in France. Since wine and brandy were considered two of the most popular drinks of the day, when the phylloxera bug began to destroy vineyards across France, wine and brandy production came to an almost immediate halt. With alcoholics around the world craving a substitute, the doors to the global marketplace opened wide for Scotland’s distillers and Scotch whisky became the world’s new popular drink.

Whisky Choices

Whisky Choices

Types of Scotch Whisky

There are two main types of Scotch whisky; single malt and single grain. From those two types, three sub categories are formed. Those categories are blended Scotch, blended malt Scotch and blended grain Scotch.

Single Malt

Single malt Scotch whisky is today, the most popular choice in North American homes. This is an aged whisky made by a single distillery using only malted barley and water. It contains no other cereals and must be distilled, produced and bottled in Scotland.

Single Grain

Single grain Scotch whisky is less commonly found on the shelves of your local liquor store. It starts out with water and a malted barley but then has additional whole grains or cereals added to it which prevents it from complying with the laws that would permit it to be called single malt. Just like with single malt Scotch, it too, has to be bottled in Scotland in order for it to be able to use the “Scotch” name. It is this type of Scotch that most blended Scotch whisky is made from.

Glencairn Crystal whiskey glass

Glencairn Crystal whiskey glass

Blended Scotch

A blended Scotch whisky is made from at least one or more single malt Scotch whiskies that is blended together with a single grain Scotch whisky.

Blended Malt Scotch

A blended malt Scotch is actually one of the most uncommon types of Scotch that can be found today. Previously called a “vatted malt” or a “pure malt” it is when the blender takes two or more single malt Scotch whiskies from at least two separate distilleries and blends them together to create one batch of whisky.

Blended Grain Scotch

A blended grain Scotch is similar to that of a blended malt, except it utilizes two or more single grain Scotch whiskies from at least two separate distilleries. They are then blended together to create a single batch of whisky.

Double Malt Scotch

Many people have heard of a whisky referred to as a “double malt” Scotch. It should be noted that these do not actually exist. Whenever a bottle of single malt Scotch is referred to as “double malt” or “triple malt” it simply means that it was aged in two or more types of casks. The true term for this is double wood or triple wood. This is very common in the whisky world and despite being aged in multiple casks, it still remains in the single malt category.

Bruichladdich Maturing

Bruichladdich Maturing

The Name

While most consumers have a general understanding that Scotch whisky must always be from Scotland, few actually know the legal requirements behind naming a bottle of whisky “Scotch”.

The title of “Scotch” is defined and regulated by a document created on November 23, 2009 called the “Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009″ or SWR. Not only regulating production, the act also governs the labeling, packaging and the advertising of Scotch whisky within the United Kingdom. The SWR is a complete replacement of the previous regulations which focused exclusively on the production process. While the SWR is technically only valid within its jurisdiction, international trade agreements have been put in place which effectively make some provisions of the SWR apply in countries outside the United Kingdom.

The document defines Scotch whisky in the following manner:

1: Must be produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added) all of which have been:

- Processed at that distillery into a mash

- Converted at that distillery to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems

- Fermented at that distillery only by adding yeast

- Distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8% (190 US proof)

Wholly matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres (185 US gal; 154 imp gal) for at least three years

2. Scotch whisky must retain the color, aroma and taste of the raw materials used in, and the method of, its production and maturation.

3. It may not contain any added substances, aside from water and plain (E150A) caramel coloring.

4. It must comprise a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40% (80 US proof).

Caol Ila Distillery

Caol Ila Distillery

The Production Process

The production of Scotch whisky begins with water. It is for this reason that many of the distilleries still found today are located adjacent to pure water sources such as a river or even a borehole. While transportation is far more effective today, when the vast majority of Scottish distilleries were erected, having to transport large quantities of fresh water proved to be difficult, thereby requiring the distilleries to be built near a plentiful source.

One of the things that separates Scotch whisky from other whiskies is that the water in Scotland tends to be much softer with significantly lower mineral and calcium contents. For the distilleries located on the west coast of Scotland, particularly on the islands, the water has a much higher peat content due the water running through peat bogs, which cause it to have a slightly brown tinge. While there is no direct evidence to suggest this natural peat effects the flavor of the whisky, many distilleries believe it to be special, and for that reason they are very protective of their water supply.

While there is no legal obligation to use Scottish barley to produce Scotch whisky, the vast majority of barley used to make whisky around the world is from Scotland, therefore making it cost effective to utilize local barley.

Once the water is collected it’s used in a variety of ways, the first of which is often to malt the barley. In order to successfully malt barley, the grains are soaked in the water which causes the starch to convert into a type of sugar called maltose which feeds a process known as Germination.

Over the next six days little shoots begin to grow all over the grains which lets the producer know the barley is ready to be dried. To do this, the distillery will elect to use hot air or peat smoke to dry out the grains which stops further growth of the shoots and prevents it from rotting. While the majority of distilleries now purchase their barley pre-malted, there are still a small handful of producers that choose to malt the barley from scratch. Despite the process being painstaking and lengthy, distilleries such as The Balvenie and Highland Park view it as a tradition and pride themselves on their malting floors.

Highland park malting floor

Highland park malting floor

Now that the barley is properly malted, it gets ground until it resembles something like flour. The water source is again introduced and the mixture is poured into a vessel called the Mash Tun. As the barley mixture steeps in the hot water, the mashing tun separates the solids from the sugars and the process is repeated at least twice more. By the time this part of the production process is completed, the hot sugary liquid, called the Wort is ready to continue being turned into whisky.

The next step in whisky making is called the Fermentation Process. The wort is pumped into a wooden or stainless steel receptacle called the Washback and dried or creamed yeast is added to the mix. Once the yeast is added to liquid, it begins to rapidly multiply using up the oxygen in the washback and creating carbon dioxide. As blades mix the yeast into the wort, over the next 48 hours, the yeast begins to devour the sugars turning the wort into alcohol. The distiller now chooses whether or not to remove the liquid or let it sit for up to another 70 hours which produces a fruitier flavor.

The next step is the actual distillation of the whisky. This is when the alcohol is poured into a copper pot still to undergo a series of two distillations, or in some cases, three. The first distillation, called the Wash Still is where the alcohol is heated until it boils and its vapor is condensed into liquid and carried through the coiled pipes. The new liquid is then dumped into cooling vats and is now typically around 28% alcohol. Then, the process is repeated and the spirit is re-distilled until it reaches approximately 70% alcohol. As it distills, the vapor is pumped into a rectifying column, making its way through a water-cooled condenser to the spirit safe. The spirit safe then captures the purest cuts that will eventually mature into Scotch whisky.

What’s interesting to note is that the stills used are often a variety of shapes and sizes. What this does is changes the style of the whisky based on the type of flavor profiles the producer wants in its stock.

Next, the best cuts of the spirit are slightly diluted with more water and poured into wooden oak casks (usually from bourbon whiskey or spanish sherry) where the whisky will sit and mature for at least three years, developing a complex range of flavors and aromas as it soaks up the hidden spirits still buried deep in the wooden casks.

After it’s sat for the minimum required length of three years, it is now ready to be bottled or stored longer, increasing its age and complexity.

Whisky Map

Whisky Map

The Regions of Scotland

Divided into five distinct regions, Scotland produces a variety of whiskies that take on certain flavor profiles based on the region they’re distilled in.

The Highlands

Known as medium bodied whiskies, they are typically lighter and more luxurious than their brothers Islay, but stronger than the ones in the Lowlands. Today there are many highland distilleries, some of which include Aberfeldy, Balblair, Ben Nevis, Clynelish, The Dalmore, Dalwhinnie, Glen Ord, Glenmorangie, Oban and Old Pulteney. On the islands, you can find Arran, Jura, Tobermory, Highland Park and Scapa, as well as Talisker still operating today. While many whisky connoisseurs believe the islands should have their own region, they are still technically classified as a part of the highlands.

The Lowlands

Generally considered the lighter and most delicate whiskies, the Lowland distilleries often produce spirits with very little to no peat. Today the only distilleries still in operation are Auchentoshan, Bladnoch and Glenkinchie. However, a fourth distillery has recently opened called Daftmill, but its first release is still in production and is not expected to be released to the public until sometime in 2015.

Speyside

Home to the most elegant and inspired whiskies in Scotland, Speyside is also home to the most distilleries in the Country, some of which include Aberlour, The Balvenie, Cardhu, Cragganmore, Glenfarclas, Glenfiddich, Glenglassaugh, The Glenlivet, Glen Moray and The Macallan.

Campbeltown

With the majority of its bottles aged at the 10 year mark, the region is home to just three active distilleries which include Glen Scotia, Glengyle and Springbank.

Islay

Considered the heavy-hitters of Scotch whisky, these spirits are usually heavily peated, often oily and even sometimes compared to iodine. Islay is home to a current eight distilleries which include Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.

Whisky Glass, Teaspoon and chilled water

Whisky Glass, Teaspoon and chilled water

Tasting Scotch

Today, Scotch whisky is tasted and enjoyed in a variety of ways. From drinking it neat or on the rocks to mixing it into a range of cocktails, many believe Scotch whisky can be enjoyed any way the consumer can dream. I am not one of them. In my opinion, Scotch whisky is the most perfected spirit on the planet. It is old world craftsmanship at its finest and treating it as you would vodka, tequila or gin is an insult to those who spend their lifetimes pursuing the perfect dram. Therefore, unlike many of my other articles on spirits, I’ve chosen not to provide cocktail recipes in this particular guide.

The Glass

While the majority of Scotch drinkers use a rock glass, in my opinion there are only two glasses that are acceptable if you actually plan to enjoy your dram in all its glory.

The Copita Nosing Glass

The copita was traditionally used by the Distillery Manager while nosing new make spirits and the Master Blender when nosing a mature whisky that is being considered for use in a blend. Originally called the “Dock Glass” it was developed in the 17th century for merchants to nose the spirit or wine at the dock before accepting the shipment. Because of its unique tulip shape bowl, it allows you to swirl the spirit while facilitating the retention of alcohol vapors. Prior to tasting the whisky, the drinker will generally cover the glass with its accompanying watch glass cover and allow it to sit for a few minutes. One glass costs about $17 shipped.

The Glencairn Glass

Considered the most innovative whisky glass on the market, the crystal Glencairn glass is an official product specifically designed for Scotch whisky. With a tapered mouth and wide bowl, the quality of the whisky is enhanced allowing the connoisseur to identify hidden aromas and flavors in the spirit. The one negative aspect of the Glencairn is that it has a very short, wide stem, which can cause the whisky to warm from the natural heat of your hand. You can buy it here – a set of 4 costs less than $30.

How to Drink Whisky – The Methods

While many people stack ice cubes in their glass before pouring the whisky overtop, nothing short of adding another liquid could harm your tasting experience more. With each ice cube added, the scotch becomes diluted and cooled, changing the flavor profile and masking the aromas. If you are dead set on drinking Scotch on the rocks, I recommend no more than two ice cubes or else you might as well toss it down the drain. While some companies have begun marketing “ice balls” and “ice bricks”, despite taking longer to melt, these added components still disguise the complexity of the dram.

Highland park malting floor

Highland park malting floor

A recent introduction of soap stone or metal cubes that can be chilled in a freezer has hit the US market by storm. Often labelled as “Whisky Stones”, these small cubes are nothing more than a gimmick that will again alter the spirit, rather than elevate it. A neat accessory to keep in your bar for company, I would strongly suggest procuring the soap stone version as it won’t alter the flavor as much as their metal counterparts.

Historically, judges at spirit competitions would water down their whisky mixing the Scotch with up to an additional 50% distilled water. While many people think this is done to eliminate some of the alcohol content, the fact is that by adding a splash of slightly cool still water, the flavors and aromas of the spirit will be elevated, opening up the spirit and allowing you to properly enjoy your dram. While I don’t recommend diluting your whisky with 50% water, I always suggest adding a splash.

To properly enjoy your dram of Scotch whisky take a clean Copita or Glencairn glass and pour 1/2 oz of whisky into the glass. Swirl it around and pour it down the sink. While it may seem like a waste of good Scotch, and it is (unless you use it for cooking), it also will act as a purifier eliminating any odors or flavors already in the glass that could alter the taste or aroma of your dram. After all, as any cigar aficionado knows, even tap water can change the taste of a cigar, or in this case a Scotch.

Next, pour yourself a glass of whisky. Be careful to hold the glass from its base and not the bowl to ensure your hand doesn’t warm the spirit as it’s poured in. Next, swirl the whisky in the glass and examine its appearance. While the appearance won’t tell you a great deal about the spirit, you want to focus on two key things.

First, is the spirit cloudy? A cloudy spirit will indicate that the whisky has not undergone chill filtration. The purpose of chill filtration is to conform whisky so that there is no cloudiness once water is added. However, a spirit that is cloudy tends to offer an enhanced element of flavor and should be regarded as such. The second, and most important reason for visually examining your whisky is to look at its “legs”. After swirling the whisky in its glass, you’ll notice fine beads that will form on the sides of the glass. The legs then slowly ooze back into the glass forming lines called “legs” as they move. The thicker and slower that the legs move, the more vivacious and bold the whisky.

Now that you’ve examined your dram, hold the glass up towards your nose, take a deep breath in through your mouth and your nose inhaling and appreciating it’s complex aromas. Be sure not to bring the glass too close, as the strength of the alcohol can often numb a novice’s senses. Then, take it down and swirl it. Repeat this process at least three times, each time bringing the glass closer to your nose and breathing in more through your nose and less through your mouth. By the final nose, you should allow the rim of the glass to pocket your nose and with your mouth closed, breathe in as the spirit engulfs your senses. By following these steps you’ll notice that the aromas change with each nose. This is the sure way to properly appreciate a fine whisky and to ensure that it doesn’t go to waste and that you get to experience each of its divine and complex aromas.

Next, add a splash of pure still water that’s slightly cool and take your first taste of the spirit. As it hits your tongue swirl and splash it around every part of your mouth. Let it touch your cheeks, the roof of your palate and the bottom of your mouth under your tongue. Allow it to stream in front of your teeth and touch your gums and the inside of your lips. Then let it sit in the middle of your mouth before slowly swallowing the spirit. It’s this method that ensures you’re able to taste all of its complexity, understand its diverse flavor profile and appreciate its aged perfection. Then take a big deep breath and you’ll be eager to try some more.

Video – The Story of Whisky

Recommended Whiskies

Scotch whisky has long been my favorite spirit. On any given evening you can usually find me in my living room enjoying a dram or two as I listen to my records or watch an old movie. This list, while partial, are a few of my favorite whiskies, all of which I highly recommend.

The Highlands

Ice Balls look very elegant in a glass

Ice Balls look very elegant in a glass – but many prefer to drink it without ice – all that matters is what you like

The Dalmore King Alexander III (one of my favorite bottles in the world)

The Dalmore Cigar Malt Reserve (this Scotch pairs perfectly with a medium to full bodied cigar)

Jura Superstition (press your palm against the logo for good luck)

Highland Park 12 Year

Scapa 16 Year

Talisker 18 Year

The Lowlands

Auchentoshan Three Wood (no peat, very delicate and quite inexpensive. A perfect introduction to Scotch whisky)

Glenkinchie 12 Year

Rosebank 12 Year

Speyside

The Macallan Fine Oak

The Macallan 12 Year (while there are many incredible, older bottles, the 12 year is my nightly dram)

The Macallan 25 Year

Scotch & Cigars go well together

Scotch & Cigars go well together  - although most scotch enthusiasts won’t drink it with ice, some prefer it that way

Aberlour 12 Year (probably the best bottle in its low price point)

Aberlour A’bunadh

The Balvenie Doublewood (the first Scotch I ever tried and one I keep going back to)

Islay

Bowmore 18 Year

Lagavulin 16 Year (one of my favorite bottles from Islay)

Caol Ila Moch

Laphroaig 12 Year

Campbeltown

Glen Scotia 12 Year

Springbank 10 Year

Glencairn Glass

Glencairn Glass

Where to Buy Whisky

Unfortunately, prices and availability really depend on where you live. For example, a 12 year old bottle of Macallan could cost half the price in the United States as it may in parts of Canada, not to mention other countries around the world. Trying to list a reliable whisky source in every country would be impossible because there is no way for me to test all of them. Hence we just  list a few hoping most of you will find these links helpful.

The Scotch Whisky Association: the name says it all – contact them if you want to find more sources to buy

Master of Malt: UK based online store, ship to many countries

The Whisky Exchange: UK based online store, ship to many countries

The Whisky Barrel: U.S. based ships worldwide

Love Scotch: U.S. based online store specialized in Scotch

Scotch Whisky Auctions: the name says it all

Caskers: Crafts Spirits

Alexander & James: German online store with gift service

Whisky Wheel

Whisky Wheel

Conclusion

Scotch has and I presume will always be a spirit that one either loves or hates. While a taste for it can be developed over time, typically the most common palate development occurs amongst gentlemen who already enjoy the taste and simply grow to appreciate the varieties.

I would highly recommend that if you’ve never tried Scotch whisky before, that you begin with a gentler, more subtle bottle such as the Auchentoshan 12 year or the Dalwhinnie 15 year , and not with a dram of Lagavulin or Laphroaig.

One final tip for the Scotch connoisseur is to always keep a few basics on hand. This way should you have company over, if they are inclined to try a dram of Scotch but don’t have the appreciation for it, rather than wasting a remarkable whisky on a plebeian’s palate, I always keep a bottle of 12 year old Glenlivet and Glenfiddich in my bar. That way you can save the premium whisky for those who will truly enjoy it.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this primer on Scotch whisky. To cover the topic in completion would result in a series of novels, so with that said, should you have any questions, please feel free to comment and I will do my very best to answer.

If you enjoyed this guide, you should also take a look at our Bourbon and Brandy guides.

51 replies
    • J.A. Shapira
      J.A. Shapira says:

      Hi Mr. Thorington,

      As they say, “timing is everything”.

      Let me know how you enjoy the Jura Superstition. Remember before pouring your dram to press your palm into the logo as it’s said to bring good luck.

      Enjoy your dram,

      J.A. Shapira

      Reply
      • Rob
        Rob says:

        Bladnoch Flora and Fauna beats all lowland whiskies into a cocked hat,I’ve had the benefit of having 2 bottles of said whisky,not tonight ,mind,and it’s a glorious amalgam of all scotch,quite simply one of the best

        Reply
  1. Thomas U. Torp
    Thomas U. Torp says:

    I would just like to inform you that your definitions of the different kinds of whisky, at the very start of the piece, are incorrect. Your initial distinction between two kinds of whisky – malt and grain – and the three possible combinations of these are good, as are your definition of a single malt, but the problem lies with your definition of grain whisky. A grain whisky is a whisky made out of any other grain than malted barley (wheat being, as far as I know, the most common in Scotland, while corn and rye are popular over in North America). A single grain, then, is a grain whisky made by a single distillery, while a blended grain whisky is one made from grain whiskies from several different distilleries.

    I would also suggest mentioning the distinction between a “regular” single malt and a single cask whisky. A regular single malt is made through blending the whiskies from a number of different casks from the same distillery, while a single cask whisky, like the name suggests, is bottled from just one cask. The blending of different casks makes for a whisky that is more consistent over the years, while single cask whiskies are usually made from the best casks, and can be wildly different from the distillery’s regular whiskies.

    Reply
    • J.A. Shapira
      J.A. Shapira says:

      Mr. Torp,

      Thank you for your suggestions. I’m very pleased that you enjoyed the article. I do, however, need to clarify that when I defined “single grain whisky” I was strictly speaking single grain Scotch whisky and not including other whiskies in that definition. While you are correct as it applies to some of the other whiskies around the world, the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 define single grain whisky as “A Scotch Whisky distilled at a single distillery (i) from water and malted barley with or without whole grains of other malted or unmalted cereals, and (ii) which does not comply with the definition of Single Malt Scotch Whisky.”

      As for single cask whisky, the reason double cask whisky was mentioned was simply because the term “double malt whisky” is so often, and yet inaccurately used. While double and triple wood whiskies are very common, you are correct in mentioning that single cask whiskies are also incredibly popular and that, yes, while a good percentage of single cask (or single wood) whiskies are from the best casks, unfortunately, that isn’t regulated, so to state such a thing could potentially be viewed as inaccurate since there are some distilleries that just simply don’t use the “best” casks for it. As well to define a “best” cask would be very difficult. Is this a deeply charred cask, what type of wood, what was in the cask (bourbon, sherry, etc), if bourbon, what kind of bourbon, how old, etc…

      Typically when more than one cask is used, the reason behind it is to introduce varied flavor profiles into the batch. As an example, while bourbon casks are commonly used for aging, so are sherry casks. By switching the batch from a bourbon cask to a sherry cask you are altering (and enhancing) the complexities of the flavor profile.

      I hope this response has helped to clarify some of the points you brought up. Please let me know if you have any questions.

      Best,

      J.A. Shapira

      Reply
      • Thomas U. Torp
        Thomas U. Torp says:

        Dear Mr. Shapira,

        Thank you for your reply. Reading through the SWR, I am surprised to find that you are correct. The regulations does seem to require that a single grain whisky include some malted barley. This was unknown for me.

        However, I still think your description is somewhat misleading, though I do not believe you mean it to be. Most grain whiskies are produced predominantly from grains other than malted barley, while your description seems to imply that malted barley is still the main ingredient. While you could make a single grain whisky where malted barley was the main ingredient, this is not how it is made in practice.

        As for single cask (or single barrel), I am referring to whiskies bottled from a single batch. It shouldn’t be confused with the concept of double wood, which as you state is a whisky that has been stored in more than one barrel. A single cask is a whisky that has been bottled from a single specific cask, as opposed to most single malts, which are blended from several different casks from the same distillery, usually mixing in whiskies from different years to produce a *relatively* stable taste profile. The whisky in the cask in question may have been stored on several different barrels during its years in the cellar (which would make it, say, a single cask doublewood), but is bottled directly from the last barrel it was stored on. As they are not really a separate category of whisky, I can understand if you do not want to include it, but I just wanted to mention it, to make your guide more complete.

        Best regards,
        Thomas U. Torp

        Reply
        • Duncan King
          Duncan King says:

          Malted barley is required in grain whisky because it provides the diastatic enzymes which turn the starches in the cereals into fermentable sugars.

          Another important difference between malt whisky and grain whisky is that the former must be batch distilled in a pot still, whilst the latter is continuously distilled in a column still. Much less romantic, much less photogenic, but far more efficient.

          As to tasting, I would generally advise tasting a very small amount neat before adding water, even for cask strength whiskies. Some require more water than others, and some are arguably best left entirely undiluted. It’s also fascinating to experience just how much the addition of water can change the flavour profile.

          Reply
          • Thomas U. Torp
            Thomas U. Torp says:

            Thank you, Duncan, for clarifying my rather unclear description on grain whiskies, and filling out my knowledge.

            I very much agree with your tasting advice. Adding water is a question of personal preference, not only in general but for any specific whisky. For most cask strengths, though, I do find that I need water, but even if it is an old friend, I tend to give it at least one little sip before diluting it. The reason for diluting the cask strengths, to me, has less to do with the flavour profile and more to do with the strength of the alcohol numbing my palate, drastically reducing my ability to enjoy the dram as I get several sips into it.

            Reply
            • J.A. Shapira
              J.A. Shapira says:

              As a regular Scotch drinker myself, I agree with both of you when it comes to first trying the dram neat. I drink two drams just about every evening and I enjoy a wide variety of whiskies from all of the various regions in Scotland. While people like you and I may easily be able to enjoy a dram undiluted, this article was intended as a primer to introduce newcomers to the world of Scotch whisky.

              For the average gentleman who doesn’t drink Scotch on a regular basis, just a sip of an undiluted Scotch can quickly numb the senses making the enjoyment of the dram disappear. This is why (in the article) I encourage people to add a splash of still water to the dram as it will open it up and allow them to enjoy it without mutilating their senses. Then, if they enjoy it they can play around a bit perhaps by trying their next glass without any additional water.

              As I said though, I am with you (on a personal level) and often will try my dram neat before adding anything to it.

              Reply
  2. Tom
    Tom says:

    Great article…. reading it really revives memories of smelling the barley and tasting the whisky in various distilleries on the Islands, in the Highlands and Speyside
    .
    Regarding the addition of water: The lady who guided us through the Edradour distillery (Highlands, near Pitlochry) advised us to add a wee bit of water, but keeping in mind that “it took us 18 years to get the water out, so please don’t drown it!”

    Reply
    • J.A. Shapira
      J.A. Shapira says:

      Hi Tom,

      I’m so pleased you enjoyed the article. It sounds like the tour guide at the distillery you visited is very wise. A splash of water is all that is needed to elevate your dram.

      Best,

      J.A. Shapira

      Reply
  3. Jovan
    Jovan says:

    Great little article. I mostly agree though single malt is the only kind where I drawn the line and will add a dash of filtered water, nothing more. Blended scotch whisky on the rocks is okay with me.

    Reply
  4. Carlos Alba
    Carlos Alba says:

    On what grounds can one say that “Scotch whisky is the most perfected spirit on the planet”? It’s production process sounds fairly standard compared to the other spirits you mention: vodka, tequila, gin. Nice article though.

    Reply
    • J.A. Shapira
      J.A. Shapira says:

      Mr. Alba,

      Excellent question! My basis for calling Scotch whisky the most perfected spirit on the planet is three-fold.

      1. Scotch whisky has been around for centuries, far longer then that of most other spirits. Over time, the process has been refined and since each distillery follows the same methods in the production process, the only way to truly compete against each other is by attempting to elevate their product and push the limitations.

      2. Scotch whisky is the most popular spirit sold worldwide. It outsells every other spirit including all of the ones you mentioned.

      3. More time and energy is put into producing a bottle of Scotch than any other spirit in the world. Due to the rigorous requirements placed on the distilleries, there is no other spirit as a whole that is as consistently produced as Scotch whisky. It’s those regulations that ensure that each bottle of Scotch is produced to the same exact standards and in the same exact way. There is no such thing as Scotch “moonshine”.

      I hope that answers your question.

      J.A. Shapira

      Reply
      • Duncan King
        Duncan King says:

        Actually, there is some illegal distilling in Scotland, although it’s kept very, very quiet indeed. It turns out that a lot of people in the industry started out distilling illegally – they just don’t like to talk about it. There was a fascinating article on the subject in the July 2013 issue of “Unfiltered” (the magazine of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society), if you can track it down. Also, several distilleries are now selling small quantities of “new-make”, which is what we call the spirit fresh from the still (since it can’t be called “whisky” until it’s been aged for at least 3 years).

        Reply
        • J.A. Shapira
          J.A. Shapira says:

          Yes, I’m very familiar with the bootleg operations in Scotland, however, just because they make their product in Scotland does not allow them to call it “Scotch whisky”. In order to legally use the name Scotch whisky, they need to abide by the constraints of the regulations. In this particular article, we’re discussing Scotch whisky as opposed to the pirated operations you mention.

          Reply
      • Carlos Alba
        Carlos Alba says:

        Dear Mr. Schapira,

        I thank you for your answer and appreciate your arguments. However, I find difficult to back such a claim with them. I am no expert in the matter of spirits but I would like to put forward a few arguments of my own, using Tequila as an example -a spirit I am familiar with-, to illustrate what I mean.

        1. Tequila has also been around for centuries, it can certainly be dated as far back as the introduction of alembics to America by Spanish conquistadors. Its production process has also been refined over time from a spirit known as Mezcal (whose difference to tequila are mainly its first stages of production, the plant it comes from and the region where it is produced; nuances similar to those between Whiskey and Scotch). Tequila is also a spirit which has a strictly regulated and controlled place and process of production, especially when labeled 100% agave (three of its main characteristics are that it can only be produced in the state of Jalisco in Mexico; using only a special kind of agave plant, the so called “agave tequilana”; and that it always goes through two and sometimes more distillations). Thus, I think the argument regarding competition applies to Tequila in the same way as it applies to Scotch.

        2. Scotch whisky (emphasis on whisky) may indeed be one the most popular spirits sold worldwide. However, I think popularity does not equate with perfection, or even quality for that matter. Hundreds of examples can be given regarding this instance starting with Whiskey and Tequila themselves.

        3. I appreciate the argument that a lot of time and energy is put into producing a bottle of Scotch. I find, however, that it is too general a statement. Other spirits, especially tequila also take a lot of time and effort to be produced. Agave production takes about seven years to yield a plant that can be used to produce tequila, it then goes through several stages of production (the plant is cut until its heart is bear and then baked, then its juices are extracted, fermented and distilled) and finally, depending on the type of Tequila, it may rest in wooden casks, made from different kinds of wood, for months or years.

        I by no means suggest that one spirit is better than the other, I simply wish to point out the fact that, exquisite as it may be, it is rather adventurous to say that Scotch is the most perfected spirit on the planet. Regardless of this matter, I would like to compliment you on a very thorough and well written article. I enjoyed it and learnt a great deal from it.

        Reply
  5. Alexander Cave
    Alexander Cave says:

    A very good article and timely, informative and encouraging to the uninitiated which is what is needed.

    However, to proclaim oneself a whisky lover and advocate serving with ice or chilling in those elaborate ways cannot be allowed to go unchallenged!

    There are some spirits which are improved by chilling, no doubt, but whisky is NOT one of them. Chilling whisky or drinking it ‘on the rocks’ is a capital crime in many eyes. If drinking the spirit neat is too much for your preference, add a small amount of spring water of room temperature or warmed.

    Chilling whisky is mass murder – it kills all the character, the flavours, the aroma, the lot, stone dead, and to treat a whisky that has taken skilled hands ten, 15, 18 or more years to perfect in that callous, thoughtless way ought to earn a lifetime ban.

    Time was when whisky was drunk simply as a warmer – wine and beer were the social drinks until marketeers took over. We can see the legacy of this with whisky chasers, drunk alongside a pint of ‘heavy’. Whisky – water-of-life – is best when treated as other aqua vitae, such as the brandies, if it is to fully appreciated and enjoyed, and there is nothing better than a brandy balloon for the same reasons.

    Reply
    • Sven Raphael Schneider
      Sven Raphael Schneider says:

      Dear Alexander,
      As you know, your thoughtful comments are always appreciated, and we welcome your challenge.
      J.A. Shapira loves Whisky and never drinks it with ice. At the same time, we know that every human being has (at least slightly) different taste buds and we are not interested in enhancing a herd mentality by providing cooking recipes telling others what to do and how to enjoy their drinks based on our own palette. Just because many people like something one way, does not mean it’s good for a specific person.
      We encourage all our readers to try all options with their whisky and decide for themselves what they like best.
      Taste is extremely subjective and I think people should drink something because they enjoy it, not because someone else tells them it is good. Allow me an analogy to wine.
      Last year, we were in Napa Valley and when you drive past many Vineyards that advertise Parker 95 points etc. because they know that people will buy more if they get a higher Parker rating. In fact, they create their wine anticipating a high Parker rating, and I think that is not desirable. Of course, if you like many things Parker likes, then you can buy wine unseen and that is certainly nice. On the other hand, many people now drink something they neither appreciate nor like because they think it must be good, I just have to try it more often. Also, more and more winemakers feel the need to produce wines that will be enjoyed by Parker and I wonder where that will lead to. Parker knows his stuff about wine, I am certain of it but I don’t see why somebody else with a different palate can tell me what I like best.

      It is the same with whisky – there is not right or wrong in what you like, just whiskies that are more complex, expensive, refined… but if you like a simple blended one, fine. Maybe your tastes will change over the years, and it is good to try new things but I don’t think one should drink whisky without ice because the majority of people does it or because it is the traditional way to do so. Just try to drink it in all the ways possible and then decide what you like.

      Reply
      • Alexander Cave
        Alexander Cave says:

        You are quite right, Raphael!

        My point is simply this: it is well known, tried and tested – chilling whisky kills all its character and flavour. If you want your dram dead and tasteless, J.S. has given a good way of doing it; on the other hand, if you want to appreciate and understand why whisky is loved and adored the world over, there is the alternative…

        As for wine, don’t start me on that..! Remember where I am (France, in case anyone is wondering), and patriotism comes no higher than on that subject!

        Slainte! Salut!

        Reply
        • J.A. Shapira
          J.A. Shapira says:

          I would really like to (strongly) clarify that I do not condone nor suggest at any point in the article that Scotch should be diluted with ice. While, I do recommend adding a splash of still water to the dram, I appreciate and understand what a cooling process does to a perfected whisky. However, I am also in agreement with Raphael, that Scotch should be able to be consumed in any way the gentleman enjoys it; be it with ice, in a cocktail or in a recipe. So long as it’s being enjoyed and savored, who am I to argue with the way it’s done?

          Reply
          • Hal
            Hal says:

            It may be the illustrations which give this impression. I thought the text was pretty clear that chilling the drink mutes the flavour and hurts the whisky when I read it.

            A very readable guide to a great drink. I think that both this and the brandy article were very good introductions to the subjects.

            On an entirely unrelated note I see that Islay malts are referred to as being heavily ‘peaked’. Is that a misprint for ‘peated’ or a term I’m unfamiliar with?

            Reply
    • J.A. Shapira
      J.A. Shapira says:

      Mr. Mandelbaum,

      I apologize for not getting back to you sooner. Somehow I didn’t see your comment until just now.

      Loch Dhu, now there’s an interesting whisky.

      I don’t know how much you already know about Loch Dhu but to give a quick overview it was distilled at Mannochmore from 1996 to 1997 and is well regarded as a collectible due to its rarity. It’s almost black in color (brown if you hold it under a light), and if you ask me that’s due in part to fairly substantial amount of caramel coloring that was added – but I don’t know that to be factual – just my opinion.

      As I’m sure you know by now, anything that is geared towards a younger “bar” crowd and meant to be trendy is generally something I will abstain from recommending or even supporting. My respect for Remy Martin Cognac was lost almost entirely after they changed their marketing campaign to focus on a younger demographic. However, Loch Dhu has made a name for itself despite its “youthful mentality” and is often regarded as an investment piece.

      Here’s my honest opinion when it comes to taste: It’s very unusual, a far different flavor profile than anything else on the market. It’s quite peaty and has a very smoky earthy aroma to it on the first and second nose. The finish is gag worthy but somehow packs a punch that’s inspired at the very end. Most critics don’t enjoy it, however, I don’t like to think of myself as a critic. The fact that it’s so unique and different is what attracts me to it. It’s not something I could drink daily, but once in awhile if the mood is right I could enjoy a dram of it with friends. Would I buy it for myself? Not a chance. Would I open it and consume it if it was given to me as a gift? Probably, but in the company of others who aren’t afraid to try new things.

      If you’re asking the standard questions of “should I buy it and drink it or buy it as an investment” I say neither. At the price point and due to its rarity it’s not worth the cost. While some believe it to be an investment piece, my thought is that in 20 years it will be forgotten. In 40 years extinct. If you do intend on drinking it, split the cost with some adventurous friends and enjoy it before a night on the town.

      I’m very pleased you enjoyed the article.

      Best,

      J.A. Shapira

      Reply
      • w. adam mandelbaum esq.
        w. adam mandelbaum esq. says:

        your thoughts on Loch Dhu parallel my own. Used to drink it at a restaurant I represented, and enjoyed it because it certainly was different than any other single malt I tasted–not better–usually not as good–but different. As far as an investment, I like to be liquid in my investments, but not that liquid. Thanks again for a very informative article–and a tip of the Trilby to Sven for continuing to provide a great forum for the better things in life.

        Reply
  6. Trinity
    Trinity says:

    The author does not understand his intended audience. Scotch beginners will balk at this list of snobbish hard and fast rules that make enjoying a dram a tedious and drawn out process. Swirl and pour down the drain? Yes, that’s what every beginner wants to hear. Mr Shapira is undoubtedly passionate and well versed on this matter, but a better approach might have been to split this into a two or three part article focusing on the beginning scotch drinker and then progressing to more advanced “techniques”.

    Reply
      • Trinity
        Trinity says:

        Good information for beginners? That’s a GREAT question. I’ll list some things here, some of which may have been touched upon already. FYI I feel like the article started out strong, it just ended up in typical scotch snobbery that makes it seem unapproachable by relative newbies like me.

        What typifies the relative styles of each region? What makes each one distinct and special?
        What are good bottles, commonly available, that typify these regions? He lists some favorites, but why?
        What about blended scotch? Garbage I suppose. Or am I wrong? Barely a mention of it in the article. Might that not be a starting point for beginners?
        For real, how do you pronounce the names of the distilleries? What do their names mean? What makes them special or what is their claim to fame?
        What are some common terms in the scotch vernacular? What do they mean? Or in other words, how do you talk about Scotch and not sound like an idiot, even if you are?
        Some people say “peat” means smokey, others say that they can actually detect the notes of “mossy-ness” and that is really what peat is. Which is it?
        What differences are there between relatively young 10 year malts and those 18-20 and up? What justifies the price difference other than age and rarity? Are they really better?
        Maybe touch on the “Scotch Culture”, what it is, where it comes from, and how to take part in it.
        How should I organize a scotch tasting? If I go to one, what should I try to get out of it?
        What is the significance of barreling? Barrel aging is usually the single largest flavor contributor to scotch, but there’s hardly a mention of it. Why?

        I’d like to think these are good questions, common to scotch “beginners”.

        I’ll stand by my original assertion that Mr Shapira missed the mark on his intended audience. He’s keen to mention things like acceptable glassware, swirling, tossing scotch down the drain, and then make lists of malts some of which are not commonly available and costing hundreds of dollars. How does any of this make scotch approachable to beginners? Is that not a fair question?

        Does a beginner REALLY need to pour scotch down the drain before he can enjoy a drink? According to the article, yes, that is the proper way.
        How do I take an article seriously when mentioning cigar aficionados and then expect that someone puffing on a stogie can fully appreciate all the nuance of scotch, but an ice cube will ruin it? I enjoy the occasional fine cigar but I’m a professional chef with a well trained nose and pallet, and to think a cigar doesn’t completely dull the sense of taste and smell is a lie. Maybe an assertive Islay would stand up to a cigar, but I’d argue that a beginner should not combine the two. Perhaps one would argue that the article isn’t intended for beginners (although it is tagged as such) but why write an article preaching to the choir? Scotch enthusiasts most likely already know all of this stuff.

        Anyway, those are my suggestions and also justification for some of my gripes.

        Fair?

        Cheers!
        Trinity

        Reply
  7. Joe Franceski
    Joe Franceski says:

    Good overview for the neophyte. Nothing drives me more crazy than a pseudo-sophisticate ordering a premium Scotch “on the rocks”. What a waste of money! My preferred order would be Oban with a side of water, and I mix to my own preference.

    Reply
  8. Jean Bouchayer
    Jean Bouchayer says:

    Greetings from France!
    Thanks for this interesting article and for mentioning the Caol Ila Moch which was my “biginner’s favorite”.

    Reply
  9. G.
    G. says:

    This in probably a beginner question: for aging whisky can be considered the time spent in the bottle or it is irrelevant ? thank you

    Reply
    • J.A. Shapira
      J.A. Shapira says:

      Hi G,

      I want to make sure I understand exactly what you’re asking. It sounds like you’re wondering if the age on the bottle of the whisky can be based on the whisky after the time it’s been bottled but before being opened?

      This is not a beginner question at all. Every question is important and I’m glad you asked! The answer is that the aging is done in the cask (the wooden barrels) and so for a bottle to be labelled as a 12 year old whisky, it means that the youngest whisky in the bottle must have sat in the cask for a minimum of 12 years. I hope that answers your question. Let me know if I misinterpreted it or you have any other questions.

      Reply
      • G.
        G. says:

        Dear Mr. Shapira,
        I thak you for the answer. But, yes, my real question is about whether there is an actual improvement of whisky due to his stay in the bottle, as for wine (the aging one), or if it is unnecessary waiting. I apologize for missing the first to say that I really enjoyed your article
        Cheer
        G.

        Reply
        • J.A. Shapira
          J.A. Shapira says:

          Hi G,

          I’m so pleased to hear you enjoyed the article. That is an excellent question – I apologize for not realizing what you were asking initially.

          The answer is no, whisky does not mature in the bottle the same way as wine. You can keep the whisky for 50 years but it will always remain just 12 years aged if that’s what’s on the label. The reason that wine continues to mature is because it still contains yeast, whereas the distillation process of whisky kills off the yeast, thereby preventing it from continuing to age in the bottle. Regardless of how long you keep it the flavors, colors and aromas will stay the same. The only thing that may change is you may notice some cloud if you store it in a cool place – however, it will return to normal once it hits a normal temperature. Obviously if you store it in a warm environment that can affect the taste as well, but probably not for the better.

          Reply
  10. Jakub Wrobel
    Jakub Wrobel says:

    Lovely article (and am very glad I found this website).

    I do have interesting tid-bit if you wish, about tasting a dram. During my Master’s studies while in Aberdeen, Scotland, my classmates and I would frequent this little old place called The Grill: a magnificent 100+ year old bar with an insurmountable selection of Scotch, great world whisky’s and rums. While enjoying many drams, I’ve heard on numerous occasions that for every year a Scotch has been aged/matured, one should keep the Scotch in their mouth to fully taste all the flavors and complexities the spirit has to offer.

    I’m not sure if there is any historical truth to that or it this does make a difference while tasting Scotch, but I found it a rather interesting concept.

    Reply

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