Only whiskies distilled and barreled in Scotland can call themselves Scotch. With 98 active distilleries spread across the country within the United Kingdom, the breadth of whiskies is staggering, but a rigid system of classification makes the drink's characteristics easier to define.
All Scotch must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years and a day. In fact, some 90 percent of Scotch is aged in barrels that used to contain American Bourbon, but sherry, port or Madeira casks also feature. For blended whiskies, the age of the youngest whisky in the barrel is printed on the label.
Scotch whisky falls into five categories that loosely reflect the exclusivity and character of the whisky in question.
Single malt is arguably the most coveted Scotch, particularly for collectors, as it must come from a single distillery and use only water, yeast and malted barley. All are distilled in traditional copper pot stills.
The majority of single malt distillers are in Speyside, or the northeast of Scotland, with malts such as Glenmorangie, Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Glenfiddich among the more celebrated names. Glenturret, however, claims to be the oldest remaining distillery in Scotland, dating from 1775, but records are disputed.
Single grain Scotch can include grains other than barley in the mash, but must still come from a single distillery. Only eight distilleries in Scotland produce single grain, however. It's distilled much quicker and at greater volume in continuous or “Coffey” stills. Light and subtle, single grain lacks the depth of single malt and is best reserved for blending.
Some 90 percent of Scottish whisky production is blended whisky, produced in column stills and combining malt and grain whiskies. By no means are these inferior offerings -- they can harmonize 40 or more malt and grain whiskies in a single blend, with the key aim being to deliver a consistent character.
- Leading Scotch whisky blends include Johnnie Walker, J&B, Ballantine’s, Grant’s and Famous Grouse.
- A further subset of blended whiskies comprises blended malt, made of two or more single malts from two or more distilleries, and blended grain whisky, combining single grain whiskies.
Scotch Whisky Regulations establish five protected regions, but only whiskies distilled entirely within a region can define themselves as such on the label.
- The Lowland region near the border produces dry, accessible whisky using a triple distillation process, whereas most other regions use just two. Whiskies from the Lowlands were historically derided as “Englishman’s Scotch,” suggesting they were entry-level whiskies for the uninitiated palate.
- Speyside, by contrast, nurtures the largest spread of distilleries, producing whiskies noted for their lightness and sweetness.
- The Highland region, including the islands, produces full-bodied, fruity whiskies distinguished by their peat notes and salinity.
- Campbeltown, once a hotbed of distillation, now has only three producers of whisky notable for its dry, slightly smoky finish.
- Whisky aficionados ultimately graduate to blends from the Islay region. These pungent, peaty whiskies are too assertive for some palates, with the presence of peat smoke hard to avoid.
Purists may enjoy a single malt neat, but taking whisky on the rocks, or with a dash of water or club soda, is perfectly acceptable.
- Nutty, honey-flavored Highland whiskies pair well with most foods, as they are neither too smoky nor too sweet. Those from the coast, where maritime aromas are present, are perfect with smoked salmon. The same can be said for Lowland whiskies, which often carry a citrusy, zesty finish.
- Full-bodied Islay whisky is an obvious contender for pairing with strong-flavored blue cheese, particularly when the whisky has been aged in a port cask.
- For spicier foods, look to Talisker to grapple with the flavors -- the whisky brings its own smoky, peppery character.