Several nations have beverages that are directly associated with their country. The French have wine, Italians have grappa, American have bourbon and Russians have vodka. But only the Scotland has a spirit where their nationality is written right into the name of the spirit. Scotch whiskey is uniquely Scottish and cannot be produced anywhere else in the world. According to the Scotch Whiskey Regulation 2009 to qualify as a Scotch whiskey the spirit needs meet certain criteria:
- Needs to be distilled in Scotland from water and malt (although other unmalted grains may be added. Where the mash is produced at that distillery, it is converted into a fermentable substrate and fermented only with yeast.
- Distilled to less than 94.8% ABV.
- Matured in oak casks not to exceed 700 L.
- Has been matured only in Scotland.
- Matured for no less than 3 years.
- Matured only in a excise warehouse or permitted place.
- Retains the color aroma and taste from the natural materials.
- No substance added other than water, caramel coloring, or water and caramel coloring.
- Has a minimum ABV strength of 40%.
Unlike their American cousins, Bourbon, the barrels that Scotch is aged in do not need to be new oak. Often times the barrels used for scotch aging are re-used bourbon barrels.
Even with those requirements there are distinctions in scotch. This can be location, either Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay, and Campbelltown. Each of these regions have a distinct flavor to the spirits that are distilled there. Highland whiskeys tend to be spicy, sweet, fruity, and malty. Lowland whiskeys are more soft lighter and sweet with a floral aroma. Speyside whiskeys are caramel fruity and spicy with a distinguishing notes of smokiness. Islay whiskeys are noted for their peaty smokiness and almost brine flavor to the spirit. Campbelltown whiskeys are fruity, peaty, sweet and smoky.
On top of the regions there are also five distinct categories of Scotch whisky. This can be single malt scotch (single distillery, made of water and malted barley, in a pot still), single grain scotch (single refers to distillery and not types of grain), blended malt scotch (a mix of single malt scotch from more than one distillery), blended grain scotch (a mix of single grain scotch from more than one distillery), and blended scotch (a mix of one or more single malt with one or more single grain scotch).
So is it whiskey or whisky? How the product is spelled has little to do with the final spirit. Historically only Ireland and The United States distilleries add an “e” to the spelling. Where as Scotland, Canada, Japan and others leave the “e” off. Some sources claim that it was Scotland and Ireland who had a different spelling and where ever their countrymen immigrated to effected the spelling of the spirit. In truth throughout history both spellings were used and it was only in the 20th Century with the passing of laws and acts did distinct spellings take hold. Even with the legalese entering the spirit spelling there are still exceptions to this rule. One of which is Makers Mark Bourbon Whisky made in the United States.
Distilled spirits were first registered in 1494 according to the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland. From that time there has been distilling in the highlands and lowlands with a variety of being legal and illegal. In 1644 the Scottish Parliament enacted the first tax on whiskey. Anytime taxes are levied on a product an illegal trade starts up. Scotch whiskey is no different where in 1782 over 1,000 illegal stills were seized in the Highlands. In 1823 the Scottish Parliament passed an excise tax witch eased several of the restrictions for legal distilleries and made illegal distillation more difficult. These measures definitely worked as seen in the gallons of whiskey that duty was paid increased almost two fold. From more than 2 million gallons to over 4 million gallons were now taxed.