10 Questions About Scotch, Answered
For a nation of only 5.4 million souls that ranks 117th in the world in geographic size, Scotland punches way above its weight when it comes to whisky production. You could quite literally spend the rest of your life exploring Scotch whisky—as the native spirit is known—and still not come close to sampling all of the several thousand brands of scotch in existence. That kind of breadth and depth can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. If you begin at the beginning—a logical starting point if there ever was one—and learn the basics, you can wade smoothly into the category and have years of enjoyment in front of you. Here, an entry-level menu of questions about the stuff that gets exported out of Scotland at a rate of 40 bottles per second (no, really: 40 bottles per second).
What happened to the “e” in Scotch whisky?
The word “whiskey” is spelled with an “e” unless it refers to the Scotch, Canadian, or Japanese versions, in which case it’s ‘whisky.’ That ‘e’ gets dropped in Loch Ness, or over the plains of Saskatchewan, or the Sea of Japan.
What makes a whisky Scotch?
Scotch is the name for whisky that’s made in Scotland. It must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years. Beyond the oak requirement, there’s no restriction on the type of oak barrel, so scotch can be aged in new or used barrels, ex-Bourbon or ex-sherry casks, and others, so long as they're made of oak.
What is single malt Scotch?
It’s very simple: single malt is whisky that’s produced at one distillery, from malted barley. That’s it. (Single malts can be, and usually are, composed of whiskies from different barrels, blended together, but they must all be from the same distillery.)
How about blended scotch?
Also simple: blended Scotch whisky is sourced from multiple distilleries, and they don’t all have to be from malted barley. They also include grain whiskies. They are then blended together to achieve a balanced, consistent flavor profile.
Can you mix scotch into cocktails?
Most definitely. Blended scotch anchors some of the best and most excellently named classic cocktails, from the Rob Roy and the Rusty Nail to the Godfather and the Blood and Sand. And it is much more versatile and mixable than people give it credit for. Good blended scotch is well balanced and therefore fits seamlessly with a range of cocktail flavor profiles, from sweet to savory to spicy.
Is single malt better than blended?
In a word: No. In fact, in the early days of the craft, single malts were so rough that self-taught artisans used to combine them to smooth out the rough edges and create a more harmonious flavor profile. This was the beginning of blended scotch, which, way back then, was usually superior to single malt. Today, it’s a matter of personal preference. Whisky experts often use a musical analogy to explain the difference: think of blended scotch as an orchestra working together in complementary fashion, whereas single malt is a jazz soloist with a unique style. But make no mistake, blending whiskies is a genuine art form. Additionally, roughly 90% of single malt scotch is produced to ultimately end up in blended scotch, and 90% of scotch consumed around the world is blended.
Wait, blending is an art form?
On second thought, it’s part science, part art. Master blenders—of which there are only 12 in the entire world—undergo intense scientific training before they embark on their career of nosing and blending hundreds of whiskies. Most individual blended scotches are composed of dozens of whiskies. The blender has to ensure that the product tastes the same year-after-year, even if supply of one of the whiskies in the blend is not available because of slow production or lack of resources. The job requires immense skill, and a refined sense of smell and taste—not to mention the endurance to nose up to 600 casks a day and climb to the top rack of the warehouse on a frigid winter’s day.
Is scotch snooty?
Any liquid that was known in its earliest days as aqua vitae (latin for “water of life”) can hardly be called snooty, and in Scotland, anyway, the stuff was (and is) equally beloved across all spectrums of society. How much do Scots identify with their native liquid? According to Business Insider, scotch makes up an astonishing 73% of Scotland’s total export output—and 20% of the entire UK’s total food and drink exports. Somewhere along the line, though, it did pick up that reputation, but it’s not deserved: there are excellent scotches at every price point, and everyone is welcome. There’s no special knowledge you have to have to enjoy scotch.
Is scotch a men-only drink?
With apologies to Ron Burgundy, you don’t have to own many leather bound books and an apartment that smells of rich mahogany to enjoy scotch, and you definitely don’t have to be a man. Any lingering residue from this stale notion needs to be swept aside, once and for all. Of the 12 Master Blenders on the planet, five are women, and women are steadily populating the ranks of scotch brand ambassadors, whisky (and whiskey) experts, sommeliers, and journalists. Not to mention enthusiasts. So yeah: the answer here is a hard no.
How do I find the right bottle for me, among so many choices?
The past decade or so has seen a renaissance of quality spirits. The upshot is that the average bartender and liquor store clerk is much more above average, in terms of general knowledge, than he or she would have been 10-15 years ago. Don’t be afraid to ask; they’ll guide you in the right direction.