Scotch whiskey is one of the most popular and renowned beverages in the world. More than 141 whiskey distillers are operating in Scotland. Collectively, they ship about 53 bottles of scotch every second to locations around the world.
While most people have heard of single malt Scotch whiskey. Yet few know about its origins, how it is made, and the different types that are available.
Below is a basic guide to Scotch whiskey, including a brief history. It lays production means and standards, and explains what makes this spirit so unique. Keep reading to learn more.
History of Scotch Whiskey?
Scotch whiskey may not be as old as you think. People all over the world, including the Scots, have been fermenting beer and wine for thousands of years. By these standards, the distillation process used to make Scotch whiskey is relatively new.
Some 15th-century records mention inventories of malted barley for Scottish friars, the earliest known reference. By the mid-1600s, the Scottish government began taxing scotch, which prompted illicit whiskey distilling across the country.
By the 1820s, there were thousands of clandestine stills across Scotland. In 1823, the government began requiring licensing (with accompanying fees) for making Scotch.
Taxed or untaxed, by this time, scotch had cemented itself as a staple of consumption in Scotland. The poet Robert Burns even wrote an ode to the beverage titled "Scotch Drink."
In 1831, a distiller named Aeneas Coffey invented a still that allowed for the production of grain whiskey. Up until this point, malt whiskey was the only spirit in production.
The mid-to-late 1800s also saw entrepreneurs taking the scotch they made to different of the world. These include names still well-known today: Tommy Dewar, Johnnie Walker, James Buchana, and James Chivas.
In 1933, the Scottish Parliament passed the first definition of scotch into law (see below). In 1994, the scotch whiskey industry officially celebrated 500 years of production.
How Is Scotch Made?
To make whiskey in general, you soak grain in water for several days. This allows it to germinate, which releases enzymes that convert starch into sugars. Producers then add yeast, which eats the sugar and produces alcohol.
Scotch follows this general process but with a few nuances. Quality barley is selected, steeped in water, then spread out on malting floors to germinate.
After about a week, the resulting "green malt" gets transferred to kilns for drying, which halts germination. At this stage, peat can be added to the fire to infuse the grain with flavor by way of the smoke.
Next, the dry malt gets ground up into coarse flour. Fresh water is added in various stages to create a "mash." The mash steeps in the water to create a sugary liquid known as "wort."
Distillers then add yeast to the wort to initiate fermentation. After a few days, they heat the wort in pot stills.
This allows the alcohol and a few other compounds to vaporize and separate from the solids. The process gets run twice to produce the desired spirit, which is then aged in barrels.
What Does "Single Malt" Mean?
"Single malt" does not mean "single barrel" or even "single batch." It simply refers to a whiskey made using 100 percent malted grain (barley, in the case of Scotch) at a single distillery.
This is distinct from blended whiskey (Scotch or otherwise), which comes from different grains and usually from different distilleries. In fact, blended whiskey often has single malt whiskey mixed with another type to achieve distinct tastes.
What Else Makes It "Scotch Whiskey"?
Since "single malt" merely describes this process, it does not alone define Scotch whiskey. For instance, there are Japanese and American single malt whiskeys. They must meet the same standards described above, but single malt whiskey can essentially come from anywhere.
You may have guessed that, for it to be scotch whiskey, it must be made in Scotland. But it does not end there. There are a few requirements imposed on a "scotch" whiskey detailed in Scottish law.
First, if a maker wants to call whiskey "scotch," they must have distilled it in copper pot stills, as opposed to column stills used to make other types of whiskey.
They also must age the scotch in an oak cask for a least three years. The last requirement is that the final product is at least 80 proof.
Why Does All This Matter?
Why are these distinctions important? First, the processes for creating single malt Scotch whiskey guarantees that you are getting a certain quality, regardless of the producer.
There is also a general difference consumers can draw between single malt and blended whiskies. In general, single-malt whiskey is going to be richer and bolder. You can expect deeper flavors that linger on the palate.
Blended whiskey, on the other hand, is usually lighter with more subtle flavors. It also can be smoother, which some people prefer. Another distinction is that single malt is usually more expensive than blended Scotch whiskey.
There are several reasons for this. The main one is the high production standards of single malt Scotch whiskey.
It is a more "hands-on" endeavor. That, along with requirements for aging, makes it more technical and time-consuming to create than many blends.
Another related reason is that single malt Scotch producers have spent decades--even centuries--honing their craft. This means that they can expect consumers to pay a bit more for an artisanal product.
A final reason that Scotch whiskies often cost a premium is the requirement that they be made in Scotland, a country about the size of South Carolina. This means that there is room for only so many producers, who then have to export their products.
Learn More About Single Malt Scotch Whiskey
Now that you understand the basics of single-malt Scotch whiskey, you can find one for your next special occasion. It is a complex spirit that has an intricate history to go along with its rich flavors.
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