Aged Scotch whisky is one of the most prized, and famous, alcoholic beverages in the world. This article delves into the history of this Scottish drink and the process that gives it its distinct flavor and reputation. It will examine how Scotch evolved and why it uses peat moss and old oak barrels.
This article also includes information on the different Scotch whiskies as well as how it differs from its cousins, whiskey and bourbon.
Scotch whisky, or simply “scotch,” is related to whisky and bourbon because all three are derived from Irish brewing practices. Sometime during the 9th century, Irish monks brought Christianity and the process of alcohol distillation to Scotland. The Scots modified the process over time, creating a distinct brew that became Scotch whisky.
All whisky is brewed from a fermentation process that involves simply barley (or another grain), water, yeast and the controlled application of heat. The grain is placed in water where it begins to germinate, which is called the “malting” process. Once the grain has “malted,” it is ground up into “mash.” The mash is put into water and yeast is applied to the mash. The yeast breaks down the sugars in the grain and creates alcohol; heat is applied to make the yeast more active. In the case of Scotch whisky, the burning of peat moss to provide heat is traditionally used, which is what gives Scotch its distinctive flavor. The liquid is distilled, resulting in a clear liquid with a high “proof,” or alcohol content. The liquid is placed into oak barrels for maturation.
Scotch whisky was heavily taxed in the early 19th century, causing many of the distillers to begin hiding their stills in the rough back country of Scotland. It is this turn of events that introduced the use of peat moss to fire the stills. Scotch whisky, usually referred to as “whisky” in England and Scotland, became popular in England in the middle of the 19th century.
The maturation process for Scotch whisky numbers in the handful to dozens of years. During the maturation process, the seasons heat or cool the barrel, resulting in the liquid expanding or contracting, respectively. When the alcohol expands, it begins to absorb some of the tannins and other flavors
from the wood. It also loses some of its alcoholic potency. As it contracts, it draws those tannins and flavors out of the wood to mix with the rest of the alcohol. Aging is a long process and results in a “smoother” beverage. Young whiskies, about 6 or so years old, are harsher but cheaper. Older whiskies, about 12 to 18 years old or more, are more highly prized and expensive.
Unlike its cousin, bourbon, Scotch whisky uses old, previously used barrels for the aging process. This results in flavor variations depending on the distiller’s preference and each brand appeals to different drinkers for different reasons, though some claim to love all Scotch whiskies.
There are several types of Scotch whisky. Single malt is made exclusively from barley malt and is produced in one distillery. Single grain whisky is created by a single distillery and does not refer to the amount of grains used. Blended Scotch whiskies, as the name implies, are blends of Scotch whiskies from two or more distilleries.
Whisky is the name of a type of alcoholic beverage of which Scotch is a sub-category. Other whiskies are whisky (sometimes spelled “Whiskey” except in Canada and Ireland) and bourbon, which although named after Bourbon county, Kentucky, does not have to be made there.
There are four Scotch whisky-making regions in Scotland; The Highlands, The Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown.