Guide: How to Buy Scotch Whisky

The incredible complexity of scotch whisky paradoxically gives it its appeal, taste-wise but it can also be intimidating for the uninitiated. We present five steps to start you on your journey to scotch whisky appreciation

The world of Mad Men, the now-famous TV series chronicling the lives of advertising men in 1960s America, has reminded us all that a good scotch whisky is sometimes an absolutely necessary part of the work day. For his part, Don Draper is the very image of whisky as a man’s drink, with untold depths of complexity.

Called the most organoleptically complex spirit in the world by famed whisky writer Charles MacLean, whisky is amazingly popular worldwide, with single malt scotch in particular drawing the attention of connoisseurs. However, the very complexity of the spirit and its apparently ubiquitous appeal make it very difficult indeed to figure out how to select a good bottle of scotch. 

Below we present five essential steps in selecting an excellent bottle of scotch. It won’t make you a connoisseur but it will show you how to get there. 

Know Your Spirit

  • There are two prominent spellings for whisky, either whisky or whiskey. Whiskey is typically used by Irish and American distilleries, while whisky is used by Scottish, Canadian and Japanese distilleries. 
  • Scotch is strictly produced from malted barley (other grains may be added) in a distillery in Scotland. The word Scotch refers to whisky from Scotland.
  • There are three main types of scotch: single malt, single grain and blended
  • For single malt or single grain whiskies, the word single refers to the distillery, not the type of malt or grain used
  • While malt whiskies use malted barley, grain whiskies typically combine both grains and malt.
  • A blended scotch is the combination of two or more single malt or single grain whiskies
  • There are three definitions of blended scotch – blended malt scotch is a combination of two or more single malts; blended grain scotch is a combination of two or more single grains; blended scotch is a combination of both single malts and single grains

Know the Distillery or Brand

  • Like wine, knowledge of individual distilleries and their special properties is essential.
  • For example, malting, where the barley is mixed with water to start the fermentation process, is done in-house by only a few distilleries
  • Malt scotch involves a double distillation process, although some distilleries introduce more.
  • Grain scotch involves a single or continuous distillation process.
  • The size and shape of the stills used by a distillery are believed to affect the final bottled product, with distilleries taking pains to replicate their original stills down to the precise specifications when replacing old stills or adding new stills. 
  • Guide How To Buy Scotch Whisky 6These stills at The Glenlivet distillery are typical of the industry. The Glenlivet was the first distillery to be licensed in Scotland under the Excise Act of 1823.
  • Guide How To Buy Scotch Whisky 7Whisky casks at the famous Cardhu distillery. Scotch distilleries often use ex-bourbon casks. By US law, bourbon must be aged in fresh barrels and these are expensive. Thanks to this legal requirement, there is always a ready supply of used casks for Scottish distilleries.
  • Guide How To Buy Scotch Whisky 8In addition to the above four regions, Campbeltown has been recently restored to the list. It is the little peninsula between the Lowlands and Islay, officially called Kintyre peninsula. 
  • Guide How To Buy Scotch Whisky 9Gordon and MacPhail’s Mortlach 70-Years Old Speyside Single Malt Whisky is thought to be the oldest commercially available single malt. Only 162 bottles were released.
  • Guide How To Buy Scotch Whisky 10The Macallan distillery. Among the most interesting practices in the Scotch whisky industry is The Macallan’s use of wood casks. The firm builds its own then leases them to sherry producers in Spain. The casks are returned to The Macallan after use, ready to mature scotch whisky. 
  • Guide How To Buy Scotch Whisky 11By Scottish law, whisky must contain malted barley. Even single grain whiskies include barley because of this. In other countries, all sorts of grain can be used to create whisky, from corn to wheat and rye. 
  • Guide How To Buy Scotch Whisky 12Glenfiddich distillery is one of the oldest to dedicate its production to single malt scotch. They’ve been at it since 1963. Prior to the mid-1980s, distilleries sent most of their product out for blending. Blended scotch still represents nearly 90% of the global supply of scotch whisky. 
  • Guide How To Buy Scotch Whisky 13Although whisky is typically shown like this, in a glass with ice, opinion is divided among connoisseurs on the effect of ice on flavor. The prevalent thinking is that ice closes down flavor while water opens it up.

Know the Regions

  • Scotch can be geographically divided into Islay, Highland, Speyside, Lowland and Campbeltown varieties.
  • These regions only indicate the location of the distilleries. It does not mean anything in relation to malting and maturation.
  • In relation to blended scotch (close to 90% of this spirit globally), the notion of ‘origin’ is not applied because blends offer a taste of all of Scotland.
  • Geography can speak to the character of single distillery scotch. Islay malts are famously peaty, for example.

Know the Age

  • By law, scotch must be aged a minimum of three years and must be made with water, malted barley and yeast 
  • Most of the intense flavors associated with scotch come from the aging process, specifically from the type of wood casks used to age the whisky.
  • Aging whisky takes place in secondhand casks, typically sherry, bourbon and wine casks. Most standard blends have an average age of about five to nine years. 
  • Famous brands such as Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, Dewar’s and the like age their blended whiskies after blending. 
  • Most malts are sold between their 10th and 20th years.
  • The age of the scotch is normally indicated on the label. For blends, the average age of the individual whiskies are not listed.

Know the Background

  • As always, labels are useful but for whisky in general, there are few consistent terms to offer support. 
  • There are excellent online resources such as the official Scotch Whisky Association and Scotchwhisky.net, which also offers links to scotch sellers. 

Perhaps best of all are the beautiful books written on the subject of whisky (and whiskey). Here’s a list of recommended reading:

Guide How To Buy Scotch Whisky 15

Michael Jackson's Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch

Guide How To Buy Scotch Whisky 16

Whiskey and Philosophy

Guide How To Buy Scotch Whisky 17

Whiskypedia: A Compendium of Scottish Whisky

Guide How To Buy Scotch Whisky 18

The World Atlas of Whisky
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