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Let’s Talk About Whisky

a man drinking from a wine glass

We love whisky, we love it a lot. So, my aim is to spread the love and try to walk amateur whisky drinkers through everything they need to know before falling for our beloved drink.

Whisky is the world’s leading alcoholic drink; it outsells every other noble spirit in the world. Scotland is the whisky mecca, home to more than 120 malt and grain distilleries. This makes it the greatest concentration of whisky production in the world. Some brands are iconic, Lagavulin, for example, is Ron Swanson’s favourite tipple. It and the island it is created on features heavily in Parks and Recreation. Despite hating Europe, Ron declares Islay is worth making the trip from America so you can visit the island that creates “God’s chosen elixirs”. Macallan, one of the world’s most expensive whiskies, features in the James Bond film, Sky Fall. Bond misses a shot glass of Macallan balanced on the head of Bond girl Severine, once eventually spilt he sighs, that it was a “waste of good Scotch”.

A whisky a day keeps the doctor away…

Throughout history people have written about, sung about and, of course, drank whisky. Whisky dates back as far as 1100-1300, originally used as a medicine (internally and externally!). In fact, more recently in history, during Prohibition, Laphroaig was the only ‘legal’ Whisky to be sold in the US. Ian Hunter (owned and managed Laphroaig from 1908 to 1944) persuaded officials that it could be used for medical purposes, due to its strong iodine character.

Whisky and its success has gone through many ups and downs over the years. The the Great French Wine Blight in 1880, a plague that destroyed the vast majority of French vineyards, caused a big decrease in wine production and therefore increase in the demand for whisky. The World Wars reduced working distilleries from around 150 in 1900 to only 15 in 1932-33. Due to the length of time needed to create whisky the supply and demand of it is a guessing game. The 1980s were another trying time for whisky as vodka and white rum were much more popular.

Fast forward a few years to 2018, the Scotch Whisky Association reports that 41 bottles (70cl @40% ABV) of Scotch Whisky are shipped from Scotland to 175 markets around the world each second, totalling over 1.28bn every year. I would says it’s certainly regained it’s popularity!

Our national drink is full of history, tradition and dare I say it, experimentation. First, let’s talk through the basics…

Whisky derives originally from the Gaelic ‘uisge beatha’, meaning ‘water of life’. Whisky usually refers to whisky created in Scotland (or Canada or Japan…) add an ‘e’ and Whiskey is then referring to a spirit from Ireland or America.

Scotch is commonly used as a synonym of whisky, although it is defined as an adjective meaning “of Scotland”. Officially, Scotch is a Geographical Indicator (a mark used on products from a precise geographical origin which gives it certain conditions or character.) This means there is worldwide law regulating and protecting the production of our scotch whisky.

  • Dram – This is a small shot of whisky; you may also see a small amount of whisky referred to as a “nip”.
  • Single Malt – The two earlier mentioned whiskies (Lagavulin & Macallan) are single malts, this means they were distilled at one distillery. You can combine whiskies of different ages in a Single Malt, but the youngest of these whiskies is the age that can be put on the bottle. You could put a 50-year-old whisky with a 12-year-old whisky and the bottle would have to be labelled as a 12-year-old (or unaged). You can also mix whiskies from different types of casks (often named Double Wood or Triple Wood) and this is still a single malt.
  • Blend – A blend is a mix of whiskies from different distilleries and often whiskies that have been created in different processes, for example a grain whisky. You may have heard of Famous Grouse, Chivas Regal or Johnnie Walker – these are all blended whiskies!
  • Cask – This is an oak barrel where the spirit is left to mature and become whisky. Casks play a huge role in shaping the final flavour profile of a whisky. Ex bourbon casks are the most popular used. But many distilleries also use ex sherry, port, rum, wine, madeira or even virgin oak.
  • Slàinte Mhath – Pronounced Slanj-a-va is basically our way of saying cheers, it is Gaelic for “good health”. Sometimes shortened to Slanj, this is widely used when raising a dram of whisky.

So, what makes a single malt whisky scotch?

3 ingredients:

  • Barley
  • Scottish Water
  • Yeast

You take these three ingredients on a journey through Malting, Milling, Mashing, Fermentation and Distillation then mature that liquid in oak casks in Scotland for at least three years and one day. The best way to learn about this is to visit a working distillery and see the processes in action! You can do this on our Stirling, Loch Lomond & Glengoyne Distillery tour.


Whisky regions of Scotland…

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whiskey is barely enough” Mark Twain.

We couldn’t agree more with Mr. Twain. When it comes to good whisky, it’s never enough. Each and every whisky has its own style, flavour or production process, and the hardest part will always be choosing one. A great place to start is a whisky flight, so you can taste and compare a range of flavours to decide which you like.

Intimidating? Certainly. Luckily, we’ve done the detective’s work and have rounded up some bits of information to get you started. Scotland’s whisky regions are traditionally used as a reference guide to explore Scotch flavors and styles (a concept very similar with wine, actually). We have 5 main regions, 6 if we include the islands. These are:

  • Lowlands – softer and lighter in character, almost always unpeated– a great place to start if you’ve never drank a whisky before. Auchentoshan is a great example of a Lowland whisky
  • Highlands & Islands – This covers a large area of Scotland so the distilleries over a wide range of flavours! The west coast distilleries often have a touch of salt & smoke in their drams, Oban Distillery offers a good introduction to these seaside flavours.
  • Speyside – home to half of Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries, this small area certainly packs in some incredible whisky. Mellow, sweet and often fruity flavours dominate here. Again, a good place to start if you’re put off by peaty flavours. Try a Balvenie 12-year-old for a sweet, fruity, vanilla-y dram.
  • Islay – Iconic for strong peaty flavours. Loud and unapologetic Laphroaig welcomes all opinions, displaying descriptions such as “It’s like being kicked in the face by a horse that’s been galloping in a peaty bog” around their distillery. It’s delicious – give it a try! Or go for one of the islands unpeated malts – such as a Bunnahabhain or a Classic Laddie. For an extensive tour of this region, check out our sister company, Scottish Routes.
  • Campbeltown – at one time there were 34 distilleries producing here, now only 3 remain. Robust, rich and briney flavours can be found here. Try a Springbank 10, a Campbeltown classic.

These days, you can easily find an Islay style whisky in Speyside, and vice versa. We suggest you forget about regions a little bit and explore the wonderful world of single malt whisky by flavour.

Right now there are over 20 million casks maturing in warehouses in Scotland. That’s almost 4 casks for every person living here. So, go on try a dram or two… we’ve got quite a few waiting to be discovered.

Written by Clare Dolan