Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date, including 5 questions on bourbon and 5 questions on rye whiskey.
Scotch sort of occupies an unusual position in the modern alcohol hierarchy, doesn’t it? For decades, high-end scotch was the most sure sign of “cool” available to screenwriters and set decorators. Need to communicate to the audience that this character is a suave, sophisticated gentleman? Show him drinking some neat scotch, or scotch on the rocks. Where would the likes of Mad Men have been without it?
But in the modern mixology and cocktail culture boom, it sometimes feels like scotch has been left behind a bit. Whereas American bourbon (and especially rye) whiskey, rum, tequila, mezcal and gin have all seen surges, scotch hasn’t quite had the same attention, nor has it been reclaimed as a cool hipster drink in your average dive. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time, though, until scotch sees its moment in the sun?
There are, after all, no shortage of classic scotch cocktails such as the Rusty Nail, Rob Roy, Presbyterian or Penicillin. And with all of the new drinks that have been developed with the likes of mezcal in mind, perhaps some could be ported over to the original smoky European liquor: Scotch!
But beyond the cocktails, let’s answer the more basic questions: What is scotch? What’s that whole “single malt” designation all about? What are the scotch whisky regions? How does its flavor differ from American whiskeys, such as bourbon and rye? What should “good” scotch cost you at the package store these days?
Here then, are five questions about scotch you’ll probably want answered. Also: Check out our blind tasting of 10 bottom shelf scotches for less than $25.
First of all: It is indeed “whisky,” when you’re talking about scotch. The Scottish have never used the “e” in their spelling of whisky, whereas American, Canadian and even Irish whiskeys often do. There are of course a few exceptions, but when you’re talking about scotch, just spell it “whisky.”
Here are the basic outlines of what defines both scotch whisky, and “single malt” scotch whisky.
— Scotch must be produced in Scotland—fermented, distilled, aged and bottled in its country of origin. You may see bottles on the shelf labeled as “scotch-style” whisky that are from the U.S. or Canada, but if it actually says “scotch,” then it hails from Scotland.
— Historically, scotch whisky was first distilled from a fermented mash of malted barley, but modern scotch can also include other cereal grains such as wheat, corn, rye and others. As in any liquor, the sugars derived from mashing these grains are first fermented, and then distilled to a proof of less than 190, before being cut with water. All scotch whisky is then legally required to spend at least three years aging in oak, with a maximum size on casks—this is the same rule also required of Canadian whiskey. It is then bottled at a minimum strength of 40% ABV (80 proof), the same as in U.S. whiskey.
— The oak casks used for scotch whisky, however, are traditionally of a very different nature than what is being used for American bourbon and rye, although they are in fact the exact same casks. The difference is that American bourbon is required to age in newly charred casks, which impart much more intense and wood-forward flavors, in a shorter period of time. Scotch whisky, on the other hand, is traditionally aged in used casks of many different varieties. Used American bourbon casks make up a large percentage of the oak barrels used by the scotch industry, and can be re-used multiple times, but they contribute less intense flavors because the first round of American whiskey aging sucked many of those flavors out of the wood. However, this is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to scotch barrels: The industry also makes use of rum barrels and casks used to age sherry, port, wine and many other spirits. Even “virgin” oak, which is newly charred as in American whiskey, is starting to be used more frequently as the industry has increasingly become less reliant upon tradition.
Used barrels are essential to the scotch industry.
— Scotch whisky is not allowed to contain any “added substances,” with the exception of plain (E150A) caramel coloring, which is standard in the industry for altering the color of scotch to levels desired by the consumer. This practice is still somewhat contentious, and distilleries may label their product as “bottled at natural color” to inform consumers that they didn’t use caramel coloring.
— Any age statement on a bottle of scotch “must reflect the age of the youngest whisky used to produce that product.” If a whisky age statement reads 12 years old, therefore, it may actually contain older whiskies in it, but the youngest whisky in the blend is 12 years old. Conversely, a whisky without a numbered age statement is simply referred to as “NAS,” non-age-stated, although you know it’s legally required to be at least three years old.
— The most popular scotch whisky brands in the world are all “blended scotch whisky,” which is a legal term meaning that the product is a blend of both malt whiskies and grain whiskies. Malt whiskies, as the name would imply, are fermented and distilled exclusively from malted barley. Grain whiskies, on the other hand, are distilled from any other mash of grains. These include flagship brands such as Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s, Famous Grouse and many others, and are often characterized as more affordable and common for blending and mixed drinks, although ultra-premium blended scotch whisky also exists.
The most common and widely consumed scotch whiskies are blends of malt whisky and grain whisky, and are less expensive as a result.
— “Single malt” scotch whisky, on the other hand, is typically characterized as a distillery’s most prized product, and single malt brands tend to carry higher price tags as a result. The word “single” specifically means that this is a whisky that was distilled by a single distillery, and “malt” means that the whisky contains no grain whiskies—it is exclusively malted barley. Taken together, it means that single malt whiskies are viewed as the purest expression of one distillery’s craft.
As both a shorthand for consumers, and a matter of regional pride, Scotland is classically divided up into five scotch whisky “regions.” Some of the regions, such as Islay, have a certain style of whisky much more strongly associated with them, while others such as Campbeltown contain only three operating distilleries and are largely included today for their historical significance.
Knowing the region that a particular distillery hails from may give you a broad idea of what kind of malts they may produce, but regions are ultimately little more than a jumping off point. We cover all of this in great detail on our guide to the five scotch whisky regions, but here’s an abbreviated version.
Speyside: The biggest region in terms of production, Speyside is home to several of the most famous brands in scotch whisky. Their malts are often characterized as being lighter, fresher and more grassy than other regions, as exemplified by brands such as Glenlivet and Glenfiddich. However, Speyside also is home to makers of richer drams such as The Macallan, and many distilleries that specialize in heavily sherried malts such as Aberlour or The Glenrothes. All in all, Speyside malts include some of the world’s biggest and most famous brands, but aren’t hurting for variety.
The Highlands: The Highlands are the largest scotch region geographically, and the second biggest in terms of production, with arguably more variety than any other region thanks to its diverse selection of distilleries. Northern Highland distilleries like Glenmorangie and The Dalmore often produce big, full-bodied and rich malts, while distilleries in the east and south such as Glengoyne are often characterized as producing lighter and softer drams. Western Highland distilleries such as Oban, meanwhile, are more influenced by the proximity to the ocean and have more of the peaty, smoky notes typically associated with whiskies from the Islay region. This essentially gives The Highlands region its own array of sub-regions.
Likewise, The Highlands region also classically includes The Islands, which essentially means every island off Scottish coast, with the exception of Islay. Distilleries from The Islands are also quite diverse, ranging from the fruitiness of Tobermoray to the nuttiness of Jura and the smoke and brine of Talisker. For this reason, some whisky geeks consider The Islands to be the sixth scotch whisky region—the “fifth Beatle” of the idea of regionality, if you will.
Islay: If you specifically associate scotch whisky with big, peaty, smoky, earthy whiskies that take no prisoners on the palate, you’ve probably sampled some malts from Islay. Scotland’s largest island is home to many distilleries in its relatively small footprint, and they tend to make a big impression. Many flagship malts from Islay distilleries such as Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Caol Ila heavily feature peat-smoked malt, which gives them intense flavors that are often described as “medicinal,” combining sea air/salinity with notes of iodine, earth, tar and seaweed. This gives Islay an association of being “maritime” scotch that evokes the Atlantic ocean itself. Many of these malts are very strongly flavored, and they often show up in tiny percentages in blended scotch whiskies to contribute a bit of smoke and earth.
With that said, not every distillery on Islay focuses on solely producing huge, peated beasts. Some, like Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich and Bowmore, have lineups that are considerably more balanced and less defined by peat.
The seaside distilleries of Islay do not play around when it comes to bold flavors of peat and smoke.
The Lowlands: Lowland malts and Lowland distilleries don’t tend to be as well known in the U.S., and the relatively low number of distilleries here (only 7) contributes to this, as does the fact that several primarily produce grain whiskies to be used in blends. Lowland malts, meanwhile, are associated with being smoother and more unobtrusive, unpeated and easy going. Distilleries such as Auchentoshan are the classic example, as their triple distilled malt is very easy drinking, to the point that it’s nicknamed “The Breakfast Malt.” Elegant, honeyed malts from the Lowlands also hail from Glenkinchie, Bladnoch and Daftmill.
Campbeltown: Campbeltown is a tiny region, located just on the Kintyre peninsula of southern Scotland, but it was once one of the nation’s whisky powerhouses, with more than 30 distilleries. Today, however, there are only three remaining: Springbank, Glengyle and Glen Scotia. That makes it difficult to really classify Campbeltown as having a specific regional style, but these three distilleries keep the flag flying for the region.
The differences in the flavor of scotch vs. American whiskeys such as bourbon largely come down to three things: Grain bills, barrels and “finishes.”
American bourbon is primarily fermented and distilled from a mash of corn and rye, which classically gives it a rich corny sweetness, balanced by the spicy bite of rye. Scotch whisky, on the other hand, is traditionally a product of malted barley, which contributes flavors that are often more toasty, bready and fruity. This is how the mash bill of each style of whiskey plays into their flavor profiles.
Perhaps an even bigger factor, though, is the barrels in which they age. Bourbon must legally be aged in newly charred oak barrels, which tend to impart intense flavors of wood, caramel and vanilla in a relatively short time. American bourbon can therefore be considered nicely matured within only a year or two in newly charred oak, because the wood has a lot of flavor to impart. Scotch whisky, on the other hand, undergoes a more subtle and time-consuming aging process as it rests in used oak barrels. These barrels are less intensely flavorful, which means it takes longer for the whisky to take on flavor and color. It also makes scotch whiskies less defined by barrel-derived notes of caramel, oak and vanilla, which allows the barley or yeast-derived flavors achieved during fermentation and distillation to stand out more.
You’re not going to find an American bourbon that tastes like this.
An exception is those scotch whiskies that undergo what is referred to in the industry as barrel finishes, which is when a distillery takes a whisky that has finished its initial aging and then sticks it in a new finishing barrel to boost its flavor profile before release. One of the most common finishes would be barrels formerly used for aging sherry, which imparts rich fruit and nutty notes into scotch whiskies finished in them. Other types of barrel finishes for scotch whiskies abound, however, including port, rum, wine barrels, or even freshly dumped bourbon barrels for an additional boost of relatively fresh oak. These barrel finishes help distilleries tweak and tailor their releases, or make standard malts more interesting.
For a long time, the art of distilling malt whiskey was associated almost entirely with Scotland and Ireland, but a market has steadily emerged in the U.S. in the last decade for American-made malt whiskeys. Dubbed “American single malts,” these are essentially scotch-style whiskeys made in the U.S. It’s a category that still makes up a very small percentage of the American whiskey market, but it’s been steadily growing, and companies like Virginia Distillery Co. have based their entire business model around it.
Places like Virginia Distillery Co. are focusing entirely on American single malts.
American single malts may try to replicate the Scottish whisky production methods as precisely as they can, though the use of European malt and peat-smoked malt, and aging in used American oak barrels, but they may also throw caution to the wind to produce novel and strange products. Keep in mind that American single malts are not subject to the scotch whisky definition seen above, such as the requirement of three years of aging. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they may be aged in newly charred oak as a result, which speeds up the aging process and contributes an entirely different flavor profile from what many drinkers typically associate with malt whiskey.
All in all, this is an emerging category with a lot of promise, but it will still be a long time before U.S. distilleries focusing on American single malts can offer well-aged products that will be able to directly measure up against those from Scotland.
Ah yes, the question that is on everyone’s lips when they’re learning about scotch: What is reasonable to pay for it?
Well, if you’re talking about blended scotch whiskies, the price points get pretty low, but you’ll want to be wary of the extreme bottom shelf, as evidenced by some of the rotgut we sampled in our blind tasting of cheap scotches. Still by the time you get near the $20 range you’ll be able to find bottles of some of the biggest brands in the industry, such as Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s and The Famous Grouse. Drop a little bit more and you can upgrade to something like Chivas Regal, which carries a 12-year age statement, or the popular Monkey Shoulder, which is a blend of exclusively malts rather than malt and grain whiskies. All in all, though? It’s hard to recommend spending more than $30 or $40 on blended scotch whisky, rather than making the jump to single malts.
Our blind tasting of bottom-shelf scotches was … illuminating, to say the least.
Single malt whiskies are where the pricing conversation gets more complicated, as many of these brands historically command higher price points in the U.S. than bourbon, owing partially to the fact that many single malts take much longer to make. For this reason, you could consider around $25 a relative floor for single malt prices—at that level, you’ll start to see high-value brands like Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie or Speyburn. From $30-50 you’ll start to get into the scotch mid-shelf, which contains many flagship brands such as Aberfeldy, Laphroaig or Jura, but also the start of well-liked brands with barrel finishes such as Balvenie or Aberlour.
At the same time, you’ll have to go beyond $50 in order to find the flagship brands of many distilleries, including Oban, The Macallan, Lagavulin, GlenDronach, Highland Park and many others. This makes the “entry level” of single malt scotch significantly higher than it is for many other styles of liquor, because not all flagship malts are created or priced equally. And of course, they also go much higher than this level, to $100 and far beyond for advanced age statements and rare barrel finishes. Although it isn’t necessary to ever drop more than $100 if all you’re looking for is objectively delicious scotch, there’s arguably more reason to do so in the world of single malts than there is in the world of bourbon, as the advanced age statements in particular offer flavors that can’t really be replicated in more affordable bottles.
As in any field of the liquor world, though, it ultimately comes down to consumer choice. If you find a $25 bottle of scotch that satisfies all your whisky desires, more power to you.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.