I am always surprised when someone tells me that they enjoy all whiskeys with the exception of Scotch. Scottish whiskey, or Scotch for short, has a diverse array of flavor profiles, ranging from sweet fruit to salty smoke, with every combination you could possibly imagine in between. Hopefully this blog will shine some light on the regional profiles of Scotch and help guide you in your search to find that Scotch that makes you say, “Hey, I do like Scotch and WOW! It’s delicious!” It’s out there waiting to be discovered.
Much like its American counterpart, bourbon, Scotch has a strict set of criteria that must be met in order to earn the label Scotch. First and foremost, Scotch must be produced in Scotland from water and malted (germinated) barley. Other grains may be added if proper designation is used during labeling of the whiskey. For example, single malt requires only water and malted barley from a single distillery be used; grain scotch requires the whiskey be made from any other grain, malted or un-malted; blended malt must be a blend of 2 or more single malts produced at different distilleries; and blended Scotch must be a combination of 2 or more malt Scotch and grain Scotch. In addition, the processing of a mash, fermentation using only yeast, and pot distillation must all occur on the grounds of the distillery. The spirit must be distilled at less than 94.8% alcohol, stored in oak cask for a minimum of 3 years, and bottled at no less than 40% alcohol strength per volume.
Unlike bourbon, the oak barrels used to age Scotch are not restricted to first fill American oak, meaning that they can be recycled barrels of any oak variety previously containing sherry, bourbon, port, etc. This stipulation helps to create flavor diversity in Scotch because every cask has something different to offer. Ex-bourbon barrels create vanilla and honey notes with heavy oak tones in the whiskey. It's important to remember that these are qualities created by the American oak, which is a requisite of bourbon. European sherry and port casks, on the other hand, offer notes of rich dried fruits, toffee, orange peel, and spice. Other attributes to the characteristics of Scotch come from the water source (i.e., water sources closer to the sea offer salt notes or a briny quality) and the use of peat during the post malting drying process of the barley, which creates smoky flavors in the whiskey.
Next it is important to understand the locality of Scotch by learning the five designated regions of Scotch production and the characteristics of the malt whiskeys created in these regions.
The Malts of Scotland
Lowlands – The demand for grain whiskeys has wreaked havoc on the malt production of this region, and today only the Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie and Bladnoch distilleries remain. These whiskeys have a wonderful earthy quality of leaves or grass, floral notes, and tend to be creamy with subtle spice influences.
Island – Island single malts offer an eclectic mix of flavors, from light-citrus to smoke, brine, and pepper, with an oily consistency. Highland Park, of the Orkneys, offers smoke, honey sweetness, toffee, and fruit notes. Jura original is light with apple notes, honey, malts, toffee and licorice. Talisker, from the Isle of Skye, produces whiskeys with smoke, pepper, salty brine, citrus, and apple/pear notes. Ledaig is also a peat monster with lots of smoke, brine, and a wonderful oily quality that makes it a great winter whiskey.
Islay – These whiskeys are known for a full-bodied mouthfeel, rich peaty smoke, and taste of the sea – ranging from subtle brine to strong iodine notes and seaweed to kipper, citrus and tropical fruits. These are very complex whiskeys. There is truly nothing better than warming up during the cold of winter with nice neat glass of Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, or Bowmore, to name a few.
Campbeltown – Once a booming whiskey town of 34 distilleries, sadly, only the 3 distilleries of Springbank, Glengyle, and Glen Scotia remain. These whiskeys are known for their complex flavors of smoke, brine, fruit, and vanilla.
Speyside – Speyside can truly be called the heart of single malt production, with 60% of single malts emerging from this region. These whiskeys are known for barley/malt flavors, big fruit notes both dried and fresh, sweetness and spice, big oak, and lots of body with no smoke. Macallan, Glenrothes, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Glen Grant, and Aberlour, are a few of my Speyside favorites.
Highlands – These whiskeys spread over the largest geographical area in Scotland and offer a vast variety of flavor profiles. Rich fruitcake and chocolate of Dalmore; bitter orange, honey, and smoke of Oban; peaches and almonds of Glenmorangie original expression; or heather, brine, lemongrass, and cinnamon of Clynelish. The diversity of the Highlands offers a whiskey for everyone.
From salty/smoke of the sea to sweet/spice of Speyside, one thing I know for certain is that if you have tasted one Scotch then you have only tasted one Scotch because no two are alike. Each is unique with very distinct combinations of flavors. Come by and let’s visit, so we can find your perfect Scotch.