What Makes a Whiskey Scotch Whisky?

By: Jeremy Glass  | 

Scotch whisky
Bourbon whiskey is American whiskey, but true scotch whisky is made in Scotland. FUTURE LIGHT/Getty Images

What would life be without the simple creature comforts that get us through the week. Good friends, trashy TV, comfy slippers and a nice glass of whiskey. For those of us who can pour a couple of ounces of Fireball into a glass and call it day, we commend you. However, there are some of us who require a bit more bang for our buck when sipping mankind's finest vice. There's a scotch-drinker nestled within all of us — some of us just don't know it yet.

Despite the inherent ease of drinking the stuff, a lot has to happen to a bottle of whiskey before it can legally be classified as such. Similar to bourbon in color, alcohol content and occasionally taste, scotch whisky (without the "e") is in a category of its own and cannot be labeled as bourbon. So, what makes what you're drinking scotch and how does it get that way?

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Scotch vs. Bourbon

"Scotch and bourbon are both whiskeys," says Scotch Brand Ambassador, Greg King. "Whiskey is kind of the umbrella term like 'wine' or 'beer.' You can have bourbon whiskey — which is American whiskey — or you can have scotch whisky made in Scotland." Greg explains that a lot of what makes a whisky scotch as opposed to bourbon comes down to the legalities of where it's from and how it's made. Scotch has been around for hundreds of years, with the very first mention of the spirit appearing in the "Exchequer Rolls" nearly 500 years ago, in 1494.

For a whiskey to be classified as bourbon, it has to be made in the U.S. and contain at least 51 percent corn. To be a bourbon, whiskey must also be aged in new, charred oak barrels. Unlike scotch, bourbon is made from what's known as a "mash bill" — a mixture of grains used in the production of whiskey. Scotch, on the other hand, is made from malted barley that has been matured in oak barrels for a minimum of three years.

Tried and true scotch hails from — where else — Scotland. As of 2019, there were 133 operating Scotch whisky distilleries across Scotland, with notable brands like The GlenDronach, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, Macallan and Glenglassaugh, making their way around the world and into tumblers all over the world.

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Sweet vs. Smokey

For the whiskey drinker with a palette for spirits, tasting the difference between scotch and bourbon is easy. Bourbon tends to be on the sweeter side, while scotch tastes more smokey.

Those less experienced with whiskeys may have a more difficult time at first — especially if they're drinking a particularly smokey bottle of scotch like BenRiach 10-year single malt.

That taste actually comes from the malting process, in which the barley grain is exposed to a pungent peaty smoke during the drying process. Laphroaig actually dries its malt over a peat fire for about 18 hours, allowing the dried barley to absorb the smoke, giving it that distinct taste.

Of course, there are those bottles of scotch considered must-haves within the whisky community; these come from distilleries like Ardbeg, The Balvenie and Laphroaig. What makes these bottles so unique is the "peaty" flavor that comes through with each sip. Scottish peat is formed from the natural decay (decomposition) of plant material unique to Scotland's peatlands, bogs, mires, moors or muskegs.

Like wines from France or California, a connoisseur might be able to pick where a scotch comes from depending on the taste. The Highlands up north produces a more full-bodied scotch with a peaty, smokey taste; a smoother, sweeter scotch is produced in the lowlands; and Speyside scotch comes from the northeast — a region King describes as the "Napa Valley of Scotland." Because of the lush soil and perfect environmental conditions, the highest concentration of Scotland's distilleries are actually based in the Speyside region.

There are, of course, exceptions to the "all scotch comes from Scotland" rule. In 1918, Masataka Taketsuru went to Scotland with one mission in mind — to learn how to make scotch. After enrolling in the University of Glasgow, Taketsuru took chemistry courses and apprenticed at a number of scotch distilleries before mastering the art of scotch-making. In 1940, the first bottle of Nikka Whisky hit the market as the first Japanese scotch.

Along with Nikka, there are scotches — or, at least, iterations of scotches — from Taiwan, India, Sweden, and America. Despite the distilling method, these bottles cannot be classified as scotches, but can be classified as "single malts" as long as they're a malt whiskey from a single distillery.

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Originally Published: Mar 25, 2020

Scotch FAQ

What is the difference between whiskey and scotch whisky?
Whiskey (with an "e") is kind of the umbrella term like 'wine' or 'beer'. "Bourbon whiskey" is produced in the United States and has to contain at least 51 percent corn. There are a number of legal requirements for something to be labeled a "whisky scotch", including being produced in Scotland. It must also be made from primarily malted barley and aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years.
What does single malt mean?
Single malt whiskey can be made anywhere in the world but the "single" in single malt whiskey means that the liquid has been produced at only one distillery.
What is a good scotch?
You can't go wrong with any type of Glenfiddich or Glenlivet scotch whisky, which both offer 12 to 50 year old options since 1887 and 1824 respectively.
Why is single malt scotch so expensive?
The main reason why scotch whisky is expensive to buy is because of the aging process. Scotch whisky is aged at least three years, but many are aged longer — the length is always displayed on the bottle. The aging process also results in the "Angel's Share", which is the whisky lost to natural evaporation over time. A standard, newly-filled barrel contains 200 liters, but an average of around 2 percent of that evaporates every year, which significantly reduces the final amount, especially in scotch whiskies that are aged for 10-12 years. The devil's cut is another factor, which refers to the spirit absorbed by the barrel during the aging process, though how much is lost depends on the wood used. Finally, taxes and excise duties contribute to the final price that the consumer ends up paying. The current excise duty on a standard bottle of Scotch is about 72 percent in the U.K. and 25 percent in the United States.
What's the cheapest scotch whisky?
Two of the cheapest scotch whiskies are Ballantine's Finest (around $20 USD for a 750 mL bottle) and Johnnie Walker Red Label (around $23 USD for a 750 mL bottle). Of course, there are budget options produced in Canada and the U.S. (think, Jim Bean and Fireball), though these are classified as "whiskey" not "scotch whisky".

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