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Posted on January 22, 2015 There have been 0 comments

All about Scotch

This Sunday is Burns Night, celebrating the life and poetry of Robert Burns. But it also tends to celebrate all things Scottish, including another famous Scottish export: uisge beatha…the water of life…whisky! The Curious Bartender: An Odyssey of Malt, Bourbon & Rye Whiskies by Tristan Stephenson has taught us that there is so much more to this golden liquid than a dram of Famous Grouse. So in celebration of the Scottish poet, this extract helpfully explains the difference between the different categories of Scotch. And check back to the blog tomorrow, when we’ll have a recipe so that everyone can have a bit of a Burns’ supper this weekend! But for now, over to Tristan…


The term Scotch Whisky by itself is a bit useless, since any given product must reside in one of the sub-categories listed below. But broadly speaking, Scotch whisky must abide by the following rules (according to the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009: it must be made in Scotland from water, cereal and yeast only, whereby sugars are obtained through malt enzymes (diastase). Mashing, fermentation and distillation must take place in the distillery and it must be distilled to less than 94.8% ABV. It must then be aged in oak casks no bigger than 700 litres/739 quarts, for a minimum of three years. Before the three years are up, it is known simply as ‘British New-Make Spirit’. Plain caramel colouring may be added.


Single Malt Whisky must be made from 100% malted barley, but the barley can be grown and malted anywhere in the world. It must be distilled a minimum of two times in a copper pot still; you can distill three times (like Auchentoshan), or even more, but it’s not all that common. As with all Scotch Whisky, the maximum permitted distillate strength is 94.8% ABV, but most Single Malt Whiskies run off at 65–75% ABV.

Ageing must take place in Scotland, but not necessarily on the site of the distillery. Obviously most bottlings are much older than the required three years, but it is possible to get young whiskies that exhibit a lot more distillery character than the 12-year+ drams most of us are familiar with. During the period in which the whisky is kept in barrels, it’s stored in a government-bonded warehouse.

As with all types of Scotch, the age statement on the bottle must refer to the youngest whisky in the bottle. Vintage Single Malt Whisky poses another challenge, as it can be a little confusing when deciphering its age. These whiskies are permitted to list only one year on the label, and it can be either the ‘distilled on’, or ‘bottled on’ date, accompanied by an age statement. As of 2009, all Single Malt Whisky must be bottled in Scotland.


As the name eloquently suggests, this type of whisky is a blend of two or more single Malt Whiskies. In the past, Blended Malt has gone by the title ‘Vatted Malt’ and ‘Pure Malt’, but 2009 legislation put a stop to that. This type of whisky is usually big, bold and not all that often seen, since most people would rather drink a Blended Scotch or a Single Malt rather than something inbetween.

As is the norm, the age statement on a Blended Malt refers to the youngest whisky. Johnnie Walker Green Label is a great example of a smoky Blended Malt (partly down to the inclusion of both Talisker and Caol Isla in the blend), and I also love Compass Box’s Spice Tree, which controversially spent a brief spell out of production over a dispute with the Scotch Whisky Association.


Like Single Malt, Single Grain must be the product of one single distillery, but it can be made from any combination of malted barley and other unmalted cereals (but not other malted cereals). It is typically produced in a column still, which produces a much lighter spirit than a pot still. Single Grain Whisky is seldom bottled for consumption on its own, and almost all of the Single Grain Whisky in Scotland is used in blends.

If you are in the market for a bottle, check out Cameron Brig, which makes up the backbone of many famous blends.


Despite the growing demand for Single Malt in the past 20 years, blended Scotch makes up over 90% of the global Scotch Whisky sales today. It must be made from at least one Single Malt and one Single Grain Whisky. As far as I am aware, there are no blends that contain more than one Single Grain Whisky, but many contain over 30 Single Malts.

The Curious Bartender: An Odyssey of Malt, Bourbon & Rye Whiskies by Tristan Stephenson is available here.

If whisky straight up makes you a little nervous, you can get your Burns Supper off to a great start with this whisky cocktail recipe. Enjoy!

This post was posted in Featured, Featured, Interviews, Interviews, UK, US and was tagged with drinks, Tristan Stephenson, 2014, Burns Night, Scotland, whisky