Scotch, the word conjures so many images: open green fields, smoky smell of peat, refined taste and everything Scottish. Scotch, is the pride of Scotland and till date is an integral part of the Scottish economy. So what makes this drink, so lovable and highly appreciated by all.
First, lets dive into a bit of history. Scotch is after all whiskey. In fact, whisky took birth as scotch itself. There is a debate on whether the English or the Scottish invented whisky. Far from being diplomatic and resting the issue there, I am going to take a plunge. I believe whisky was discovered in Scotland. There are a few reasons for my belief. Firstly, the first documented home distillation of whisky was found in Scotland in 1494. At that time Gin was the national drink of England. Now, it was only after the Act Of The Union of 1707, when England took administrative control over Scotland, did the whisky distilleries of Scotland come under the English notice. And thus only in the 1850s did Scotch came to be known as an Englishman’s drink.
Malted grains were used for the domestic production of scotch in northern Scotland. Scotch like many other spirits of its time, was infused with various herbs to add medicinal value to it. It was hence, prepared as a potent drink for many a chieftan. Countries like Scotland which typically lack a warm climate, had to use grapes or grains to ferment spirits. It is for this reason beer has been a staple brew for such countries.
How Scotch is made
The main ingredient in scotch is barley. Depending on whether it is a malt or grain whisky, malted or unmalted barley is used. What makes scotch different from almost every other whisky in the world is the natural spring water available and the peat that is used to dry the grain. This “peatiness” is the most important and vital factor that sets Scotch apart from any other whisky in the world.
Lets go over the process of a typical malt scotch production. Firstly, barley grains are taken and completely soaked in water. This allows the grain to germinate and encourages sprouting. The sprouting is then checked, by drying this malt over peat. Peat is basically decaying vegetable matter found in ample quantities in Scotland. Other whiskys use coal or some other fuel, but scotch is made exclusively with peat only. The amount of peat used also determines the final flavour of the scotch. The smokiness attribute to a scotch is dependent on this factor.
Once the drying or kilning process is over, it is now time to mash and drain the grain into large tanks. Natural or cultivated yeast is now added to these tanks to begin the process of fermentation. On sufficient fermentation, the brew or beer is now ready for its next step in the journey.
The brew must now be distilled. Scotch whisky must be double distilled by law. Traditionally this distillation occurs in a copper pot still. This distillate can now be called as scottish spirit, but for it to be called Scotch it is yet to mature for a minimum period of 2 years. Most scotch whisky is distilled for much longer though.
The cask used for maturing is a vital factor in determining the colour and flavour of the final product. Traditionally, two types of casks are most commonly used. The first type are those that have been used for maturing bourbon earlier. The excellent quality American timber with the corn flavour of bourbon adds to the complexity of the whisky. Such scotch is usually light in colour and has a typical corn flavour to it. The other type of cask is the one used to mature sweet wines such as the Spanish sherry. Even these casks are usually made in America itself and shipped to Spain for sherry maturation. Scotch that has been matured in such casks has deeper colour and sweet complexity with a strong scent.
Scotch Growing Regions
The Scotch growing areas in Scotland are divided into four regions.
1) The Highlands: The scotch produced here are soft. This can be attributed to the water that is available here. Also, the Highlands produce a rather “smoky” scotch.
2) Isles and Western Isles: The scotch produced in the Isles are famous for their pungency. This is contributed to the peaty character of the whisky.
3) Campbeltown: The scotch produced here smell fresh and ozoney.
4) The Lowlands: Finally, the scotch produced in the Lowlands are the sweetest and most gentle of all.
Scotch: Its different faces
Scotch is a sophisticated drink. And like any such drink, it has variations and different proportion of ingredients used and hence, you have a variety of scotch whiskys.
The most prized scotch is the Single Malt. Single malts are 100% malt whiskys made entirely in one distillery. Vats or Vatted whiskys are those, that contain a mixture of single malts but contain no grain whisky whatsoever. They are generally rounder and more complex in character.
Single Grain whiskys are whiskys that are made entirely from grain and contain no malt in them. Such whiskeys are typically light bodied and some find it to be a far less challenging scotch.
Blended whiskys are the most selling variety. They are a mixture of a variety of grain and malt whiskys that have been “married” by a master blender. They are often loved, as the blender ensures a consistent end product every time. Hence, it is the most expectable scotch of all.
Some of the best known scotch brands are Johnnie Walker, Teachers, Balentine’s, Chivas Regal and Whyte & Mackay. There are many many more though and each of them offer a different experience.
Ill be writing articles on the above in the future, but it would be beyond the scope of this article to say more here.
Scotch is an extremely vast subject and I hope to enlighten and entertain you in the future as well. 🙂