If you believe there’s no difference between whiskey and Scotch, don’t say it out loud in front of a Scotsman – at least, not if you value your health. While whiskey is a certain type of spirit that can be brewed all over the world in various ways, only whiskey produced and matured in Scotland can be labelled ‘Scotch,’ although it can be shipped elsewhere for bottling and labelling.
Scotch outsells the whiskies produced by Japan, America, Ireland and Canada – the other four main whiskey producers. The generic name ‘whiskey’ comes from the Gaelic ‘uisge beatha,’ which means ‘water of life,’ and while Scotch should correctly be called ‘Scotch whisky,’ it’s generally referred to simply as ‘Scotch.’ It’s a bit like Elvis – it’s so famous, it doesn’t need the second name for people to know what’s being alluded to! Note the spelling difference – Scotch is whisky without the ‘e.’
Scotch tends to be lighter in colour than American bourbons and other blended whiskies, which can also have a sweeter taste on the palate. Scotch has a distinct ‘peaty’ flavour, which comes from the peat-fuelled fires used to dry the grain. A true Scotch expert – or even an enthusiastic amateur – can tell from the taste whether a particular Scotch came from the Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Islay or the Isles.
Scotch is usually aged in old, used barrels, and takes longer to mature than American whiskey, which is matured in new, white oak casks, which impart a slight but distinctive vanilla flavour to the spirit. Japanese, Canadian and Irish whiskey producers mature their product in used barrels. These barrels may have previously contained sherry or Bourbon – the distiller selects the casks he requires to produce a uniform product of consistent quality and flavour.
Japanese whiskey is made using the methods used to produce Scotch, but matured in a climate more like that in America, so their whiskey has some of the characteristics of both Scotch and Bourbon. Canadian whiskies are similar to American spirits. Irish whiskey has some similarities to Scotch, although it is usually triple distilled, where Scotch is usually distilled twice and aged for longer. That said, some brands of Scotch are triple distilled, and some Irish whiskeys are only distilled twice.
In order to be called Scotch whisky, the spirit must be matured in casks for at least three years. In practice, the maturation period is often much longer. Some single malts are matured for up to 30 years. The aging period for most other whiskies is usually much shorter. Whether you prefer Scotch or one of the other whiskeys is down to taste and availability. In the case of all whiskies, longer maturation will result in a smoother tasting spirit. However you take your whiskey – or Scotch – take it with pleasure and in quantity. Cheers!