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How To Become A Scotch Connoisseur - Your Complete Scotch Guide

December 15th, 2016

Scotch carries a certain status symbol: one of a person who likes the finer things in life and knows how to savor them. If you’ve never tried scotch and don’t know where to start, our scotch drinking guide will get you up to speed on everything from how to make scotch to how to pour scotch. You’ll be savoring like a pro in no time.

What Is Scotch?

Scotch is a spirit made from fermented grain mash. To qualify as scotch, the alcohol must meet the following requirements:

  • - Originate in Scotland, including distillation and initial maturing time
  • - Contain malted barley
  • - Aged for 3 years or more
  • - Keep the ABV below 94.8%
what-qualifies-as-scotch
What is the difference between scotch and whisky? Scotch is actually a specific type of whisky, and it’s always spelled “whisky” rather than “whiskey,” a term reserved for spirits distilled in Ireland or the United States.

Whisky has several different varieties, with scotch being just one. The different whisky varieties typically have specific requirements to claim a particular label. For example, malted barley is a requirement of scotch. Some types of scotch include other grains, often corn or wheat.

Another type of whisky is bourbon. The difference between scotch and bourbon relates to the type of grain mash and containers used for storage. Bourbon must consist of at least 51 percent of corn, rye, wheat, malted barley or malted rye grain. Charred oak containers are the required storage vessel for bourbon, and the mixture can’t contain additives.

Essentially, whisky (or whiskey) is the overall type of spirit. Scotch and bourbon are two types of whisky that meet specific requirements to earn their names.


Where Scotch Originates

The simple answer to where scotch originates is Scotland, as the name suggests. The Scots divide the origins down even further, designating five regions based on the distillery locations within the country. Each area tends to have a distinct flavor or trait.

The regions for scotch include:

  • Lowland: These scotches tend to have the lightest body with a mild, mellow flavor. They’re often described as delicate compared to other regions.

  • Speyside: Small but mighty, Speyside accounts for more distilleries than any other region, harboring many well-known names. Many see Speyside scotches as possessing an elegant style.

  • Islay: Islay is known for a distinct type of scotch with a smoky, medicinal, peaty flavor. often an acquired taste, the scotch typically has a heavy body.

  • Highland: The Highland area is the largest of the scotch regions. The scotch from the Highland area typically falls between the lowland and Islay in terms of body. 

  • Campbeltown: This area is home to only three distilleries, but the scotch from this region is known for its refined, smooth quality.


Types of Scotch

Scotch comes in several different types used to describe the grains and the distilleries involved in the production. The types are single malt, single grain and blended, but don’t be confused by the “single” descriptor. It actually refers to the single distillery and not the number of grains used in the process.

Here is a rundown of each type of scotch:

Single Malt Scotch

A single malt scotch is one that comes from a single distillery and only uses malted barley as the grain. Malt scotch goes through a double distillation process, though some distilleries put it through more.

Single Grain Scotch

This type of scotch also comes from a single distillery, but it isn’t just one grain. These types of scotch include a mixture of grains instead of just malted barley. Grain scotches go through a single or continuous distillation.

Blended Scotch

A blended scotch is a combination of two or more single grain or single malt varieties from different distilleries. The blended category is often broken down further. Blended malt scotch is two or more single malt scotches. Blended grain scotch contains two or more single grain scotches. Blended scotch features both single malts and single grains.


When deciding between a single or blended scotch, consider the benefits of each. Single malts highlight the distinct flavors of the particular distillery or region where it was produced. This compares to the idea of terroir in wine. Blends bring out the key characteristics of the single malts or grains included in the mix. They sometimes create new characteristics, only achieved with that particular blend. Experts agree that both have their merits, and it all comes down to what you prefer.


How Scotch is Made

how-is-scotch-made
Scotch goes through multiple steps to take the barley from a grain to the finished liquid state. Each step helps create the different flavors that ultimately go into the finished product. While all distilleries follow the same basic steps, individual facilities may use different techniques within each step, resulting in flavor differences.

The following steps show the process from start to finish:

  1. - Malting the Barley: Malted barley is a necessary ingredient for a spirit to qualify as scotch. The barley goes into water, drains and goes on the malting floor for about 6 or 7 days to germinate. After germination, an underground furnace with fire stoked by peat releases smoke to dry the barley. 

  1. - Mashing Dry Malt: The prepared malt gets ground into an oatmeal-like consistency before being mixed with hot water and put in a mash tun, where it steeps to combine sugar with the liquid. This produces wort, a sugary substance used in the fermentation stage.

  1. - Fermentation: The sugary wort is moved into washbacks, which are large vessels made of wood or steel. Yeast goes into the mixture and ferments for about 2 days. The exact time varies depending on the environment. The liquid produced during the fermentation process is wash, and contains about 5 to 8% alcohol by volume. 

  1. - Distilling: The wash goes through distillation twice. In the first round, the liquid is boiled to draw the water out of the mixture. The collected alcohol contains about 20% alcohol by volume, called low wine. The low wine then goes through a second distillation.

  1. - Maturing Stage: The maturation process takes place in oak barrels to smooth and intensify the flavor. Some distilleries use secondhand barrels that once contained sherry or bourbon for the process. But wine, port, beer and cognac barrels are also sometimes used. The specific barrel imparts flavor and a golden color into the scotch.


Scotch Buying Guide - How to Buy Scotch

You want to try scotch at home, but how do you know what to buy? Our scotch buying guide can help. The first step is to identify the drinker. Are you drinking it yourself or are you giving scotch as a gift to someone else? Consider the drinking preferences of the person who will actually consume the scotch. If you’re new to scotch, you may want to steer clear of strong, heavy scotch like varieties that come from Islay. Consider a Lowland scotch with a milder, lighter flavor.

how-long-should-scotch-age

Does age matter when it comes to buying scotch? All scotch must be aged at least 3 years to bear the scotch name. Most scotch bottles include the length of aging on the label, so you can easily compare the ages. The typical aging time is anywhere from 8 to 20 years. A longer maturation process does bring out more flavors in the scotch, so a bottle with a longer aging process may offer richer flavors. However, the length of aging isn’t the only factor in the flavor. The type of wood in the cask used to age the spirit influences the flavor. This is where experimentation with different distilleries and ages comes into play. By experimenting, you’ll find the perfect scotch for you.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help from the liquor store staff. Ask about the different scotch varieties you’re considering. Let the clerk know what type of drinks and alcohol you normally consume and enjoy. Share if you’re looking for a drinking spirit or if you’re cooking with scotch. This helps narrow down the scotch options to a bottle you’re likely to enjoy based on the intended purpose and your preferences.


How to Drink Scotch

Not sure how to drink scotch? It’s not as intimidating as it may seem. Like other spirits, it often comes down to experimenting to determine how you like it best.

The best glassware for scotch, for when you want to truly appreciate the flavors, is a tulip-shaped glass. The narrow top concentrates the aromas at the neck for a full experience. Whisky tumblers work well for enjoying scotch. Even a white wine glass can work.

The glass is only the beginning of the drinking process. If you’re concerned about how to order scotch at a bar or drink it at home, know that scotch drinkers enjoy the spirit in a variety of ways, from neat to mixed drinks with scotch.

Experiment with some of these ways to drink scotch to decide what you like best:

  • - Neat: When your order your scotch neat, you get just the scotch in a glass without any ice, water or mixers. 

  • - On the Rocks: Scotch on the rocks is simple a serving of scotch with ice. It is a very common way to order scotch at bars. Limit the ice to one or two cubes to keep the scotch from diluting to the point of changing the flavor or shutting down aromas.

  • - With Water: A splash of water with scotch is a common way to drink the spirit. It doesn’t make you a lightweight or ruin the experience. If you’re new to scotch, the water can make the high alcohol content easier to drink. It can also help bring out some of the flavors in the scotch that you would miss drinking it neat.
how-to-drink-scotch

A dram is the name given to a serving of scotch. The official measurement of a dram is 1/8 of an ounce, but most bars serve up closer to a full ounce. When you receive your serving, take a minute to nose or smell the different aromas just above the glass. If you sniff too close to the glass, you’ll get a nose full of alcohol and won’t get the different aromas.

Take a small initial sip to explore the different flavors in the scotch. Follow this with another sip to allow for a larger taste of the flavors.

If you’re not a fan of scotch on its own, try it in one of many scotch drink recipes. Some examples include:

  • - The Mamie Taylor: Scotch, lime and ginger beer

  • - Rob Roy: Scotch, angostura bitters and sweet vermouth

  • - The Bobby Burns: Scotch, sweet vermouth and Benedictine

  • - The Highball: Scotch and soda

  • - Penicillin: Blended scotch, lemon juice, honey-ginger syrup and a float of Islay single malt

  • - Rusty Nail: Scotch and Drambuie (a scotch-based liqueur)

  • - Blood and Sand: Scotch, cherry liqueur, orange juice and sweet vermouth

  • - Presbyterian: Scotch, ginger ale and club soda

  • - Godfather: Scotch and amaretto


How to Order Scotch at a Bar

You’ve got the basics down, but ordering a scotch at the bar still seems intimidating. You don’t want to sound like you don’t have a clue, and you want something you can actually drink and enjoy. What do you do?

Try these tips:

  • - Browse the Offerings: Before you can order, you need to know the options at that particular bar. Ask for a scotch list, look for a cocktail menu or browse the bottles on display. Look for something familiar if you’ve tried scotch before.

  • - Ask for Advice: There’s nothing wrong with asking the bartender for recommendations. Let the bartender know what you’re looking for — something that goes down easily, for example. Let them know what you normally drink or things you don’t like. They can give you some tips and suggestions.

  • - Choose a Serving Method: Know how you want to drink the scotch. Do you want it neat, on the rocks or with water? Perhaps you want a scotch cocktail. If you want your scotch with water, ask for a water back. The bartender will give you water on the side so you can add it yourself. Knowing what you want before you order helps you feel confident.

The usual method of asking for a scotch drink is to say the name of the scotch brand you want followed by the way you want it served. You might order “Johnnie Walker Black neat” for example. If you want a water back, you might say, “Johnnie Walker Black, neat, with a water back, please.” The same idea works for other methods: “Johnnie Walker Black, on the rocks” for example.

If you’re ordering a scotch cocktail and want a specific type of scotch in the cocktail, say the brand name before the cocktail name. For example, you might order a Johnnie Walker Black Highball.

The bottom line: you need to tell the bartender your brand preferences if you have one, the way you want it served and anything you want on the side. If you’re not a fan of the first scotch you order, talk to the bartender again for new suggestions based on what you didn’t like the first time.

Now that you understand the nuances of drinking scotch, you’re ready to order like a pro and start exploring your favorite types. Don’t forget to hire a driver for your night out on the town experimenting with scotch. Let your friends in on our newfound scotch expertise by sharing our scotch guide on your social networks.