Getting into Scottish whisky can be overwhelming — learning the difference between peated vs non-peated, types of casks and barrels, and all the different whisky regions takes a lot of research (tasting. We mean tasting). In honour of our big scotch sale, here’s our beginner’s guide to Scottish whisky!
Proper glassware and consumption
To allow your “dram” (around an ounce) of Scotch to really release its aromas, compounds and complexities and allow the whisky to be tasted properly. The Glencairn whisky glass is a perfect choice, but you can use a regular low ball glass until you’re ready to make that investment.
On the rocks, or straight?
Most whisky aficionados will scoff at the idea of putting ice in their dram, but if you’re new to the taste of whisky, it can be a good way to ease your way into this fine drink. If you must put ice in the glass, make sure you use large ice balls so the ice melts more slowly and doesn’t water down the whisky as quickly.
Some brands actually sell “whisky water”, which is a little container with an eye droplet that allows you to add a few drops of water into the whisky to tone down the strong flavors. Don’t be fooled, however — there’s nothing special about the water in these containers. If you have your own dropper, you can add a couple drops of water in that way — but use filtered water, not tap water.
Adding water droplets is often recommended for super peaty and smoky scotches, but isn’t as necessary for others, which leads us into…
Peat or no peat?
Peat is a type of moss found in a bog, and is especially common in the Scottish landscape. It’s an addition to the distilling process —distillers smoke barley with peat, imbuing it with delicious earthy, campfire flavors, and transforming it into malt, which is the backbone ingredient of whisky.
Most Scotch whisky will indicate if peat has been added in the distilling process, so you know beforehand if some of those smoky characteristics will be present on the nose and palate. Different distillers play with varying degrees of peat, ranging from a warm tobacco similar to what can be found in oaked red wine to pure campfire.
If you’re selecting your first ever scotch whisky, it’s best to stick with a gentler spirit that isn’t peated, and then work your way up. Your first experience with Scotch should be more like a warm hug than a slap in the face!
Single malt vs blends
Single malt scotch is made from one malt, whereas blends can have multiple malts as part of the distilling process. Single malt scotch fell out of favour in the 1960s and blending became in vogue, with “master blenders” combining different malts to create their finished product. Single malt has since made a comeback in Scotland, leading to a more traditional product and taste.
Map from Scotch Whisky Society
Scotch will usually indicate what region it’s from on the bottle. These are the major scotch producing regions.
The most diverse Scotch region and largest geographically. From light whiskeys to saltier coastal malts, there’s a scotch for every palate here.
Speyside has the highest concentration of distilleries in the world! These glens are fertile and the River Spey is key in whisky production. Speyside whisky usually has limited peat added and is more fruit forward in the malt, which often comes from the aging of the spirit in Sherry casks.
The Scottish island of Islay (pronounced Eye-lah) is where peat is king. Distilleries like Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Lagavullin are famous for creating scotch whisky with a palate-tingling fire and unparalleled smoky flavours. Almost all the residents of this island are involved in some aspect of whisky production!
A perfect place to start for Scotch beginners, as these drams are light, soft and smooth.
Campbeltown whisky is varied and full of rich, robust flavours. It was once one of the biggest whisky producing regions, but now there are only three major distillers producing in the area. Campbeltown does not have a distinctive regional style - the use of peat varies by distillery, as does the practice of “finishing” malt in casks.
Whisky can mature in a variety of casks and barrels, which, similar to wine, imparts different flavours on the malt. Common casks you’ll see are Sherry, Bourbon, Sauternes, Port, and other types of wine.
Whisky or whiskey?
You’ll see it spelled both ways depending on what country it’s from. A general rule of thumb is if the country has an “e” in its name, like Ireland or the United States, it’s spelled “whiskey”. If there’s no “e,” like Scotland or Japan, it’s spelled “whisky”.
And unless a whisky is from Scotland, it should never be called Scotch!
We hope this guide helps you get into scotch and discover all this tasty world has to offer. Stop by the store to discover a new favourite and score a great deal. Slainte!