A beginner's guide to Scotch

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There may not be a more revered spirit in the world than Scotch. 

Scotch, even though it’s just a whisky made in Scotland, is seen in another light compared to other whiskies from all over the world. It’s also a favourite for many once the temperatures start to fall and we enter into the colder months of the year.

Scotch is to whisky what Champagne is to sparkling wine. It’s almost become a blanket term for a category even if it’s technically not true. 

Here at Happy Hour, we love Scotch. We also know that getting into Scotch can be super intimidating. There’s so many different price points and brands to choose from. Like many things, you often get what you pay for but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy something from different price points. It all depends on finding out what you like in a Scotch. 

Scotch consists of five different varieties: single malt, single grain, blended malt, blended grain and blended Scotch.

Single malt means that Scotch is made by water and malted barley from a single distillery. A single grain is distilled at a single distillery but can contain different types of grain, despite it’s name. It’s all just made in one place.

A blended malt means a blend of two more or more single malt whiskies from different distilleries, a blended grain is a blend of two more single grain whiskies and a blended scotch is simply a blend of one or more single malt or single grain whiskies. 

Single malt Scotch whisky may be the holy grail of whisky, but the other varieties of Scotch certainly offer up their own benefits and uses as well. 

Some other rules surrounding Scotch include that the whisky must be aged for at least three years in an oak barrel. 

The region in which Scotch comes from can affect its flavour as well. Overall, there are five different regions recognized by the Scotch Whisky Association: 

  • The Lowlands: which is the southern most region

  • Speyside: the newest recognized region named for the River Spey that cuts through the area

  • The Highlands: It’s the largest region in terms of both area and production

  • Campbeltown: Home to just three distilleries, down from a high of 30.

  • Islay: Home to eight distilleries despite it’s small area

Even though there are specific regions, any distillery may use their location to describe their whisky if it’s distilled entirely in that specific location.

As mentioned, Scotch must be aged for at least three but many are aged for much longer. If there’s no mention of age on the label, assume the youngest whisky in the blend is at least three years old. Any bottle that mentions how long the whisky has been aged, means that the youngest whisky in that blend is at least that old. 

One thing people often look for or look to avoid in a Scotch is smoke. Most Scotches will have some degree of smokiness but there’s an easy way to tell if one will be smokier than others. 

Some distilleries, especially in the Islay region, will use peat fires to dry malted barley. This process can take up to 30 hours, leaving a very distinct smoky flavour. So, if you find you love the smoke, look for something that is quite peaty, if you don’t like it, then try to avoid peat. 

So, now that you’ve learned a little more about the world’s most notorious whisky, what will it be? 

Joel Gasson