The Story of Scotch Whisky

Scotch whisky was first made in the 9th century; learn the history behind Scotland's spirit


For a whiskey to be considered a Scotch whisky, it has to be produced in Scotland. The Scottish have internationally protected this term to ensure that whiskies that are made outside of Scotland are not called Scotch. While excellent whiskies are made by similar methods in other countries, they cannot be called Scotch whisky.

Starting in the ninth century, Irish monks arrived in Scotland to not only Christianize their Celtic brethren, but to introduce the first primitive stills to the locals. They soon realized that they could create a good alcoholic beverage by distilling their heather ale, which was made from barley malt. Simple stills came to be found in most homes and homemade whisky soon became an integral part of Gaelic culture.

While Scottish kings ruled the country, whisky was just another farm product. However, when the Act of Union in 1707 combined England, Wales, and Scotland into the United Kingdom, the Scotch whisky scene was very severely altered. The London government levied excise taxes on Scotch, resulting in an increase in illegal distilling. In the 1790s, it was estimated that there were more than 400 illegal stills in Edinburgh, and only about eight licensed.

The Excise Act of 1823 reduced taxes on Scotch to a reasonable amount. This act coincided with the Industrial Revolution and new, state-of-the-art distilleries were being built. Whisky that came from these distilleries was made from malted barley that had been dried in kilns over peat fires. The smoke from the fires gave the malt a distinctive flavor that made Scotch an instantly identifiable product the world over.

The introduction of column stills changed the Scotch whisky drastically in the 19th century. This led to the creation of grain whisky, a bland spirit made from unmalted grains like corn. Grain whisky led to the creation of blended Scotch in the late 1860s. The result of blended Scotch proved to be milder and more acceptable to consumers, especially the English, who turned to Scotch in the 1870s when a phylloxera infestation broke out in Europe and directly affected supplies of cognac and port. Malt whisky distilleries were purchased by blending companies and in turn created blended brands that have now come to dominate the market.

Scotches are somewhat light in flavor, with a distinctive smoky malt flavor that comes from the peat fires. Variations among Scotches of the Highlands, Lowlands, Campbeltown, and Islay regions are caused partly by the differences in the amount of heating that the malt receives. The malt is combined with water, producing a mash, then fermented to make a beer. When it is distilled, it produces a whisky containing 70 percent alcohol by volume, which is then reduced to about 43 percent.

Below are tasting notes on a couple of blended Scotches that I was lucky enough to try myself. Both are delicious and definitely worth purchasing! Give them a sample and let us know what you think!

Johnnie Walker Black Label — Beautiful golden/amber color. On the nose: subtle sweetness, honey, caramel, vanilla. The aroma is incredibly deep and slightly oaky, mossy almost. In the mouth it has some smokyness, with some good spice and heat as well. Stone fruits are present, apricots and peaches. Really lovely.

The Black Grouse — Lovely golden color, lots of clarity. Incredibly smoky on the nose, lots of wood and grass. Slightly meaty, almost like a beef jerky type aroma. This is a ferocious Scotch with a lot of complexity and character. There is some spiciness here, some really pleasant warmth. Slight acidity in the mouth, with a lingering meaty and woody flavor for several seconds after. 

— Sara Kay, The Spir.it


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