Understanding Scotch Whisky

The two main types of Scotch whisky sold by whisky stores (that’s whisky store, not whiskey store when talking about Scotch) are malt whisky, produced from 100% malted barley, and grain whisky, which is typically distilled from corn or wheat but must also include a smaller percentage of malted barley. Your typical black label whiskey is usually a blend of both. To be legally recognized as Scotch, this spirit must be aged for at least three years. Cheaper Scotch will usually only hit that three year mark, but the good stuff is often older. Whisky labeling requires the youngest batch in the bottle to be the stated age on the package, meaning your 12 year old expression might be blended with casks substantially older. But probably not.

All of the Scotch you drink comes from Scotland, and all of that Scottish Scotch from Scotland is made by distilleries traditionally grouped into distinct regions. The five regions producing the majority of the Scotch you’ll find when you’re waist deep in options during your local whisky shopping trips are Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, Campbeltown, and the island of Islay. Campbeltown is frequently counted as part of the Highlands region, while the oft-cited “Islands” sixth region is comprised of every island that isn’t Islay. Confused? Great!

Knowing these regions can help you make good whisky buying decisions, but they don’t tell you much about what’s in the bottle on their own. Typically, the area where a distillery is located might be an important signifier of what to expect once you pour a dram, such as the well-known peatiness of Islay Scotch, but as more and more distilleries enter the fray and begin experimenting, this becomes less true. It’s best to consider them a starting point before setting out on your own whisky adventure.

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