Water of Life: A History of Scotch Whisky

Isle of Skye Scotland Landscape

Scotch whisky has a rich, dark, and full-bodied history. Scotch has been distilled and distributed around the world for over 500 years and is still going strong. Today, distillers must follow specific guidelines to label their whisky as Scotch.

Every year, July 27th celebrates our favorite blended (or single-grain) beverage; National Scotch Whisky Day. In honor of that joyous holiday, let’s discover what it takes to create and categorize Scotch whisky.

A Brief History of Scotch Whisky

Scotch gets its first written mention at the end of the 15th century. A Scottish taxman recorded eight “bolls” of malt that one Friar John Cor used to create “aqua vitae” (translated to “water of life”). Even so, smuggling Scotch became a popular pastime until first correctly taxed by the Scottish Parliament over 150 years later.

After the Exercise Act came along in 1823, sanctioned licenses were issued to distill whisky. Shortly after, some distillers switched from malt whisky to grain varieties. The lighter flavor blended well and made more vibrant varieties that appealed to a wider audience, but there was debate as to which was the true Scottish form of Distilling Whisky. Ingredients were also either distilled using copper pot stills or in a large industrial patent still.

It took a Royal Commission in 1909 to define what Scotch Whisky exactly was and how it should be distilled. The commission concluded that the product in both distillation techniques was Scotch Whisky. Over time, further requirements were incorporated and govern the industry. Today, the Scotch Whisky industry remains a top export for Scotland.

Categories and Regions of Scotch

Categories of scotch: There are five distinct categories of Scotch whisky:

  • Single Malt – made from 100% malted barley in a single distillery
  • Single Grain – produced in a single distillery but can be made from any combination of malted barley and other un-malted cereals whisky
  • Blended Scotch –  A blend of grain and malt whiskies. The proportions often vary from distillery to distillery, but the malt proportion is typically around 25%
  • Blended Malt – A blend of two or more single malt whiskies from different distilleries
  • Blended Grain – A blend of two or more single grain whiskies from different distilleries 

There are five main regions of Scotland that distill Scotch – each with their own distinctive perspectives and identifying features. These regions include:

  • Campbeltown: Full of flavor, these whiskys flaunt hints of salt, smoke, fruit, vanilla, and toffee
  • Highland: The Highlands offers a Scotch for all palates–from lighter whiskys through salty coastal malts
  • Islay: Islay (pronounced ‘eye-luh’) is famous for fiery, heavily peated whiskys
  • Lowlands: Soft and smooth malts are characteristic of this region remind the drinker of grass, honeysuckle, cream, ginger, toffee, toast, and cinnamon.
  • Speyside: famous for fertile glens and, of course, the River Spey. Speyside whiskys are frugal with peat and full of fruit. Apple, pear, honey, vanilla, and spice all have a role in expressions from this region. They are commonly matured in Sherry casks.

At the Barrel Mill, traditional distilling and brewing are our passions. We can definitely relate to the strict traditions and rules it takes to distill the perfect Scotch. In honor of National Scotch Whiskey Day, take a moment to enjoy your favorite Scottish drink this month!