For such a small country, Scotland has given some pretty amazing gifts to the world. Perhaps the two most obvious are golf and Scotch whisky. Other countries produce whisky (or, more often, whiskey), but somehow it is Scotch whisky that has caught the world's imagination, resulting in an industry that today supports around 65,000 jobs in Scotland; and which each year adds about £1bn to Scotland's economy; contributes £2bn to the UK's balance of trade; and generates about £1.6bn in revenues and taxes for the UK Government. It is also an industry which contributes something indefinable but extremely important to the sense of what makes Scotland Scottish.
Given its economic and cultural importance, it is perhaps not surprising that Scotch whisky has a legally enforceable definition. It is also protected by the European Union and the World Trade Organisation as a recognised "geographical indication": in other words something can only be called Scotch whisky if it is produced in Scotland.
The legal definition in the UK was established in the Scotch Whisky Act 1988 and The Scotch Whisky Order 1990. Under their terms, Scotch whisky is whisky:
It is likely that the legal definition will be tightened further with the introduction of five different legally defined categories of Scotch whisky: single malt, single grain, blended, blended malt and blended grain. There will also be five legally defined geographical areas from which Scotch whisky can originate: Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Campbeltown and Islay. At the same time it will become illegal for the name of a distillery to feature on the label of a bottle whose contents have not been produced at that distillery; it will become a requirement for all Scotch whisky to be wholly matured in Scotland; and it will become illegal to export single malt Scotch whisky unless it has been bottled and labelled.
There are two main types of Scotch whisky, which in turn can be combined to give further types. Malt whisky can contain no grain other than malted barley, and is almost always distilled in batches in traditional distilleries in pot stills. Grain whisky can be made from unmalted barley or other malted or unmalted grains like wheat and maize. It is usually distilled in industrial-scale continuous column stills called Coffey Stills. There are currently around 100 active malt whisky distilleries in Scotland, with several more being planned or built. This compares with just seven grain distilleries in Scotland, though each of these has an output far larger than most malt distilleries.
Let's look a little more closely at the types of Scotch whisky that will in future be permissible. Single malt Scotch whisky is wholly the product of one Scottish malt whisky distillery, and is the most popular type of whisky among enthusiasts. Single grain Scotch whisky is wholly the product of one Scottish grain whisky distillery and is actually something of a rarity, because most grain whisky goes into blended whisky. Blended malt Scotch whisky is the blended product of more than one Scottish malt whisky distillery. Blended grain Scotch whisky is the blended product of more than one Scottish grain whisky distillery. And blended Scotch whisky is the blended product of more than one Scottish distillery, including at least one malt whisky distillery and one grain whisky distillery. Blended Scotch whiskies can contain whiskies from many different Scottish distilleries, and will often comprise up to around 75% grain whisky, which tends to make the finished product rather cheaper than single malt Scotch whiskies. Most of the well known "name brand" whiskies you find on the supermarket shelves are blended whiskies.
These revised rules will stop the practice of marketing "vatted malts" or "pure malts", which is what blended malts have sometimes been called in the past. The aim of the legislation is to ensure that a drink that has gained an unmatched worldwide reputation for excellence in both quality and integrity maintains that reputation.
Note that the "single" whisky types may be the combination of more than one batch produced by a particular distillery, and may be a combination of whiskies of different ages from a particular distillery. The exceptions to this are where a whisky is marketed as coming from a single barrel; or as a Vintage Edition, containing only whisky produced in a particular year. Otherwise, if an "age" (i.e. 10-year-old or 12-year-old) is given on the bottle, that is the age of the youngest whisky within the bottle.
A few other factors help distinguish between one whisky and another, especially between single malt Scotch whiskies. When whisky is laid down to mature at the end of the distillation process it usually contains between 65% and 75% alcohol. Over the years of maturation (a legal minimum of three years, usually 10, 12 or more), some of the alcohol evaporates ("the angel's share") and by the time it is ready, the liquid in the cask will contain between 50% and 65% alcohol. Most single malt Scotch whisky is sold at a strength of between 40% and 45% alcohol. This is achieved by diluting the spirit as it is bottled, usually with distilled water, unless the whisky is being "chateau bottled" (i.e. at the distillery it was made at) in which case the water supply used for the main distillation process may also be used for dilution. However, some whiskies are not diluted at all and are sold at "cask strength", i.e. they are bottled at the strength at which they emerge from the cask.
While talking about age, it is worth knowing that the stated age on a bottle is the length of time it spent being matured in casks, and the aging process stops at the point of bottling. Some distilleries sell their product in a range of different ages (12, 15 & 18 years, for example). It is usually the case that a longer period of maturation leads to a more complex and better whisky, though there are exceptions. Meanwhile some distilleries, especially if fairly newly in production or recently returned to production, have marketed single malt Scotch whiskies at as young as five years old, and the results can be surprisingly good.
The final important thing to know about when looking at the labels of whiskies is "finish". All malt Scotch whisky is matured in oak barrels that are second-hand: barrels that have been previously used to mature some other alcoholic drink somewhere in the world. As a result Scotland is the destination of a constant flow of empty and dismantled bourbon casks from the USA, sherry and port casks from Spain, and burgundy and claret casks from France, to name just a few. Whisky matured in a cask previously home to, say, port, takes on some of the character of the port and the result gives an added layer of complexity to the whisky in the cask, and an extra dimension to the range of differences that can exist between single malt whiskies.
But from the point of view of a visitor to Scotland, there is far more to the Scotch whisky industry than a nice tipple or a contribution to the UK balance of payments. Many malt whisky distilleries in Scotland are in beautiful locations and come complete with a character and sense of tradition that is almost palpable. Because of this, travellers have been coming to Scotland to visit distilleries for over a century. Today many distilleries run visitor centres associated with distillery tours specifically designed to give visitors a sense of the process of distillation and the particular factors that make that distillery unique. At some distilleries you can find that the visitor centre employs more people than the production process itself.
You can find our list of feature pages covering visits to particular Scottish distilleries here. Distilleries open to visitors crop up in many different parts of Scotland, from the far end of Dumfries and Galloway through the Central Belt to Campbeltown in Argyll, the Isle of Skye, and Orkney. But two areas reign supreme. Speyside, occupying parts of Moray and Aberdeenshire, contains the greatest concentration of distilleries in Scotland, while the island of Islay has long had an important distilling tradition and is actually seeing new distilleries open or being planned.
The component parts of any distillery tour vary considerably from distillery to distillery, which is why some people enjoy visiting lots of them. But a few things are common to many, and a few more are worth thinking about in advance of your visit. Distilleries tend to be in old buildings with lots of different levels and lots of steps. Accessibility is therefore an issue at most of them and if you have issues with mobility, it is a good idea to check with the distillery in advance. And because distillation is an industrial process involving heat, some areas of a distillery need common sense and care, so there are often minimum ages set for participants on a tour which are likely to exclude very young children and babies. Some distilleries welcome photography during any part of the tour, others prohibit photography in areas of the distillery or throughout the tour. And some distilleries take visitors round free of charge, while others charge a few pounds for a tour. Where a charge is made, it can usually be redeemed against purchases in the distillery shop at the end of the tour.
The process of making malt whisky has the same stages wherever in Scotland it is carried out. However, some distilleries only undertake part of the process on the premises: and again it is helpful to know in advance what you will, or will not, be able to see. Virtually all distilleries offering tours are able to show visitors the processes of mashing in mash tuns, fermentation in washbacks and the two (or sometimes more) stages of distillation in the stillhouse.
Many modern distilleries do not have maltings, preferring instead to buy their barley already malted from one of the very large industrial maltings that have been established. As a result only a few distilleries are able to show visitors a real malting floor and working kiln. Towards the other end of the process, some distilleries do not have their own bonded warehouses on site, or prefer not to let visitors loose in a warehouse containing millions of litres of extremely valuable but highly inflammable liquid. In these cases you are likely to be shown a mock-up of what a bonded warehouse looks like: or miss out the stage altogether. And these days it is a great rarity for a distillery to have a bottling plant on site, meaning that there are only a couple across Scotland that can be seen in operation by visitors.