- Whiskey is a broad term for distilled grain that’s been aged in casks.
- Scotch is a term used outside of Scotland to refer to Scottish-made whisky.
- “Whiskey” is the spelling for American-made whiskey, while “whisky” is the spelling for Scottish-made versions.
What’s the difference between Scotch and whiskey? The answer is at once simple and complex.
The simple part: Whiskey is a distilled spirit made from fermented grains and aged in wooden barrels. There are many different types of whiskey based on style of production and country of origin.
The complex part: In the US, the most popular types of whiskies are the ones made at home — bourbon and rye. Canada and Ireland are also known for their whiskies. Scotch whisky, referred to as just “Scotch” outside of Scotland, is a type of whisky made in Scotland. Within Scotland, the spirit is simply referred to as whisky.
As a type of whisky, Scotch has its own set of specifications to be called Scotch, not to mention a rich history and tradition surrounding the spirit. These unique requirements result in an incredibly nuanced spirit that’s worthy of any discerning palate. Here’s what you need to know.
What is whisky?
“Whisky is a very broad category of spirit that can be divided up into many subcategories,” says David Allardice, Scotch whisky expert and long-time brand ambassador for Glenfiddich. “There’s bourbon, rye, Irish whiskey, Japanese whisky, and of course, scotch.”
“Whisky is basically a spirit that is distilled from fermented grains,” Allardice says,”which is a fancy way of saying you make a beer with grains and then boil it to create a more concentrated alcoholic liquid.”
The grains commonly used in making whisky are barley, corn, wheat, and rye. The combination of grains used to make an individual whisky is known as the mash bill. Each grain imparts the finished whisky with slightly different flavor characteristics.
Once distilled, whisky is always aged in wooden barrels, which are often oak barrels that have been charred on the inside. Barrel-aging contributes heavily to the flavor and overall character of the whisky. The contact between the distillate and the wood of the barrel causes the whisky to darken, taking on an amber color. The contact with the wood also adds caramel and vanilla flavors to the whisky.
What is Scotch?
Scotch is a specific style of whisky in the same way that bourbon is a type of whiskey. “The name ‘Scotch’ broadly describes any whisky produced in Scotland,” Allardice says.
Scotch is a diverse subcategory of whisky with many local traditions, regional variations, and legal restrictions that produce a huge variance in flavors. Some Scotches are sweet, with notes of caramel and vanilla, while others are smoky, briny, and more savory.
Unlike American whiskeys, which are mostly made from corn and rye, Scotch whisky is primarily made of malted barley, which is barley that has been soaked in water, partially germinated, and then dried. This stops the germination at the right moment to produce the most flavor, giving Scotch a distinct malty aroma that separates it from bourbon and rye whiskies.
What makes Scotch a Scotch
Generally speaking, Scotch whisky has strict legal requirements that distillers must meet before their whisky is allowed to be called Scotch. These laws were put in place to maintain the quality and reputation of Scotch. There are laws dictating many aspects of production, export, labeling, geography, and most importantly, distilling.
- Geographic region: To be considered Scotch, the whisky must be fermented, distilled, and aged in Scotland.
- Ingredients: The only ingredients allowed in the production of scotch are grains, yeast, water, and caramel coloring.
- Mash bill: Scotch must be distilled primarily of malted barley. Other cereal grains like corn, rye, and wheat may be added in blended scotch whiskies.
- Proof: Scotch must be distilled to at least 190 proof (94.8% ABV), and after aging, must be bottled at no lower than 80 proof (40% ABV).
- Aging: Scotch must be aged for no less than three years in oak barrels. When a bottle of Scotch displays an age statement, the youngest whisky blended in that bottle must be at least as old as the displayed age statement. It’s common for Scotch whiskies to have age statements of 12 years and higher.
Types of Scotch whisky
“You can break Scotch into two main categories, single malts, and blended Scotches,” Allardice says. “There are some very fundamental differences in how they’re made.” These two types of whiskies account for the overwhelming majority of scotch consumption.
- Single malt Scotch: Single malt whiskies are prized for their richness and complexity. To be considered a single malt, the Scotch must be produced only from malted barley, then distilled and aged at a single distillery using copper pot stills. The Macallan, Glenfiddich, and Lagavulin are all examples of distilleries that produce single malt scotch.
- Blended Scotch: Blended scotch is made by combining a single malt whisky with what’s known as a grain whisky. “Blended scotches are the backbone of the industry,” Allardice says. “About 80% of scotch consumed globally is blended.” Popular brands like Johnnie Walker and Dewars are blended scotches.
Scotch whisky regions
There are five legally recognized regions in Scotland where whisky is produced: the Highlands, the Lowlands, the Islands, Speyside, and Islay. Single malt whiskies from different regions can have dramatically different flavor profiles. These differences are caused by production decisions.
The two regions most familiar to drinkers in the US are Islay and Speyside.
“The majority of single malt Scotch whisky comes from Speyside,” Allardice says. “Some of the biggest brands in Scotland, like Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and The Macallan, all come from that small area.” Speyside scotches tend to be more accessible, with sweet notes of fruit, caramel, and vanilla with a floral fragrance.
The most distinctive Scotch whiskeys come from the Islay region. “In Islay many of the distilleries are still making whisky in the traditional way where they use peat to dry the barley,” Allardice says.
The smoke from the burning peat is infused in the barley, and gives Islay whiskies their classic strong smoky aroma. Along with smoke, these whiskies generally have complex flavor notes of brine and iodine, which can be a bit challenging for beginners. Popular peated whiskies come from the Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Bruichladdich, and Lagavulin distilleries.
How to drink Scotch whisky
Scotch is predominantly consumed neat, without ice or mixers. A single serving of scotch is often called a dram. It can also be served on the rocks or with a few drops of water. “If you’re trying to get the most out of a whisky, I suggest trying it neat first, then adding a splash of water and see how that changes the flavor,” Allardice says.
Scotch is known for its complexity and nuance, so it isn’t often used in mixing cocktails. In most whisky cocktails, it makes more sense to use more affordable, spicier, high proof whiskey like bourbon or rye.
There are a few popular cocktails that use scotch as a base spirit, however. The Bobby Burns is a classic blended scotch cocktail made with sweet vermouth and is similar to a Manhattan. The Penicillin is a modern classic invented by Sam Ross that mixes blended scotch with lemon juice, ginger syrup, and honey syrup with a float of Islay scotch on top to add a hint of smoke.
Steeped in history and tradition, Scotch is one of the most diverse and iconic styles of whisky. Whether you enjoy a floral, and fruity Speyside or a smoky and briny Islay Scotch, every time you take a sip, you’re tasting centuries of Scottish craftsmanship distilled into one bottle.