Scotch whisky 101

The golden nectar.
The golden nectar. Photo: Getty Images

The world of Scotch whisky can be a difficult one to navigate at first. So many blends and malts and lochs and ages and casks and peats and palates. Images are likely to manifest of obscenely wealthy financial sector-types quaffing obscenely expensive bottles of 40-year Glen-something-or-other. Or perhaps of old men wearing tweed, sitting in Chesterfield couches and swapping stories of sheep herding over a wee dram or two ("dram" is the Scottish term for a small drink of whisky or other spirits, by the way). 

Get those images out of your noggin immediately. Scotch whisky has never been more accessible, and all those "rules" you might have heard about whisky – like only drinking it neat to properly appreciate it – well, they've gone out the window. We present this introductory guide to Scotland's golden nectar to cut through the confusion.

What is Scotch whisky?

An employee of Scotland's Dalwhinnie distillery views whisky drawn from a cask.
An employee of Scotland's Dalwhinnie distillery views whisky drawn from a cask. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell

It's a delicious distilled alcohol traditionally made in Scotland from water, cereals and yeast. Not to be confused with American, Australian, Canadian, Irish and Japanese whisky which are similar and equally delicious, but perhaps stories for another time.

What's the age on the bottle mean? Ten years, 15 years and all that jazz?

After scotch whisky has been distilled, it needs to have a long quiet sleep in an oak cask for at least three years (otherwise it can't be called scotch whisky by law). Most Scotch whisky is aged for much longer than three years and labelled on the bottle as such. A longer time in the barrel can certainly make for a more complex whisky, but everything reaches a point of perfection and knowing when to bottle whisky at its peak takes considerable skill.

Whisky and cheese are great mates.
Whisky and cheese are great mates. Photo: Supplied

It's important to note that whisky is not wine and does not age in the bottle and nor does it deteriorate if kept out of direct sunlight, even after it's been opened. This means you can't  buy a 10-year-old whisky and flog it off as a 60-year-old beast half a century later.

What's the difference between a single malt whisky and a blend? Single malts are better and more expensive, right?

Wrong. Johnny Walker Blue Label is a blend, for example, and it's an outstanding whisky that's far from cheap.

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A single malt whisky is a spirit distilled at a single distillery. Meanwhile, a blended whisky consists of 15 to 50 whiskies from distilleries all over Scotland combined according to a special formula. The art of whisky blending takes many years to master.

"[Whisky blending] is similar to how a bartender might create a cocktail, or a chef might create a dish," says Sean Baxter, national Scotch whisky ambassador for Diageo Australia. "When single malt lovers come up to me and go: 'I love Scotch whisky, but I only drink single malt' that's sort of like saying: 'I love cricket, but I only watch the Boxing Day test match."

There's also single grain, blended grain and blended malt whisky but we'll save those for the Whisky 102 class.   

How are you supposed to drink it? I'm scared I'm doing it wrong.

Don't be scared – drink whisky however the heck you like! Add a cube of ice, a cup of ice, or no ice – it doesn't matter, your preference is your own. Whisky-based cocktails are a lot of fun, too.

If you've seen whisky buffs adding drops of water to their golden nectar and wondered 'what's that all about?', it's because the water opens up the whisky and characteristics and flavours that might have otherwise remained dormant are given a chance to shine. How much water is up to you.

"If you like texture and a slightly more alcoholic sensation in the mouth, you're not going to add as much," Baxter says. "However, if you want to soften it a little bit more, I generally add about a teaspoon to 30 millilitres."

Whisky cocktail recipes:

Does single malt whisky taste different depending on where it comes from in Scotland?

It most certainly does. The local water used to make whisky is a factor in taste, so is the barley-drying process, maturation length, cask type, subtle differences in the shape of the still and many other geeky whisky things.

The main distilling areas of Scotland can be divided into six areas: the Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, Islay, the Islands and  Campbeltown. The taste of individual whiskies can still vary wildly within  an area, however as a basic guide:

Lowlands: Grassy and delicate drams.

Highlands: Taste varies considerably given the size of the area, but you can expect a lot of subtle, floral, fruit cake-ish, heathery notes.

Speyside: More than half of Scottish whiskies come from Speyside and there's a wide variety of flavour profiles from light "lunchtime whiskies" to rich, spicy and nutty after-dinner drops.

Islay: The south island known as "The Queen of the Hebrides" is famous for its big smoky, peaty wallopers.

The Islands: Comprised of any islands that aren't Islay. Comprises a lot of smoky and peaty whiskies, too, but also a few lighter varieties with citrus notes.

Campbeltown: Pungent, dry and smoky drops from a fishing town on the Kintyre peninsula.

Can you pair whisky with food?

By all means – whisky doesn't have to be a post-prandial drink only. Just like wine, different whiskies will pair better with different food.  A few suggestions to get you started are a peaty Islay number with oysters, a grassy Lowland drop with scallops and a heathery Highlander with lamb stew.   

If you are having a dram after dinner then shortbread, cheese and chocolate are all great mates with whisky (as far as cheese goes, aged cheddar and comte are excellent choices).

OK, you have my attention. How do I find out more? Is there a book I can check out?

Sure. Whisky: The Manual by bearded legend Dave Broom is a great no-nonsense, non-stuffy look at the magical drink that's perfect for anyone exploring whisky for the first time.