According to the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009, there are 5 different categories of Scotch:
- Single Malt Scotch Whisky;
- Single Grain Scotch Whisky;
- Blended Malt Scotch Whisky;
- Blended Grain Scotch Whisky; and
- Blended Scotch Whisky.
... but the regulations alone don't tell the whole story. Here's our guide to the different types of Scotch whisky, and the best places to experience it and learn more.
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Malt vs Grain
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The official rules say that whisky can be made from ... "malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added)".Malt whisky is made from malted barley alone, whilst grain whisky has some other wholegrain cereals added to the barley.
Grain whisky is much cheaper to make because barley is more expensive than other grains, and the malting process takes a long time and a lot of heat. Most grain whisky is made using wheat, although some contain oats, and some experimental distillers are using other grains.
Another rule is that malt whisky must be made in a Pot Still, but grain whisky can be made in any kind of still. Pot stills are the traditional copper kettles with a long neck - and are quite different from the column stills used to make most grain whisky.
The big difference between a pot still and a column still is that a pot still has to be emptied and refilled between each batch, whereas a column still can be run continuously (another reason why grain spirit is cheaper). The increased surface area of a copper pot still also has a big effect on the end product's flavour. Some distilleries like Springbank and Mortlach play with this by distilling over and over again to get as much out of the still as possible.
Single vs Blended
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Most distilleries are justifiably proud of their product and want to show it off without mixing it with anything else!
A single malt or single grain whisky is a malt or grain whisky made at a single distillery. The distillery can still blend the contents of multiple casks but can't blend anything from any other distillery. This single-distillery blending is important because it allows them to release a consistent product. Every cask is different, and without mixing them, the distillers wouldn't give their customers a consistent experience from one bottle to the next.
The best place to learn about blending a single malt is at Springbank Distillery - they run an excellent experience where you get to blend your own whisky to take home. Get in touch if you'd like us to organise it as part of your trip!
A single cask whisky is a whisky that has been bottled from one single cask without any blending at all. This is a great way to show off a particularly interesting cask - most distilleries and bottlers save their very best for single cask releases and blend different casks for their single malt or single grain releases.
A blended whisky is a bottling that is a mix of both malt and grain whisky. There are a huge variety of blended whiskies on the market, and it's definitely not true that single malt is always better than a blend! Interestingly, if a distillery produces both malt and grain whisky when it blends them, it has to call it a blended whisky (rather than a single malt/grain whisky) - even if it's all from a single distillery.
Blended malts and blended grains are blends containing just malt whisky or just grain whisky from different distilleries. These categories were only added to the regulations in 2009 - before that, they were called vatted malts/grains and didn't have any official status.
Age vs NAS
Image: Visit Scotland / Damian Shields
20 years ago, almost all single malts had an age number on the label - and almost all blended whiskies had no age statement.
Nowadays, NAS (No Age Statement) releases are becoming more and more popular. There are lots of reasons for this, but the most important one is that not every whisky gets better as it gets older! Some whiskies (like Octomore from Bruichladdich on Islay) are at their best after only a few years, whilst others (Macallan is a great example) are still getting better after 30 years in a cask!
The minimum age for a whisky is 3 years of maturation (and this has to take place in an oak cask) - but in practice, most whiskies, including NAS bottlings, are much older. The one exception is the cheaper blended whiskies - but as they still taste great in cocktails, there's nothing wrong with that either!
Independent vs Distillery Bottlings
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Distilleries bring in water, grains and yeast, and produce raw spirit. But there's no rule that says they have to hold onto it until it's put in a bottle - instead, quite a lot of casks from the distilleries are sold on to independent firms, which then age them and bottle them under their own brand.
Many of these independent bottlings are of extremely high quality, and they can also be a bit of a bargain compared to distillery bottlings, as there is often something of a premium for the distillery name.
You can even buy a cask to age and bottle yourself! If you're thinking of doing this, we can build a bespoke tour around the various distilleries and brokers who are currently selling casks and we can introduce you to advisors to help you make the best possible use of this investment.
Finally ... Whisky vs Whiskey
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Back in the 1700s, whisky was being made in Scotland and Ireland. In Scotland, they spelled it whisky, and in Ireland, it was whiskey. At the time, the rules were a lot less strict, and nobody really cared where whisk(e)y came from as long as it tasted good! In the 1800s, as more rules were introduced, the Irish and Scotch styles started to diverge quite substantially.
Nowadays, whisky/whiskey is made all over the world - as far afield as Japan, Australia, Lebanon, Argentina and the USA. The spelling used tells you whether the whisk(e)y tradition in that country is based on the Irish or Scotch style: so in the USA, it's called whiskey as it's based on the Irish style and in Japan, its whisky because of the Scotch influence.