What is the difference between Scotch and other types of whisky?
A ritual on the rocks — undeniably the best way to taste an amber — calls for a quality whisky. And the option most recommended by connoisseurs is often the one that comes straight from Scottish distilleries. However, if you’ve never been able to tell your malts apart, here’s our guide to the differences between the hugely popular Scotch and other types of whisky.
The world of malts – with its dizzying array of blends and aging specifications – can get confusing to fully grasp. For most of us, the most recognizable option is probably the ubiquitous scotch. After all, a quick look down the aisle of a supermarket or liquor store will reveal several high-end options, many with the word “Scotch” plastered on the labels.
Heavy on the wallet, sweet on the palate – this amber stands out amidst the sea of bourbons and ryes. It is also hailed as one of the most iconic types of whiskey and a mark of Scottish tradition and craftsmanship. This brings us to the million dollar question: should you replace your regular malt with a scotch for your daily dram? Here’s a quick guide that puts amber head-to-head with other whiskeys available on the market right now. And yes, we also decode the exact difference between Scotch and other types of whisky.
What is Scottish?
Scotch refers to an alcoholic beverage made primarily from malted barley. The production process involves the barley being soaked, partially sprouted, and then dried. Timing is key – by stopping sprouting at the right time, the spirit takes on the most flavor and has a distinctive malty aroma. A few companies, however, use malted rye or wheat. A specific type of whiskey (not whiskey) – Scotch, is bound by certain legal requirements.
Mandates focused on export, labeling, geography and distillation maintain the quality and reputation of this spirit. For example, it must be fermented, distilled and aged in Scotland (hence its name). Popular options come from Highlands, Islay, Speyside, Campbeltown and Lowland. The only ingredients allowed in the production process are cereal, yeast, water and caramel coloring. Scotch must be distilled to at least 94.8% ABV and bottled at 40% ABV – after aging for at least three years in oak barrels. Generally, the bottles declare at least 12 years of aging or more.
Types of tape
This whiskey has a complex and smoky flavor. Flavor notes, however, can range from sweet to salty, depending on regional variations and other technical details. For example, Speysides are often light and fruity while Highlands are rich and intense. Basically, Scotch can be divided into two:
- Single Malt Scotch: The crème de la crème of the whiskey world, bottles of this whiskey are highly coveted for their intense and complex flavor. To qualify as a single malt, Scotch must be produced only from malted barley, then distilled and aged in a single distillery. Copper stills are also involved. Popular brands that showcase this whiskey include The Macallan, Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie.
- Scottish mixed: This spirit is created by combining a single malt with a grain (or several), from several (two or more) distilleries. Other similar types may include mixed malt scotch – which used to be called vat malt as well as mixed grain scotch. Popular brands include Dewar’s, Chivas Regal and Cutty Sark. About 80% of the Scotch consumed in the world is said to be blends.
This aside, there is a Scotch derivative known as peated Scotch that comes from the sprouting process of barley. It is popularly known as ‘smoky dram’.
What is Whisky?
One of the most popular spirits in the world, whiskey refers to an alcoholic beverage created from fermented grain mash with around 40% ABV. Specifically, the process of making whiskey involves producing beer from grains and then further processing it to create a concentrated drink. The grains used normally include rye, barley, corn and wheat and their combination is called mash bill. Each bean would have its own unique flavor.
Depending on how they are aged and where they are produced, whiskeys come in a range of options. All are aged for two years in white oak, sherry, charred sherry or other wooden casks. This adds flavor and character, allowing the spirit to take on an amber hue. Records indicate that the term whiskey may have originated from the Gaelic “uisge beatha”, which translates to “water of life”. Interestingly, while these ambers are spelled “whiskey” in Scotland, Canada and Japan, they are called “whiskey” in Ireland and the United States. Whiskey is a broad term and can include:
- Bourbon: An American interpretation of Kentucky that contains at least 51% corn in its mash. Producers age it in charred oak barrels and the flavor is generally smooth – with hints of vanilla, butterscotch, honey, maple and chocolate. A popular variation is Tennessee Whiskey – with sugar maple charcoal giving its caramel and vanilla flavors a smoky character.
- Canadian: With at least forty percent alcohol, Canadian whiskey must come from the North American country and age for at least three years. The bottles are often labeled rye whiskey and they come with big notes of caramel, oak, fruit and spice.
- Irish: Bottled in Ireland, this whiskey has a base of malt, grain and barely with an aging period of three years. Sweet with hints of fruit, smoke, spice and vanilla – it’s usually quite sweet.
- Japanese whisky: Aged in Japanese oak barrels, this amber does not need to be from the Asian country but is often bottled there. These are produced like Scotch whiskeys and are delicate, with a characteristic honey-like sweetness.
- Scotch Whiskey: The most popular and premium of them all, Scotch comes from Scotland and can contain either malt or grain whiskey (or a combination).
So what’s the difference between Scotch and most types of whisky?
The straightforward answer is that Scotch is a type of whiskey that originated in Scotland. Like most others around the world, it contains fermented grain and is aged in wooden barrels. That said, to make it easier to understand, here are some key tips.
- Aging: While Scotch is aged for at least three years in oak barrels sometimes used for other spirits (like wine), most other types of whiskey are charred in white oak barrels.
- Flavor: Depending on the type, Scotch has notes of dried fruit, vanilla, caramel and smoke. Given the way it is distilled, this amber is much more complex and smooth than other types of whiskeys – whose tasting notes can range from fruit to butterscotch.
- Base: Scotch, as noted above, was traditionally made only from malted barley – although growers have now started experimenting with malted wheat and rye. Most whiskeys, on the other hand, feature a range of grains – barley, what, corn or grain.
- Production: The grains are malted in Scotch before fermentation by soaking in water. This prepares the starches to ferment into sugars. Most other whiskeys have other variable processes. In the United States, many are made at home. However, Scotch must be made in a distillery according to meticulously traced processes.
- Consumption: Given its complexity, flavor and price, Scotch is best enjoyed neat or over ice. However, it’s also a key ingredient in cocktails like Bobby Burns and Penicillin. However, bartenders around the world are using more resilient, spicy, and affordable ambers like bourbon and rye for their cocktails.
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