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Buying Guide for Scotch

Scotch bottle label

"Let other poets raise a fracas ‘bout vines, an' wines, an' drucken Bacchus,’ . . . I sing the juice Scotch [barley] can mak us” (Robert Burns, 1785). As a gesture of hospitality, a social occasion, a national drink, scotch whisky has been enjoyed and celebrated in Scotland for hundreds of years. From the nineteenth century on, with the advent of blended scotch, the spirit's popularity spread worldwide. Premium scotches are best consumed neat, with a few drops of water or with ice.

Know The Label

These terms commonly appear on scotch labels. For further information about scotch, please ask the staff at your Virginia ABC store.

All scotch must be aged (or "matured") in Scotland for at least three years in oak casks (2009: 2890). Most scotch is aged for significantly longer periods in order to achieve a mellow, desirable taste profile, arising from the interaction of the distillate with the oak. Maturation ends once the whisky is bottled. All age statements reflect the youngest scotch in the bottle.

Blended scotch is produced by combining different malted barley and grain whiskies. Each brand employs a proprietary recipe to to achieve a consistent taste and quality. “Blended scotch” means a blend of one or more single malt scotches with one or more single grain scotches. "Blended malt scotch” means a blend of two or more single-malt scotches that have been distilled at more than one distillery (2009: 2890).

Like bourbon whiskey, scotch must be aged in oak barrels, which imparts desirable flavor and color to the distilled spirit (see also "first fill").
First fill

First-fill designates the first use of a barrel in scotch production. Scotch casks are often reused, which helps achieve a balanced taste. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, 90 percent of the scotch casks were originally employed in the maturation of bourbon; oak sherry casks are also used. First-fill scotches tend to have more distinctly oak and wood characteristics than second- or third-fill scotches.
Highland malt
The largest scotch region geographically, covering north-central Scotland. The Highlands actually comprise several, distinctive subareas of single-malt scotch production. One of these is Speyside, which is such a prominent scotch area that it is treated as a region of its own; other subregions include the Islands (Jura, Orkney, Arran, etc.); Central Highlands; and the West Highlands (or West Coast). There is a great variety within these single-malt scotches, ranging from the assertive and botanical to the light and fruity.
Islay malt
Adjacent to Jura, Islay is an island in the inner Hebrides, along the West coast of Scotland, home to eight distilleries. Islay single malts are diverse, but generally are emphatic and robust, with smoky, peaty, seaside characteristics.
An island with a single distillery, off the west coast, grouped in the Highlands scotch region.
Lowland malt
A scotch region in the south of Scotland. Little peat is used to dry Lowland malt; Lowland single malts have also often been triple-distilled. These differences in production typically give Lowland single malts a lighter, maltier taste.
See "aged."
Peat smoke
Heavily peated
Peat is the organic sediment that accumulates in the bogs and marshes common in Scotland. It is an important raw material often used in scotch production, contributing a distinctive taste—smoky, but also earthy or briny—not from its presence in the distillate, but rather from the practice of drying the malted barley over a peat fire. The longer the drying process over peat, the smokier the flavor. A "heavily peated" scotch thus has a distinct smoky taste. Not all scotches are peated; regionally, Islay and Highland single malts tend to be more peated, and Lowland single malts less peated.
Scotch whisky is a distinctive, geographically protected distilled spirit, produced in Scotland in compliance with the laws of the United Kingdom (see 2009: 2890).
Single grain
"Single-grain" scotch is distilled at a single distillery and includes grains other than just malted barley (such as unmalted barley or wheat) (2009: 2890).
Single malt
"Single-malt" scotch is distilled in one or more batches at a single distillery, from water and malted barley without the addition of any other cereals, and in pot stills (2009: 2890). The region where a single malt scotch is produced is usually named: Highland, Speyside, Lowland, Islay or Campbeltown. Although not as significant to taste as in wine, regions impart distinctive taste characteristics to single malt scotches, arising from differences in ingredients and production.  
Speyside malt
On the northeastern coast, along the River Spey, the Speyside scotch region is geographically small, but contains almost half of scotch distilleries. Speyside single malts are complex, fruity and spicy, often aged in sherry casks.

Cocktail Conversation

There are many great resources online to explore scotch, starting with the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009, the U.K. legislation that regulates its production, and the Scotch Whisky Association.
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