All Scotch whisky was originally made from malted barley. Commercial distilleries began introducing whisky made from wheat and rye in the late 18th century. Scotch whisky is divided into five distinct categories: single malt Scotch whisky, single grain Scotch whisky, blended malt Scotch whisky (formerly called "vatted malt" or "pure malt"), blended grain Scotch whisky, and blended Scotch whisky.
All Scotch whisky must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years. Any age statement on a bottle of Scotch whisky, expressed in numerical form, must reflect the age of the youngest whisky used to produce that product. A whisky with an age statement is known as guaranteed-age whisky. A whisky without an age statement is known as a no age statement (NAS) whisky, the only guarantee being that all whisky contained in that bottle is at least three years old.
The first written mention of Scotch whisky is in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, 1495. A friar named John Cor was the distiller at Lindores Abbey in Newburgh, Fife, where, in October 2017, malt whisky production restarted for the first time in 522 years.
As of 23 November 2009, the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 (SWR) define and regulate the production, labelling, packaging as well as the advertising of Scotch whisky in the United Kingdom. They replace previous regulations that focused solely on production. International trade agreements have the effect of making some provisions of the SWR apply in various other countries as well as in the UK. The SWR define "Scotch whisky" as whisky that is:
A Scotch whisky label comprises several elements that indicate aspects of production, age, bottling, and ownership. Some of these elements are regulated by the SWR, and some reflect tradition and marketing. The spelling of the term "whisky" is often debated by journalists and consumers. Scottish, English, Welsh, Australian and Canadian whiskies use "whisky", Irish whiskies use "whiskey", while American and other styles vary in their spelling of the term.
The label always features a declaration of the malt or grain whiskies used. A single malt Scotch whisky is one that is entirely produced from malt in one distillery. One may also encounter the term "single cask", signifying the bottling comes entirely from one cask. The term "blended malt" signifies that single malt whisky from different distilleries are blended in the bottle. The Cardhu distillery also began using the term "pure malt" for the same purpose, causing a controversy in the process over clarity in labelling - the Glenfiddich distillery was using the term to describe some single malt bottlings. As a result, the Scotch Whisky Association declared that a mixture of single malt whiskies must be labelled a "blended malt". The use of the former terms "vatted malt" and "pure malt" is prohibited. The term "blended malt" is still debated, as some bottlers maintain that consumers confuse the term with "blended Scotch whisky", which contains some proportion of grain whisky.
The brand name featured on the label is usually the same as the distillery name (for example, the Talisker distillery labels its whiskies with the Talisker name). Indeed, the SWR prohibit bottlers from using a distillery name when the whisky was not made there. A bottler name may also be listed, sometimes independent of the distillery. In addition to requiring that Scotch whisky be distilled in Scotland, the SWR require that it also be bottled and labelled in Scotland. Labels may also indicate the region of the distillery (for example, Islay or Speyside).
Alcoholic strength is expressed on the label with "Alcohol By Volume" ("ABV") or sometimes simply "Vol". Typically, bottled whisky is between 40% and 46% ABV. Whisky is considerably stronger when first emerging from the cask--normally 60-63% ABV. Water is then added to create the desired bottling strength. If the whisky is not diluted before bottling, it can be labelled as cask strength.
A whisky's age may be listed on the bottle providing a guarantee of the youngest whisky used. An age statement on the bottle, in the form of a number, must reflect the age of the youngest whisky used to produce that product. A whisky with an age statement is known as guaranteed age whisky. Scotch whisky without an age statement may, by law, be as young as three years old. In the early 21st century, such "No age statement" whiskies have become more common, as distilleries respond to the depletion of aged stocks caused by improved sales. A label may carry a distillation date or a bottling date. Whisky does not mature once bottled, so if no age statement is provided, one may calculate the age of the whisky if both the distillation date and bottling date are given.
Labels may also carry various declarations of filtration techniques or final maturation processes. A Scotch whisky labelled as "natural" or "non-chill-filtered" has not been through a filtration process during bottling that removes compounds that some consumers see as desirable. Whisky is aged in various types of casks--and often in used sherry or port casks--during distinct portions of the maturation process, and will take on characteristics, flavour and aromas from such casks. Special casks are sometimes used at the end of the maturation process, and such whiskies may be labelled as "wood finished", "sherry/port finished", and so on.
There are two basic types of Scotch whisky, from which all blends are made:
Excluded from the definition of "single grain Scotch whisky" is any spirit that qualifies as a single malt Scotch whisky or as a blended Scotch whisky. The latter exclusion is to ensure that a blended Scotch whisky produced from single malt(s) and single grain(s) distilled at the same distillery does not also qualify as single grain Scotch whisky.
Three types of blends are defined for Scotch whisky:
The five Scotch whisky definitions are structured in such a way that the categories are mutually exclusive. The 2009 regulations changed the formal definition of blended Scotch whisky to achieve this result, but in a way that reflected traditional and current practice: before the 2009 SWR, any combination of Scotch whiskies qualified as a blended Scotch whisky, including for example a blend of single malt Scotch whiskies.
As was the case under the Scotch Whisky Act 1988, regulation 5 of the SWR 2009 stipulates that the only whisky that may be manufactured in Scotland is Scotch whisky. The definition of manufacture is "keeping for the purpose of maturation; and keeping, or using, for the purpose of blending, except for domestic blending for domestic consumption". This provision prevents the existence of two "grades" of whisky originating from Scotland, one "Scotch whisky" and the other, a "whisky - product of Scotland" that complies with the generic EU standard for whisky. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, allowing non-Scotch whisky production in Scotland would make it difficult to protect Scotch whisky as a distinctive product.
The majority of grain whisky produced in Scotland goes to make blended Scotch whisky. The average blended whisky is 60%-85% grain whisky. Some higher-quality grain whisky from a single distillery is bottled as single grain whisky.
Blended malt whisky--formerly called vatted malt or pure malt (terms that are now prohibited in the SWR 2009)--is one of the least common types of Scotch: a blend of single malts from more than one distillery (possibly with differing ages). Blended malts contain only malt whiskies--no grain whiskies--and are usually distinguished from other types of whisky by the absence of the word "single" before "malt" on the bottle, and the absence of a distillery name. The age of the vat is that of the youngest of the original ingredients. For example, a blended malt marked "8 years old" may include older whiskies, with the youngest constituent being eight years old. Johnnie Walker Green Label and Monkey Shoulder are examples of blended malt whisky. Starting from November 2011, no Scotch whisky could be labelled as a vatted malt or pure malt, the SWR requiring them to be labelled blended malt instead.
Blended Scotch whisky constitutes about 90% of the whisky produced in Scotland. Blended Scotch whiskies contain both malt whisky and grain whisky. Producers combine the various malts and grain whiskies to produce a consistent brand style. Notable blended Scotch whisky brands include Ballantine's, Bell's, Chivas Regal, Cutty Sark, Dewar's, J&B, Johnnie Walker, Teacher's Highland Cream, The Famous Grouse, and Whyte and Mackay.
Most malt distilleries sell a significant amount of whisky by the cask for blending, and sometimes to private buyers as well. Whisky from such casks is sometimes bottled as a single malt by independent bottling firms such as Duncan Taylor, Master of Malt,Gordon & MacPhail, Cadenhead's, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Murray McDavid, Berry Bros. & Rudd, Douglas Laing, and others. These are usually labelled with the distillery's name, but not using the distillery's trademarked logos or typefaces. An "official bottling" (or "proprietary bottling"), by comparison, is from the distillery (or its owner). Many independent bottlings are from single casks, and they may sometimes be very different from an official bottling.
For a variety of reasons, some independent brands do not identify which facility distilled the whisky in the bottle. They may instead identify only the general geographical area of the source, or they simply market the product using their own brand name without identifying their source. This may, in some cases, be simply to give the independent bottling company the flexibility to purchase from multiple distillers without changing their labels.
To Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae, VIII bolls of malt.-- Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, 1 June 1495.
According to the Scotch Whisky Association, Scotch whisky evolved from a Scottish drink called uisge beatha, which means "water of life". The earliest record of distillation in Scotland occurred as long ago as 1494, as documented in the Exchequer Rolls, which were records of royal income and expenditure. The quote above records eight bolls of malt given to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae (Latin for "water of life," = uisge beatha) over the previous year. This would be enough for 1,500 bottles, which suggests that distillation was well-established by the late 15th century.
Whisky production was first taxed in 1644, causing a rise in illicit whisky distilling in the country. Between the 1760s and the 1830s a substantial unlicensed trade originated from the Highlands, forming a significant part of the region's export economy. In 1782, more than 1,000 illegal stills were seized in the Highlands: these can only have been a fraction of those in operation. The Lowland distillers, who had no opportunity to avoid taxation, complained that un-taxed Highland whisky made up more than half the market. The heavy taxation during the Napoleonic Wars gave the illicit trade a big advantage, but their product was also considered better quality, commanding a higher price in the Lowlands. This was due to the method of taxation: malt was subject to tax (at a rate that climbed substantially between the 1790s and 1822). The licensed distillers therefore used more raw grain in an effort to reduce their tax bill.
The Highland magistrates, themselves members of the landowning classes, had a lenient attitude to unlicensed distillers - all of whom would be tenants in the local area. They understood that the trade supported the rents paid. Imprisoned tenants would not be able to pay any rent.
In 1823, Parliament eased restrictions on licensed distilleries with the "Excise Act", while at the same time making it harder for the illegal stills to operate. Magistrates found counsel for the crown appearing in their courts, so forcing the maximum penalties to be applied, with some cases removed to the Court of Exchequer in Edinburgh for tougher sentences. Highland landowners were now happy to remove tenants who were distillers in clearances on their estates. These changes ushered in the modern era of Scotch production: in 1823 2,232,000 gallons of whisky had duty paid on it; in 1824 this increased to 4,350,000 gallons.:119-134
Two events helped to increase whisky's popularity: first, the introduction in 1831 of the column still; the whisky produced with this process was generally less expensive to produce and also less intense and smoother, because a column still can perform the equivalent of multiple distillation steps in a continuous distillation process. Second, the phylloxera bug destroyed wine and cognac production in France in 1880.
Scotland was traditionally divided into four regions: The Highlands, The Lowlands, The Isle of Islay, and Campbeltown. Due to the large number of distilleries found there, the Speyside region is now also recognized by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) as a distinct region. The whisky-producing islands other than Islay are not recognised as a distinct region by the SWA, which groups them into the Highlands region.
Although only five regions are specifically described, any Scottish locale may be used to describe a whisky if it is distilled entirely within that place; for example a single malt whisky distilled on Orkney could be described as Orkney Single Malt Scotch Whisky instead of as an Island whisky.