About whisky

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A glass of whisky - to promote responsible drinking
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  • Barrels of maturing whisky in the storehouse at the Pulteney Distillery in Wick, Caithness, north Highlands.
    Maturing whisky in the storehouse at the Pulteney Distillery, Caithness
  • Bottling whisky © Scotch Whisky Association
    Bottling whisky © Scotch Whisky Association
  • The mash tun at Glen Garioch Distillery, Oldmeldrum, Aberdeenshire
    The mash tun at Glen Garioch Distillery, Oldmeldrum, Aberdeenshire
  • Washbacks, large vats where fermentation happens, at a whisky distillery - © Scotch Whisky Association
    Washbacks - © Scotch Whisky Association
  • Shelves with bottles of whisky at the Whisky Shop in Dufftown, Moray
    Shelves with bottles of whisky at the Whisky Shop in Dufftown, Moray

Whisky is as world-famous an icon of Scotland as tartan and bagpipes. It's been distilled here since at least the 15th century, with the first record of it dating back to 1494 when Friar John Cor of Lindores Abbey in Fife was granted the king's commission to make acqua vitae. Acqua vitae is Latin for 'water of life' and the word 'whisky' derives from the Gaelic translation: uisge beatha (pronounced oosh-ga beh-huh).


Water isn’t only part of the name; it is an integral part of whisky creation. The art of distilling started as a way of using up rain-soaked barley and, as it still does today, uses water from Scotland’s crystal streams and burns. It has been produced in Scotland for hundreds of years. It is generally agreed that monks brought distillation with them along with Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries. The first official recording of distilling stretches back to tax records from 1494.

The first official taxes on whisky production were not imposed until 1644, causing a rise in illicit whisky distilling in the country. Around 1780, there were about 8 legal distilleries and 400 illegal ones. 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, thereby ushering in the modern era of Scotch production.

Two events helped the increase of whisky's popularity: first, a new production process was introduced in 1831 called Coffey or Patent Still. The whisky produced with this process was less intense and smoother. Second, the Phylloxera beetle destroyed wine and cognac production in France in 1880, meaning that stocks of both in cellars around the world dwindled to almost nothing.

Since then, whisky production has gone from strength to strength, weathering prohibition in the United States, two world wars, the Great Depression and economic recessions throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Today, it is enjoyed in over 200 countries around the world.

There are two kinds of Scotch whisky: malt whisky, which is made by the pot still process, and grain whisky, which is made by the patent still (or Coffey still) process. Malt whisky is made from malted barley only while grain whisky is made from malted barley together with unmalted barley and other cereals. A third, blended whisky, involves an intricate process of mixing different single malts with grain whisky.

Malt whisky

Malt whisky production comprises of four different stages; first starting with malting barley, mixing the ground barley with hot water, fermenting it with yeast and then distilling it twice in large copper pot stills.

Produced using a traditional batch process, malt whisky is made up of three core ingredients; malted barley, yeast and water. The barley first must be malted; steeped in water and then left out on a malting floor to sprout shoots. It is then baked in a kiln to dry it out, with some distilleries, like those in Islay, using peat at this point to give their whiskies distinctly smoky notes.

Having been milled, the ground barley, or grist as it is now known, is mixed with hot water in a mash tun, producing a sugary liquid called wort. This is the basis for the alcohol. The remaining solids are used in agriculture as a nutritious cattle feed. Next, the liquid wort is passed into large vats called washbacks, where yeast is added and allowed to ferment, converting the sugars in the wort into an alcohol around 8% abv, or the ‘wash.’

The final process entails the ‘wash’ to be heated in two stills; the wash still and the spirit still. Only a certain part of the run, where the quality of the spirit is at its highest, is collected and used. The rest is siphoned and re-distilled.

The spirit is then poured into oak casks to age. By law, it cannot be called Scotch unless it has been matured for a minimum of three years in Scotland. If an age is shown on a label of malt whisky, it indicates the least amount of time that all the whisky in the bottle has been matured for. Malt whisky produced at one distillery is sold as single malt whisky; you can also buy blended malt whisky which will be the product of two or more different distilleries.

Whisky is produced in five different regions with each region being known for particular notes or characteristics.

Find out more about malt whisky along the Scotland's Malt Whisky Trail.

Grain whisky

The distillation of grain whisky is different to malt whisky production in a few key ways. Firstly, it is a mixture of malted barley and other (unmalted) cereals, the latter being pressured steamed for three and a half hours. Perhaps more importantly, the liquid wash is heated in a Patent, or Coffey, Still which is a continuous process that yields more spirit and at a much higher strength. Much the same as malt whisky, grain whisky is matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years, by which time it develops character and its distinctive golden colour.

Grain whisky is generally milder than malt whisky in aroma and flavour. For this reason, the majority of grain whisky produced traditionally goes into blending process, although some is sold as single grain whisky, that is to say, produced at just one distillery, or a blended grain whisky (made of multiple different grain whiskies).

Blended whisky

Blending whisky is a considerable art acquired only after years of experience. A blend will consist of anything from 15 to 50 different single whiskies, combined in the proportions of a formula that is the secret of the blending company concerned.

Whiskies from different distilleries have a character of their own and don’t always blend happily with certain others. The malts and grains in a blend are chosen to complement and enhance their respective flavours. Blending is in no sense a dilution either. The blenders’ task is to combine different single whiskies, to produce a blend which brings out the best qualities of each of its constituent parts.

Blending was pioneered by Andrew Usher in Edinburgh in the early 1860s. It was only after this practice became common that a taste for Scotch whisky spread throughout the world. Pot still single malt whisky was inclined to be too strongly flavoured for everyday drinking, especially by people in sedentary occupations and warm climates. By combining malt whisky with grain whisky, which has less pronounced characteristics, the demand for a whisky was satisfied with a milder, more subtle spirit more suited to demanding conditions. Unlike a single malt whisky, which has been matured for a particular number of years, the age on the label of a blended whisky only refers to the youngest whisky in the blend.

Blended whiskies are now household names, including Bells, Dewars, Whyte and Mackay, Johnnie Walker and The Famous Grouse.