Strathearn Distillery, Perthshire

Food and drink

About whisky and the history of Scotch malt whisky

Whisky, Scotland's national drink, has been lovingly crafted throughout the country for centuries. There's over 100 working distilleries operating today (and counting!), each making whisky in their own unique way. Learn more about the different types of whisky, find out how malt whisky is made and discover the history of this illustrious golden spirit.

Sampling Whisky Quaich Bar

Types of whisky

There are three different types of Scotch whisky: malt whisky (also known as single malt), grain whisky and blended whisky. But how do they differ?

Malt whisky

Malt whisky is made using malted barley, water and yeast. The liquid is distilled in huge copper pot stills (you’ll see them on most distillery tours) and is matured in whisky barrels for a minimum of three years (though most is matured for much longer than this). Single malt whisky is produced at one distillery while blended malt whisky is the product of two or more distilleries.

Grain whisky

Grain whisky is made pretty differently. This time malted barley is mixed with unmalted barley and other cereals (such as maize and wheat) before the whole mixture is combined with water and then yeast. The resulting liquid is distilled in a tall patent still (or Coffey still) which looks very different to the traditional pot still and yields more spirit at a much higher strength.

Blended whisky

Blended whisky involves an intricate process of mixing different single malts (anything from 15 to 50) with grain whisky. It’s a complex process – whiskies from different distilleries have characters all of their own and don’t always blend happily with certain others – which is why the art of blending is so skilled and recipes are a closely guarded secret. Many blended whiskies are now household names, including Bells, Dewars, Whyte & Mackay, Johnnie Walker and The Famous Grouse.

History of whisky

The art of distilling whisky began as a way of using up rain-soaked barley and, as it still does today, used water from Scotland’s crystal streams and burns.

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 1494, when Friar John Cor of Lindores Abbey in Fife was granted the king's commission to make acqua vitae, Latin for 'water of life'.

Whisky at Arisaig Bar

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 eight 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 to increase the popularity of whisky: firstly, a new production process was introduced in 1831 using a Coffey or patent still. The whisky produced with this process was less intense and smoother. Secondly, 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.