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Scotch, whose name comes from the Gaelic word for ‘water of life’, comes from Scotland. While other whiskies may be similar to scotch, they must be distilled in Scotland to carry this moniker.  Furthermore, Scotland’s law forbids any other whisky other than scotch to be distilled in the country.

The Scotch Whisky Regulations (updated in 2009) state that to be labeled a scotch, a spirit must be produced, processed, converted, fermented and distilled at a distillery in Scotland. It must begin with only water and malted barley but other whole grain cereals can be added along with yeast. A scotch is aged in oak barrels for at least three years and the final product must have a minimum alcoholic strength of 40 percent.

Scotch appears to be the first distilled spirit in Scotland and legend has it that St. Patrick introduced this process in the 5th century but its true popularity took off during Scottish King James IV’s reign due to his fondness of the spirits.

There are a few terms that characterize scotch:

  • Single malt scotch only features water and malted barley.
  • Single grain scotch features at least one other whole grain in addition to the mash of water and malted barley.
  • Blended malt scotch is a blend of two or more single-malt scotches that were produced at different distilleries.
  • Blended grain scotch is a blend of two or more single-grain scotches that were produced at different distilleries.
  • Blended scotch is a blend of one or more single-malt scotch with one or more single-grain scotch.

The main difference between malt and grain scotch is found in the mash. Malt only features barley that has been seeped in water and allowed to germinate. For grain scotch, a combination of malt and corn, wheat or rye are added during this process. After the malted barley has germinated, the malt is dried and smoke may be added to enhance flavor.  The dried malt is then fermented, distilled and diluted.  Most scotches are distilled twice.

After the double distillation process, the scotch is placed in a cask to mature. Various types of casks have been used over the years for scotch. Sherry and bourbon casks are the most common casks but oak casks used for white and red wine aging can also be used. Often the color of a scotch can be a clue to what type of casks it was aged in. The scotch is then aged for a minimum of three years. The color and flavor get stronger as the scotch ages. A caramel coloring is commonly added to many scotches but this is the only additive that is allowed.

A blended scotch is the most commonly found form of scotch; this form accounts for approximately 90 percent of all scotch. A blended scotch with approximately 60-85 percent grain scotch is the most blended variety.

Historically scotch was distilled using pot stills but now a continuous still method is more commonly employed. Yet the Scotch Whisky Regulations require that all single-malt scotch be distilled using pot stills.