An introduction to Scottish whisky – Lonely Planet

An introduction to Scottish whisky – Lonely Planet

The Gaelic time period for whisky − uisge beatha, or “water of life” − illustrates how intrinsically linked the drink is to Scottish tradition. Scotland’s whisky is a singular fusion of geography and historical past developed over time, in circumstances that imply no different whiskies can compete when it comes to pedigree, character and variety of spirits produced.

What different nationwide drink may boast a previous that includes adventuring monks, experimental kings and a well-known poet? What different nation’s tipple may replicate a topography of peaty moors, heathery glens and briny ocean? Here’s what makes Scottish whiskey so particular.

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How to drink whiskey in Scotland

History of Scottish whisky

It was possible these masters of alcohol manufacture, monks, who might be credited with first distilling whiskey in Scotland. As monasticism unfold north from continental Europe within the eleventh century, so too did the holy males’s winemaking experience: Scotland’s local weather prevented grapes from flourishing, but grains nonetheless did effective.

The earliest documentation of Scottish whisky-making in 1494 has a friar because the distiller. Scotland’s King James IV (1488–1513) was the primary to famously admire aqua vitae, though for its usefulness as a element in gunpowder as a lot as its style, which in these days would have been robust, tough and devoid of the maturation giving whisky such taste immediately.

Still, whiskey grew in reputation, and Scotland’s quickly needed to capitalize. The first funds of responsibility on robust spirits had been levied in 1644 however had been notoriously unfair. Accordingly, whisky-making was pushed underground, made in makeshift stills in distant places removed from the legislation’s attain and transported by smugglers so as to evade these taxes.

Meanwhile, excisemen, together with nationwide bard Robert Burns within the late 18th century, tried the troublesome job of making certain errant distillers paid their dues. Tensions between the 2 sides of the distilling enterprise ran excessive, and plenty of assets had been wasted throughout. Parliament modified tack, passing laws to make authorized whiskey manufacturing extra enticing for distillers, and in 1824 George Smith turned the primary distiller to take out a license underneath the brand new legal guidelines, founding Glenlivet Distillery.

Whiskey’s cavalier days had been over; Now the main target was on making the spirit in massive portions not attainable within the drink’s cottage-industry days. Invention of the column nonetheless elevated capability, and when the phylloxera parasite destroyed France’s vineyards in 1880, demand for whisky elevated as wine, cognac and brandy floundered.

Whiskey’s cachet exterior Scotland was now rising, however solely the twentieth century has seen it change into the high-standard spirit it’s immediately. Teetotaling British Prime Minister David Lloyd George handed the Immature Spirits Act in 1915, rendering maturation for a minimum of two years compulsory and markedly enhancing whisky’s taste.

In the Nineteen Fifties, single malt whisky, a product synonymous with high quality in distinction to the blends and grain whiskies that had dominated the market till that time, started to be correctly branded. Since then, Scotland’s single malt whiskey has been on the pinnacle of world spirits, not only for its charismatic historical past however for its high quality too, providing whiskey connoisseurs a taste palette and complexity unmatched wherever else.

What units single malt Scottish whiskey aside?

All whiskey-making begins with the steeping of grain in water; Scottish single malts use solely high quality malted barley and spring water famend for its purity. Single malt whisky is usually double-distilled in copper-pot stills, which create many extra congeners than column-still distillation, and due to this fact extra advanced tastes.

Distillation additionally occurs at lower than 94.8 ABV, which means alcohol has no likelihood to trample over the flavour and aroma of the pure core elements. Maturation occurs for a minimum of three years – and infrequently many years extra sides – in oak barrels; This is when a single malt’s wealthy ultimate taste is principally imparted.

Scotland’s geography is one among nice contrasts packed collectively inside a comparatively small space, and this exerts a particular character on the nation’s spirits (see Scotland’s Whiskey Regions, under).

Finally, it isn’t simply the processes of manufacturing however the folks producing it, lots of whom got here from households with a number of generations of whisky-making experience.

Two large stacks of whisky casks sit outside Bunnahabhain distillery, Isle of Islay, waiting to be filled with whisky and stored
The Hebridean island of Islay has 9 distilleries crafting a few of the peatiest, smokiest whiskies on Earth © Getty Images / iStockphoto

Scotland’s whisky areas

Scotland separates broadly into 5 whiskey areas, every with their very own distinctive topography influencing the spirits distilled inside.


The best introduction to ingesting single malts comes courtesy of this area, the place whiskies are triple-distilled, rendering them nearer in character to Irish whiskeys. Lowland whiskies are mellow, whereas benign tastes shine via, comparable to flowers and fruits from the largely light bucolic panorama.


An offshoot of Lowland, the Campbelltown whiskies have sufficient character to be considered their very own entity. Campbelltown as soon as proclaimed itself the world’s whisky-producing capital, however presently solely three distilleries are operational. Whiskies are extra full-bodied than Lowlands with zingy smoky, salty and fruity notes.


Most well-known of all is that this area, watered by Aberdeenshire’s River Spey. The highest density of distilleries in Scotland is right here, and plenty of share frequent options. Aberdeenshire is a big fruit-growing space, and this along with maturation in sherry casks lends Speysides fruitiness and refined spiciness, whereas peat takes a backseat.


The huge Highland area, overlaying all Scotland’s islands besides Islay, reveals brininess within the coastal whiskies, whereas the moorlands delivers distinct peatiness to many West Highland bottlings. East Highland bottlings are drier, with fruitiness ranges approaching these of Speyside at occasions.


The Hebridean island of Islay has 9 distilleries crafting a few of the peatiest, smokiest whiskies on Earth. One, Bruichladdich, has change into one of many globe’s first to determine particular phenolic focus (smokiness) on some bottlings, whereas the south coast’s Ardbeg has to be the planet’s most peaty, smoky and all-round intense whisky.

A person holding a whiskey to look at it, seen from the shoulders down
Speyside has the best density of distilleries in Scotland, and a self-guided Malt Whiskey Trail incorporating the important thing spots © Getty Images / iStockphoto

Best locations to drink whiskey in Scotland

Best pubs and bars

Your first likelihood to drink uisge beatha in Scotland will possible be at an Edinburgh or Glasgow bar. In Edinburgh, on the Kaleidoscope Bar on the premises of the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society, your whisky comes with a wealth of skilled insights. Glasgow’s legendary whisky den is the Pot Still, with an 800-strong whiskey listing.

Outside the massive cities, do not miss the Quaich Bar at Craigellachie Hotel, a Speyside establishment: 1000 single malts might be tried right here in trendy surrounds.

Best distilleries

The majority of distilleries have customer experiences, of which the next are significantly distinctive.

  • Springbank Distillery, coronary heart and soul of the Campbelltown whisky area, has occupied the identical location since 1828. It’s Scotland’s solely conventional distillery to full each a part of the whiskey-making course of on website.
  • Speyside’s Glenlivet Distillery produces the planet’s second-best promoting single malt, and has trails on its huge, lovely property within the footsteps of notorious whiskey smugglers.
  • At Islay’s photogenic Laphroaig Distillery, one of many world’s peatiest spirits is produced; alongside excursions, you additionally get a possibility to procure an honorary sq. foot of peaty Islay turf.
  • One of the Highland area’s best can be its oldest: the Glenturret has been in motion since 1763 and has the world’s first Michelin-starred distillery restaurant on the grounds.

Introducing Scotland’s Highlands & Islands

Other whisky experiences

In Edinburgh you will get an awesome overview of whisky and its place in Scottish life on the Scotch Whiskey Experience, taking a tour via the nation’s whisky areas in a barrel. Many completely different tasting experiences await down within the vaults, lined with hundreds of various bottles.

Speyside provides its personal self-guided Malt Whiskey Trail, incorporating key regional distilleries and the singular Speyside Cooperage, the place you’ll be able to study Scotch whisky-barrel manufacture.

There are two fundamental methods to go to Scottish whisky distilleries: by signing up for a minibus whisky tour, comparable to Rabbie’s, providing excursions within the Edinburgh/Speyside/Islay areas, or by visiting the distillery independently involved and becoming a member of an in-house tour ( reserving upfront continues to be suggested).

How to drink whisky: etiquette, including ice and different frequent questions

With a fancy boutique-production course of that retains the drink’s distinctive provenance, single malts are the Holy Grails of Scottish whisky ingesting. Blended Scotches – a mixture of single malts and/or grain whiskies – are smoother, much less refined and produced in bigger portions. Either one, offered it is made in Scotland, can name itself whisky; it is whiskey if made elsewhere.

Whiskies are poured out in measurements known as drams. Licensed premises pour out 1.5 fl oz per shot, however in case you are doing your personal non-public tasting, a dram is extra liable to interpretation!

Do not add ice to whisky if you’d like to actually admire its style: it prevents flavors from being launched. Similarly, don’t add water: in so doing, it is diluted under the minimal 40% ABV required to be termed whiskey underneath Scottish legislation!

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