Scotch whisky has a long, proud heritage that likely stretches back long before its first recorded reference in 1495. Is it the oldest type of whisk(e)y on the planet? We will probably never know, but we can tell you exactly what it takes for a whisky to be legally considered “Scotch.” But before that let’s take a moment to review bourbon.
You’ll probably remember that bourbon has to be produced in the United States from a grain mixture that’s at least 51% corn, and must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. It can be distilled to no more than 160 proof, and it has to enter into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof. When it’s bottled, the spirit has to be at least 80 proof. Also, bourbon can’t contain any added flavors or coloring. But you probably knew all of that.
So what, legally, is Scotch? Well, that’s a little complicated, so lets start by breaking Scotches down by type. Single malt Scotch whisky can be produced only from water and malted barley at a single distillery through batch distillation in pot stills. Single grain Scotch is also distilled at a single distillery and, in addition to water and malted barley, can also contain whole grains of other malted or unmalted cereals. So those are the two basic types of Scotch, but there are also three different types of blended Scotch whisky:
• Blended malt Scotch is a blend of two or more single malt Scotches from different distilleries
• Blended grain Scotch is a blend of two or more single grain Scotches from different distilleries
• Blended Scotch may contain at least one of both single malt and single grain Scotch whiskies
Now what are the other legal requirements for Scotch? Rirst and most obviously: it has to be of Scotland—produced in a Scottish distillery using water and malted barley (and in the case of single grain—other cereals). Legally, the barley isn’t required to be Scottish in origin. This mixture must be processed into a wort at the same distillery, where it is next converted into a fermentable substrate through endogenous enzyme systems. At the same distillery, (they’re very particular on that point) it has to be fermented with yeast, and it must be distilled to an alcoholic strength by volume at under 94.8%.
And we’re not done yet. Next, the whisky has to be aged in an excised (taxed) Scottish warehouse in an oak cask that doesn’t exceed 700 liters for at least three years. The finished spirit can be bottled at no lower that 40% ABV and must retain the color, flavor and aroma of the raw materials and method of its production and maturation. Interestingly, some caramel coloring is acceptable to add, but no other flavors can be introduced into the Scotch.
It’s worth noting that the age statement on a bottle of Scotch must reflect the youngest whisky used. While Scotch varies greatly between regions, single grain vs. single malt or duration of aging, the whisky must meet all of the requirements listed above to legally be called Scotch. So could you produce an American-style whiskey in Scotland? You could, but not legally. In 1988, The Scotch Whisky Act expressly forbade the production of any type of whisk(e)y other than Scotch in Scotland. As far as nationalism goes, it’s working. Scotland exports nearly one billion bottles per year.