Understanding Scotch Whisky Labels

Considered by a fair majority to be the finest whiskey* in the world, Scotch has been produced in the northern United Kingdom since at least the sixteenth century, when an order for

Perhaps the first, and most important consideration when glancing at a Scotch label is whether or not the spirit within is said to be a “single-malt,” “vatted-malt,” or “blended whiskey.” The first category, single-malts, consists of spirits made entirely from roasted barley at a particular distillery. Vatted malts, also known as “blended malts,” are blended spirits made from a combination of more than one distillery’s single-malt whiskey. Finally, “blended malts,” the are most commonly bottled and consumed, consist of blended whiskeys from multiple distilleries in combination with grain whiskey when bottled. The most popular Scotch whiskeys are blended malts, encompassing such popular brands as Chivas Regal, Cutty Sark, and Johnnie Walker. The latter is the second most popular brand of whiskey in the world, with approximately four bottles consumed every second!

Although the region in which a whiskey is produced often does not have a significant impact on flavor (though coastal areas may impart a “briny” salt taste), it may be a consideration when building a collection or trying to assemble a larger sampling. Scotch whiskey is produced in one of five regions of Scotland, known as Campbeltown, the Highlands, Islay, the Lowlands, and Speyside. Only three distilleries remain in operation in the Lowlands and Campbeltown, while Speyside is now the whiskey-producing capitol of the United Kingdom. Islay is home to eight distilleries, and the Scottish Highlands contain approximately forty distilleries across the mainland and many northwestern islands. The region in which a whiskey is produced may be of important in consideration of flavor, as previously mentioned, coastal areas such as Campbeltown, the Highland Islands, and Islay may impart a salt-like, sea-air taste that some may find unfavorable, though many enjoy it a great deal.

Another article of confusion for many is that of age. The aging and maturing process for Scotch whiskey, performed in oak barrels, has a significant impact on the color, flavor, harshness, and other attributes of the final bottled product. Single-malts will always have an age listed, typically ranging between five and thirty years, or longer. This means that the bottled 100% barley whiskey spent a certain number of years inside of an oak cask to to mature before being sold to the general public. Blended or vatted malts may have an age listed, that describes the youngest whiskey contained therein; if a bottle of vatted malt Scotch is de scribed as containing ten-year-old whiskeys, older reserves are likely within, added to maintain consistent flavor. American whiskey producers often repeat this same process; for instance, Maker’s Mark uses a portion of previous production to parlay into new bottlings, for a constant particular flavor.

“Vintages” are another way to describe the age of a spirit, much the same as the wine world. For instance, if the year 1951 is printed on a Scotch label, it means that particular spirit was either distilled or bottled in that year, depending on the distillery, although it is typically assumed to mean the year of distillation. Vintage edition liquors are rare, as in wine, because the term “vintage” in the culinary world describes a particular year when production methods resulted in a finer-than-usual beverage.

In considering that Scotch whiskey is a liquor, Alcohol By Volume (ABV) may be considered a ; as a percentage used to describe the volume of alcohol within the bottle, the typical ABV percentage of Scotch is between forty and sixty percent, the former containing standard lightened whiskeys, while the latter are of cask strength, beginning at about fifty percent ABV. Obviously, the more alcohol contained, the less smooth the flavor, and the greater need for aging. Covnersely, lower-strength spirits may need less aging to smoothen harsher flavors. As a final note, this ABV is most important in the enjoyment of single-malt Scotch: Knowing one’s limit, and acting accordingly responsible.

* For consistency within this article and in correct standing concerning American English, the general term “whiskey” is used within this article, although technically, the correct spelling for such spirits produced in Scotland excludes the letter E.

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