Although the practice of distillation is said to date back to the ancient Mesopotamians, it’s fair to say that the term whiskey — or whisky, as it’s spelled when referring to the Scotch variety – was invented by the Celts. The word itself is derived from the Gaelic uisge beatha, which itself comes from the Latin aqua vita, meaning “water of life.”
Scotland is perhaps the chief source of the most popular whiskies. In fact, one in fifty jobs in Scotland is in some way tied to the whisky industry, and at any given moment, there are nearly twenty million casks of whisky being aged in Scotland. This particular product is renowned for its distinctive smoky taste owing to the peat used to fire the kiln to dry the malted barley. However, the spectrum of flavors to be found within the Scotch whisky realm is fairly broad. Although most popular brands of Scotch whisky such as Dewar’s, Johnnie Walker, Cutty Sark and Justerini & Brooks are blends, single malt whiskies are so named because only one batch of malted barley was used at a single distillery, which gives the whisky a particular pedigree. The flavor of a whisky is affected by a number of factors, such as the amount of peat used to fire the kiln, the atmosphere surrounding the distillery, and what fruit might have been stored in the barrel before it was used to age the whisky. In fact, there are six main whisky regions of Scotland – the Highlands, the Lowlands, Speyside, Islay, Campbeltown, and the Islands. Each region has its distinguishing characteristics.
Whiskies from the Northern Highlands tend to be medium-bodied, although Glenmorangie, perhaps the most popular brand of Highland single malt whisky tends to be more full-bodied. These whiskies are known for being sometimes slightly spicy, and owing to the maritime location of a number of these distilleries, hints of salt and seaweed can be found.
There are few distilleries in the Western Highlands, but the whiskies that originate there generally have a full, creamy, nutty flavor. Oban, perhaps this region’s most popular brand, is known for its peaty taste. The whiskies made in the Eastern Highlands, near Edinburgh, are usually smoother and mellower, and are known for their slightly fruity flavor. Lowland whiskies tend to go down particularly easy, and not only are they slightly fruity, but they often have a more floral and botanical taste. One popular brand, Auchentoshen, (pronounced, OCK-en-TOE-shen) is known for its unique herby flavor.
The highest concentration of distilleries is located along the river Spey, which runs through the Highlands, hence the term Speyside. The whiskies produced here, for example Macallan and Glenlivet, are smooth and subtle. Some are sweet, with hints of fruit and honey, and others have a drier, saltier flavor. Many Speyside distilleries will commonly mix heather in with the peat, to add an aromatic element to their whisky. Whiskies from Islay, the southernmost island among Scotland’s Inner Hebrides archipelago, such as Laphroaig (pronounced, Luh-FRAYG) and Caol Ila (pronounced, Cowl eela) are generally known for their intense, salty taste, with occasional hints of chocolate and caramel.
Campbeltown, a burgh located on the Kintyre peninsula, was once hailed as the “whisky capital of the world” before overproduction, corrupt business practices and increasingly cynical production values caused a decline in business. Like the Northern Highland and Speyside whiskies, these whiskies have a salty essence, on account of being distilled near the coast. Whiskies from the islands of Skye, Mull, Orkney, Arran and Jura tend to be salty, peaty, smoky and peppery.
As every drinker has his or her preference, Scotch whisky is not for everybody. Many popular brands have the sting that comes with the territory of indulging in distilled spirits, and for some palates, the smoky taste of peat can be overpowering. However, if you decide to sample single malt whisky, you can acclimate your taste buds by starting with a smoother and more mellow brand such as Dalwhinnie, Cardhu, or Blair Athol. Some whisky drinkers will add a little ice, water, Perrier or San Pellegrino to mitigate the burn from the alcohol. At any rate, single malt Scotch whisky is a rare enough treat that everybody should try it at least once.