Monday, June 17, 2024

Scotch vs Whisky: What’s the Difference?

Uisge beatha

*Uisge beatha is one of the world’s most expensive liquids, but what is it?

The term uisge beatha is Scottish Gaelic for the “water of life,” a distilled spirit we know as whiskey.

From ancient Gaelic on, there’s a whole list of strange terms associated with the production of this incredible spirit. These terms aren’t just slang: the differences between them are often dictated by law. For example, what’s the difference between scotch vs whisky?

Are you looking for a quick primer on whisky terminology? We’ll take you through the origins and meanings of the most essential labels in the wide world of whisky.

Let’s Start Here: Whiskey and Whisky

What’s on your shelf? Is it whiskey, or is it whisky?

The answer depends not on the product or the blend or even the grain used. It’s all about where it’s made.

Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic spirit that’s made in places like Ireland, the United States, Canada, Japan, and lately, even further afield. The liquid in your bottle comes from a fermented mash of grain, which can include corn, rye, barley, or other grains. Your bottle of whiskey may be aged in oak, bourbon, red wine, sherry, or even port barrels for almost any length of time. Though, some rules do apply, depending on the product’s origin.

When you order a whiskey, the liquid that winds up in your glass could be the product of one of any number of factors.

Now, let’s turn our attention to whisky without the ‘e’.

Whisky is a distilled spirit made only in Scotland. Its essence is the same as whiskey: it’s a spirit distilled from a fermented mash of grain. But when we talk about whisky, we’re talking about a long list of rules – some of them enshrined into law.


What You Need to Know About Whisky

Whisky without the ‘e’ can only be distilled and aged in Scotland. Once you cross the border into England, it is no longer a whisky. Even if it’s distilled in Scotland and aged elsewhere, it loses its status.

The rules on this are as strict as they are old. UK law defined Scotch Whisky in writing in 1909, and it’s standing has recognition in European law today.

The most recent comprehensive law governing the distillation of whisky is the Scotch Whisky Act 1988 and the associated orders. By law, a whisky must:

  • Be produced in a distillery in Scotland
  • Be the product of water and malted barley (cereals like wheat and rye can be added)

The law also stipulates that the malted barley must:

  • Be processed at that distillery
  • Converted into fermentable form through endogenous enzyme systems
  • Fermented on through yeast

Additionally, whisky must be first distilled to strength by volume under 94.8%. When ready for maturation, it can only sit in oak casks in Scottish warehouses.

Finally, a whisky isn’t a whisky unless it’s matured for at least three years. But you’re unlikely to find whisky on the shelves under five or even eight years old. Your final product must also be at least 40% strength by volume.

Scotch vs Whisky: Which Is It?

Scotch whisky by-and-large refers to the individual whiskies made in Scotland. You can say scotch or you can say whisky. You can even refer to it as scotch whisky. All three terms refer to the same product governed by the same rules.

Effectively, the difference between scotch vs. whisky is almost nothing. It’s a matter of semantics if anything.

Let’s Talk About the Different Types of Whiskys

Scotch and whisky may be the same drink, but no two batches – nay, no two distillers – are exactly the same.

Once you get into Scotch, you can break it down into several categories, including by grain, malt, and region. Though, they will all follow the rules as laid down in the Scotch Whisky Act 1988.

Within whisky, there are three main types: single malt, single grain, and blended.


What is Single Malt Scotch?

Single malt whisky is a Scotch made only from malted barley and water in on distillery. Because of the constraints on distilling, there are few operational single malt distilleries in Scotland. The majority are in the Spey valley (known as Speyside), nestled between the Moray coast and the Cairngorm mountains.

Traditionalists consider single malt to be the superior whisky, and the price and scarcity reflect this belief. A single malt scotch can set you back a pretty penny, but the distillation process means they’re more flavorful than its cousin, the single grain scotch.

What is Single Grain Scotch?

Single grain whisky is a scotch made from a base of malted barley with additional grains and water. Like single malt scotch, a single grain still needs to be produced and matured at the same distillery.

There are are also distillation differences compare to single malts. A single malt is distilled in a pot still, but pot stills aren’t suitable for producing huge batches. They’re used to focus on flavor.

A single grain whisky is produced through column stills, which allow products to work on a greater scale.

What is Blended Whisky?

Then, there is the blended whisky, like the Johnnie Walker whiskey collection. Blended whiskies are a “blend” of several different whiskies in one bottle. These aren’t unique to scotch whiskies, but scotch blended whisky will always be 100% whisky. American whiskeys, however, have different rules: an American blended whisky might only have 20% whiskey and the rest might be a mix of bourbon, whiskey, and scotch whisky.

In the past, most blended whiskys are a recipe featuring single grain batches rather than the more laborious single malt. However, that changed in 2009. Today’s blended scotch whisky blends must contain a combination of at least one single malt and one ore more single grain whiskies.

Do the whiskies in each blend need to come from the same distillery? No, the rule only applies to single malt or single grains bottled individually. You’ll find a mix of malts from distilleries across Scotland in each blender’s recipe.

You’re on Your Way to Being a Whisky Expert

Did you know the difference between scotch vs. whisky? Now, you know that there is no difference: they both reflect the same ancient, beautiful, and highly-regulated spirit produced only in Scotland.

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