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by Catharina Flämig

The Secret of Scottish Whisky

Scotland as the Birthplace of Scotch Whisky

Scottish Whiskey in evening light
(photographer: Tobias Lohmann)

Though Scotland is not the world’s largest producer of whisky, a title that has perhaps surprisingly been claimed by India, the country is nevertheless seen by many as the birthplace of the whisky we know and love today.

Ivor Brown’s words, “scotch whisky keeps a secret, the magic of its hometown”, describes the centuries old fascination around the fiery, golden spirit. But what is this magic he describes? If you look up the term Scotch Whisky in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, you will read the rather simple description; “whiskey distilled in Scotland especially from malted barley”. True. But then what does Humphrey Bogart mean when he says, “One must always be ahead of life by at least one whiskey”. And what of Winston Churchill’s claim that “The water was not fit to drink. To make it palatable, we had to add whisky”. Whisky seems to be so much more than just a two-ingredient alcoholic drink. So, what is the secret of whisky, about which so many connoisseurs, poets and intellectuals have written and philosophised? This is what we hope to find out!

View of rocky, hilly countryside down to the sea
The spectacular birthplace of Scotch Whisky (Source: Pixabay)

Whisky and its Long and Exciting History

The Invention of Whisky

Simply put, whisky is distilled beer. The key piece of the puzzle that allowed for the invention of whisky was the distillation process which developed more than 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. The art of distillation spread to Central and Near Eastern countries, where it was used for perfumes and medicines. This helps explain the name “alcohol”, which is derived from the Arabic “al-kuhl”, meaning “fine essence”. The missionary and patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, is said to have learnt the distillation process during his time in France and to have brought it back to Ireland.

Whether this legend be entirely true or not, what is certain is that the art of distillery was brought to Europe by the Arabs and was first adopted and practiced by Irish monks from the 4th century A.D. onwards. This explains the Gaelic word for the whisky, “uisge beatha", meaning "water of life", which was a translation of the Latin "aqua vitae", the name for whisky in the monasteries in the south of France. It was not until 200 years later that the Irish monks brought the art of alcohol distillery to Northumbria, present day Scotland.

Word cloud with words all about whisky
The wonderful world of Scotch Whisky (Source: Pixabay)

The Era of the Illegal Distilleries

Over time, the art of distilling barley spread throughout Scotland and the rural population. It soon became common practice for farmers to distil surplus grain from their harvest as this both saved grain from spoiling and generated additional income.

The fact that only the clans, the Scottish nobility, were permitted to distil whisky was of little interest to the stubborn highlanders. Due to their often extremely inaccessible location, illicit distilleries flourished, especially in the Scottish Highlands. As a result, the number of illegal whisky distilleries in Scotland rose to 14,000 in the 17th and 18th centuries.

After the Acts of Union, the unification of Scotland and England in 1707, the conflict between tax collectors and the Scots only continued to intensify. Illegal whisky production became a symbol of the resistance against English rule. Illegal distilleries enjoyed the support and protection of both the Scottish population and the Scottish Catholic Church, which often prevented the illicit distillers from being prosecuted. A famous quote from the Scottish poet Robert Burns perfectly describes the times; “freedom and whisky gang thegither" (freedom and whisky belong together).

The Excise Act of 1823 saw the end of the long era of illegal distilleries. The British government realised they could not win the fight against illicit whisky production through repression and instead introduced a small licencing fee, making legal production and distribution a more attractive option for larger whisky distilleries. The gamble paid off. This can still be seen today with many Scottish distilleries’ year of establishment being around 1823. By the end of the 19th century, widespread illegal whisky production had transformed into a well-structured, tax-paying industry who’s golden “water of life” we still enjoy today.

Black and white picture of signs on a wall
Surely this is a sign to try Scotch Whisky! (Source: Pixabay)

From Blended Scotch to Single Malt

Today's love of Scottish single malt is a comparatively young romance. The heavy, partly peat malt whiskies from the Scottish Highlands increasingly became too heavy for the fine taste of its consumers. Often, whisky drinkers had to contend with strongly fluctuating quality. However, the invention of continuous distillation in the middle of the 19th century made it possibly to produce much lighter and cheaper whisky, known today as Grain Whisky. The Grain Whisky smoothed the sharp edges of the heavy malt whisky wonderfully. As a mixture or "blend", Scotch Whisky thus became an accessible drink of consistent quality and so blended Scotch Whisky was born. The great success of blended Scotch then opened the market for the single malts that came later.

Numerous bottles of whisky
All the options to choose from! (Source: Pixabay)

Scotch Whisky – What makes Scotch Whisky so special?

Whether a whisky can be called Scotch or not depends on a strict set of regulations. “Scotch” is a designation of origin for whisky from Scotland, similar to champagne (which is made from grapes harvested in Champagne, France) or cognac (a brandy from the French town of Cognac and the surrounding wine-growing region). It may only be called "Scotch" if it is distilled and matured in Scotland. The 1990 Scotch Whisky Act sets out clear regulations for what may be called Scotch: Whisky may only be called Scotch if it has been matured for at least three years in a cask in Scotland after distillation. It must also have an alcohol content of at least 40 percent and must be made from water and malted barley though additional cereals may be added. Water and food colouring may also be added before bottling.

Where does the best Scotch come from?

Scotland is the largest producer of single malt whisky in the world. The taste of Scotch depends on the region where it was made, and different regions are known for different flavours and production techniques. Even within regions, the taste of the whisky can vary from distillery to distillery with each having their own unique style, which has helped create the large variety of Scotch whisky available today. Currently, there are over one hundred active distilleries in Scotland.

Today, Scotland is divided into five different whisky regions: The Lowlands, the Highlands, the Speyside, Campbeltown, and the island of Islay.

If you would like to visit a number of distilleries during just one holiday in Scotland, then Islandhopping’s week-long Sail & Bike tour through Scotland is the perfect tour for you! Not only will you be able to explore the incredible landscapes of the Highlands and the Inner Hebrides, but you will also have the opportunity to visit a number of Scottish distilleries.

The starting and ending point of the Islandhopping Scottish tour is the city of Oban. The Oban Distillery was founded in 1794 in the heart of the city. After J. Walter Higgin made improvements to the recipe, Oban Single Malt Whisky took its place among some of the best Scotch whiskies in the country.

Not far from Oban lying just off the mainland is the Isle of Mull. This spectacular island has a hidden treasure in its north-eastern capital Tobermory: the Tobermory Distillery. Founded in 1798, the Tobermory Distillery is one of the oldest commercial distilleries in Scotland. It is exceptional not only due to is idyllic location but also thanks to the two distinct yet equally delicious single malt whiskies it produces: the non-peated, fruity and spicy Tobermory and the heavily-peated, earthy and smoky Ledaig.

The journey then continues further south to Jura, a remote island off the west coast of Scotland. With only one road, a pub, a distillery, and a very prominent microclimate, it is not an easy place to make whisky. But they make the best! Take a sip of Jura whisky and you will taste both a delicious, sweetness alongside fine smoky notes. The Jura Distillery was founded in 1810 but fell to ruin at the end of the 19th century. In 1963 the islanders rebuilt the distillery and with it the former community feeling was once more revived.

Stone building with Oban Distillery sign
Where to find some of the best Scotch Whisky (Source: Pixabay)

A Final Note – How to drink whisky properly!

Some drink whisky in a cocktail, others on ice. But what is the correct way to drink this golden spirit? To discover and truly appreciate the multitude of aromas in high-quality single malt whisky, there are a few things you should know. Firstly, whisky should always be enjoyed with a few drops of water. The high-proof spirit only develops its taste in the mouth when water is added. To preserve the taste as much as possible, the temperature of the whisky should only be a few degrees below room temperature. Lower temperatures not only change the taste, but also the colour of the drink. Therefore, it is advised to avoid drinking whisky on ice. Doing so only creates a greater temperature difference and makes the whisky too watery. Whisky is classically served in a short class with a thick bottom. The wide opening of the glass allows the aromas to disperse more quickly while the thick bottom helps prevent the whisky being warmed in the hand. Nosing or stem glasses are suitable.

But enough talk! It’s time to enjoy some real Scotch. Off to Scotland and “Slàinte Mhath" - "good health"!

Glass of whisky and bottle on wooden table
The golden "Water of Life" (Source: Pixabay)

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