Ultimate Guide to Scotch

What makes scotch, scotch? How is it different from other whiskeys, such as Irish and Canadian whiskeys or bourbon?

The main difference between whiskey and scotch is mostly geographic. That is to say, most scotches are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are scotch. There are also some spelling and ingredient differences. Scotch is a whisky (with no “e”) made in Scotland. And bourbon, for example, is typically made in Kentucky. Scotch is mostly made from malted barley or grains, while bourbon is primarily made with corn.

You could also compare Tennessee whiskeys, Japanese whiskies, ryes, blends, and many other variations. For this article, though, we will focus on scotch. So let’s keep it simple and call it “whisky from Scotland.”

What makes Scotch a different kind of whisky?

Scotland has a lot of rules (under the Scotch Whisky Regulations Act) about how scotch is made and what can be called scotch on a label. Some of these rules include:

  • Scotch must be made of only water, malted barley, yeast, and other optional cereal grains.
  • It must be distilled to an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8 percent.
  • It needs to be matured in oak casks not exceeding 700 liters in Scotland for a minimum of three years.
  • Scotch can’t contain any additives other than water and caramel coloring.
  • Characteristics of its raw materials and production and maturation methods must be retained.
  • It has to be bottled at no less than 40 percent ABV.
  • When a bottle of blended scotch lists how long it has been aged, the label should use the youngest spirit as the age.

There are a lot of additional rules that govern the industry as well, such as:

  • You can’t use the name of the distillery as a brand name for a Scotch whisky unless it has been wholly distilled at that distillery.
  • There are five specific protected localities and regions where a whisky can be made and called a scotch.
  • The category of the scotch (i.e., single malt, single grain, blended malt, blended grain, or blended scotch) must be stated on the label.
  • There are various rules about enforcement and penalties for breaking any of the rules.

There are a few qualities that make scotch taste different from other types of whisky on the market. Its signature smokiness is one of the elements that make a scotch distinctive. The smoky character comes from the use of peat. Distilleries will light the dense moss on fire to dry out the malted barley.

Scotch also can commonly taste like seaweed, salt or brine, apples, or caramel.

What are the Scotch Regions?

Five regions produce scotch.

Whiskey Scotch Regions


Speyside Scotch whiskies make up more than half of Scotland’s production. It was made a separate region in 2014 by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) because of the number of distilleries. These distilleries make the largest volume of scotch in the country. This isn’t a large area, but more than 50 distilleries are located here. Speyside is nestled in the north-ish western area of Scotland, mainly along the River Spey. You’ll find such powerhouse distilleries as Macallan, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Chivas Regal, Gragganmore, and Aberlour.

Whiskies from Speyside are noted for their signature caramel nuttiness and apple, nutmeg, and vanilla notes.

The Highlands

If you drew an imaginary line between Edinburgh and Glasgow, everything above it would be the Highlands. This includes the Orkney Islands, Outer Hebrides, Isle of Skye, and Loch Ness. It also includes everything in between those areas (except for the little bit that Speyside encompasses). Sometimes the islands are considered their own region. While they are often talked about separately, they are, in fact, part of the Highlands region. Edinburgh is located in the Highlands region. Within the Highlands, you can find Aberfeldy, Balblair, Clynelish, Dalmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenmorangie, Oban, Highland Park, Talisker, and Arran. In total, there are about 30 distilleries operating within the large Highlands region.

The whiskies from this region are known to be medium-bodied, with notes of leather and potent spice, peaty smokiness, heather, and citrus.

 The Lowlands

The Lowland region extends from that same imaginary line described above and goes to the southern border with England. The Lowlands are close to England. So they are seen as accessible, especially with easy transport links to larger English cities. Popular Scotch distilleries operating in the Lowland region include Annandale, Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie, Bladnoch, Daftmill, and Girvan. There are only 18 distilleries in operation here—far fewer than their northern counterparts.

Lowland scotches are typically softer and smoother when compared to spirits from other regions. Common flavor profiles include honeysuckle, ginger, and cinnamon. Because of their gentleness, these are excellent choices for a beginning scotch drinker. Whisky from this region is typically triple-distilled and has some lingering sweetness.


(This is pronounced, “EYE-lush.”) The island of Islay is located off the southwestern edge of Scotland. There are nine working distilleries in this region, with a few more expected to open in the next few years. Islay only has a population of 3,200 and is only 239 square miles in size. So it’s safe to say that a substantial portion of the population has a hand in distilling whisky here! Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Caol Ila, and Ardbeg are all located in this region.

Islay Scotches are characterized by heavy peat smokiness. These whiskies also often have distinct notes of iodine, seaweed, and salt.


The fifth region of the Scotch distilleries is called Campbeltown. It’s a small region that is located in a sweet spot between the Highlands, Lowlands, and Islay. It once had as many as 30 distilleries. But today, only three distilleries are found in this area—Springbank, Glen Scotia, and Glengyle. Some historians have blamed the region’s historical emphasis on quantity over quality as one of the reasons for its decline. This is a lesson hard to learn. But it’s perhaps going to have a comeback—two distilleries are supposed to be opening in this region soon.

Campbeltown whisky has a lot of variety. But it can often be characterized as rich and robust, having notes of vanilla and toffee, with hints of salt.

How is scotch made?

Scotch whisky is made of water, cereal grains, and yeast. It’s a simple process that’s been fine-tuned and tweaked by distilleries in Scotland for hundreds of years. Of course, distilleries are confined to certain rules about making Scotch. These include how they source their grains, how they distill the spirit, how they age the spirit, and how they can sell the product.

Scotch grain whisky is usually made from 10-20 percent malted barley. Distilleries may add additional grains such as corn or wheat if they wish to. The first step in the process is to steep the grains in water, which is called “malting.” Doing so causes the grains to begin to sprout. Then, the distilleries stop the sprouting process by drying the grain. This step is called “kilning.” At this point, distilleries might burn peat, which infuses the grain with the signature scotch flavor.

Next, the malted barley is mixed in water and left to steep again. The grain releases starches, which are then converted to sugars. This process is called “mashing.” The distilleries then drain the water from the spent grains and yeast is added. This is when fermentation begins. When the process ends, it will reach about 8-9 percent ABV.

The next stage is to distill the spirit to increase the ABV to about 70-94 percent. Distilleries are given the option to use a pot still or a column still.

The last stage in the making of Scotch whisky is the maturation process. Here, distilleries can choose an oak barrel—European and American oak are common choices. Scotch must be aged no less than three years. But it can mature for 10, 12, 15, 30, or even 45 years. Some distilleries will transfer the whisky to different barrels to imbue the spirit with different flavors. Each barrel gives the spirit a unique flavor and color. 

After the spirit has been aged for a specified length of time, it may also be blended with other spirits to achieve the desired flavor. Blending is becoming increasingly popular and is a real art. Master blenders have an extra-special palate to taste nuances in the drams and compile a unique flavor profile.

What are the scotch classifications?

There are five types of Scotch whisky, as per the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009. These are:

1. Single Malt Scotch Whisky

A single malt scotch is distilled at only one distillery using water and barley and no additional grains. It also must be distilled using a copper pot still. Single malt whisky must be aged for at least three years, although most are aged longer. During the maturation process, a single malt scotch can be aged in a single barrel or can be transferred to a new barrel. As such, you’ll sometimes see on the label notes about “double wood” or “triple wood.” That refers to the number of casks in which the whisky has rested.

Single malt is typically considered a high-end scotch because only about 10 percent of all whiskies made in Scotland are single malt.

Here are some examples of excellent single-malt scotches to try:

  • Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie
  • Aberlour 16 Year Old
  • Highland Park 18 Year Old
  • Lagavulin 16 Year Old

2. Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

A blended malt whisky will contain a blend of various single-malt whiskies, from various distilleries. This blend must not contain any grain scotch (see below). The age of the vat on the label is the youngest of all the ingredients. For example, if the label says 8 years, it means that the youngest of the included scotches was aged 8 years. There may be older spirits included in the mix. Johnnie Walker Green Label is one example of a blended malt whisky.

Blended Malt Scotch Whiskies are really uncommon, but here are a few you can try to find:

  • Chivas Regal Ultis
  • Collectivum XXIII
  • Compass Box Spice Tree Extravaganza
  • Naked Malt Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
  • Johnnie Walker Green Label

3. Single Grain Scotch Whisky

A single-grain scotch is made at a single distillery using water and malted barley. (The “single” in the title really refers to a single distillery, not a single grain.) The difference between this and a Single Malt Scotch is that the Single Grain can use additional grains of malted or unmalted cereals. Other grains can include corn, wheat, or rye.  Grain Scotch whisky can be made using continuous stills or column stills.

  • Here are a few Single Grain Scotch Whiskies you can try:
  • Haig Club Single Grain Scotch Whisky
  • The Girvan Patent Still Single Grain Scotch Whisky
  • Tweeddale Single Grain Whisky
  • Borders Single Grain Whisky

4. Blended Grain Scotch Whisky

A blended-grain scotch is a blend of single-grain whiskies made at different distilleries.

Some examples of Blended Grain Scotch Whisky include:

  • The Exceptional Grain Blended Grain
  • Compass Box Hedonism

Chivas Regal 18

5. Blended Scotch Whisky

A blended scotch is a mixture of other malt and grain Scotch whisky, from any number of different distilleries. Basically, anything can make it into a blended scotch. Nearly 90 percent of scotch sold per year is blended whisky.  Notable brands that produce blends include Chivas Regal, Dewar’s, Johnnie Walker, Famous Grouse, and Ballantine’s.

Want to try a Blended Scotch? Check these out!

  • Chivas Regal 18 Year Old
  • The Famous Grouse Blended Scotch
  • Johnnie Walker Blue Label
  • Mackinlay’s Shackleton Rare

Which scotch is most popular?

Most Popular Scotch

There are about 140 malt and grain distilleries located in Scotland. Which of these are the biggest sellers? The 10 most popular distilleries (according to the number of cases sold), globally, are:

  1. Johnnie Walker
  2. Ballantine’s
  3. Grant’s
  4. William Lawson’s
  5. Chivas Regal
  6. Black and White
  7. William Peel
  8. Label
  9. Dewar’s
  10. J&B

What scotch is best?

What scotch is “best” is absolutely a matter of taste. Depending on your preferences, you might love one type of scotch over another type. That being said, there are several ways to try to judge what kind of whisky is best.

One way is by looking at what the top-selling scotch is. The winner of that is Johnnie Walker, and their Blue Label is their most exclusive and expensive label, followed by Platinum and then Green. Their Red Label is the cheapest and best-selling globally.

Another way to determine which is “best” is by looking at which whiskies are awarded the most frequently. Two top organizations that offer whisky awards are the World Whiskies Awards and Whisky Magazine Awards.  These organizations break out the award-winners by categories like “Best Single Malt” and “Best Blended Limited Release.” As you scroll through this list, you’ll see that the Stalla Dhu label by Caol Ila is a much-awarded bottle of whisky.

2022 Highly-Awarded Scotch Whisky

World Whiskies Award Winners (2022)

World Whisky Awards

  • Best Blended: Island Smoke Alchemy Series, Black Bottle
  • Best Blended Limited Release: Stalla Dhu, Truth Be Told 22 Single Cask
  • Best Blended Malt: Wemyss Malts, Peat Chimney
  • Best Grain: Spearhead, Single Grain Scotch Whisky

The Best Single Cask Malt has several breakdown categories since this is where Scotland shines.

  • Best Single Cask Malt: Stalla Dhu, Caol Ila 11 Years Old: Best Overall
  • Best Scotch Islands (not Islay): The Fisherman’s Retreat, Edition No. 8 Arran
  • Best Speyside: SPEY, 8 years old 2013 Cask
  • Best Islay: Stalla Dhu, Caol Ila 11 Years Old Cask Strength
  • Best Highlands: Loch Lomond, Single Cask Refill Bourbon Cask
  • Best Campbeltown: Glen Scotia, Single Cask 1st Fill

The Best Single Malt also has several breakdown categories:

  • Best Scotch Islands (not Islay): Ledaig, 18 Years Old
  • Best Speyside: Aberlour, A’bunadh
  • Best Islay: Bunnahabhain, 25 Years Old
  • Best Highlands: Glenmorangie, Grand Vintage Malt 1996
  • Best Campbeltown: Glen Scotia, 15 Years Old

Best Small Batch Single Malt also has several breakdown categories:

  • Best Scotch Islands (not Islay): Isle of Raasay, Signature Single Malt
  • Best Speyside: Tomintoul, Cigar Malt
  • Best Islay: Port Askaig, 25 Years Old
  • Best Highlands: Aberfeldy, Exceptional Cask Limited Edition Cote Rotie
  • Best Campbeltown:  Glen Scotia, Single Cask Tawny Port Hogshead Cask

Whisky Magazine

Whisky Magazines Icons of Whisky Scotland 2022 Awards

The 2022 Whisky Magazine awards encompassed all global geographies that produce whisky. But they had a separate award for all things Scotland. Check out their website for the full list of winners from 2022!

  • Distiller: The Glenturret Distillery
  • Distillery Manager of the Year: Ed Thom, The Glenmorangie Distillery
  • Master Distiller/Master Blender: Julieann Fernandez, Distell International

Most Expensive Scotch

Another way to determine the best bottle of scotch is by price. The most expensive must be the best, right? If that’s true, then The Macallan Fine and Rare 60-Year-Old wins. It fetched $1.9m when it sold at auction in 2019. The Macallan Michael Dillon 1926 60-Year-Old was sold for $1.25M in 2018. There are even more bottles from The Macallan which have fetched more than a million dollars over the years.

How should you drink scotch?

Here’s the best, easiest way to try drinking a glass of Scotch whisky:

1. Choose your glass. Surprisingly, the glass makes a difference! We have awesome whisky glasses. Look at your whisky in the glass. What color does it have?

2. Next, inhale the scent. Swirl it gently to release the aromas. Can you identify different notes?

3. Then, sip. Let it sit on your tongue for a moment before swallowing. Can you identify the different flavors? How does it taste when you start the sip, and how does it change as you swallow?


Check out this blog post and this blog post for more on how to drink whisky. There are surprisingly many different techniques!