Whisky, to use the Scottish spelling, derives from the Gaelic term meaning “water of life,” which perfectly encapsulates the place that Scotch whisky holds in the nation’s affections. Unlike whiskeys, ryes and bourbons, Scottish whisky is barley-based and exploits the moist, temperate climate and natural springs of the Highlands, West Coast islands and Scottish Lowlands. The country produces some coveted single malts and global brands. In general, a single malt delivers an exquisite experience best enjoyed by itself, while blended whiskeys present greater versatility.
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All Scotches are whisky, but not all whiskies can be called Scotch. To earn the epithet, a whisky must be distilled and matured – for at least three years, in oak casks -- in Scotland. Unlike American bourbon whiskey, which must be aged in brand new casks, Scotch whisky can be aged in reused barrels, taking on the flavor of its predecessor, such as sherry or port. As it happens, a common practice is to age Scotch whisky in discarded bourbon casks. Scotch also has to be bottled at 40 percent alcohol by volume, which is equivalent to 80 proof.
Although the name would suggest otherwise, single-malt Scotch is a blended whisky. The single part is not a cynical misnomer; it merely reveals that the whisky comes from a single distillery, and the term has no relation to barrels or batches. Accordingly, single malts take the name of their distillery and usually display their age on the label. Whereas Scotch whisky can be made from barley, along with other grains, single malt must be from barley only. Single-malt Scotch must also be made in copper pot stills and not in column stills.
More than 90 percent of whiskies sold are blended, and the best-known Scotches are named after a brand rather than after a single distillery. The aim on the part of a distillery is to maintain a consistent character and product. To achieve this, the master blender will combine whiskies from a variety of barrels to make a blend. Each blend can comprise as many as 40 single malts. The blends themselves are closely guarded secrets; often, the only clue is to find out which distilleries are owned by the proprietor. Age statements are rarer on blended whiskies, too, since the “vintage” is less important than the blend.
Single malts are best enjoyed neat, over ice, or with a splash of soda, since the pot distillery process retains a higher proportion of congeners -- the chemicals that enhance taste and aroma -- and greater texture. Since many single malts use burning peat to dry the barley, the complex smoky tones can be clearly distinguished, particularly among whiskies from the Islay region. Blended whiskies, on the other hand, are lighter and clearer, and some would say less intense. They can also contain a high proportion of grain spirit from other grains such as corn or rye. Blended whiskies are best served in cocktails, such as the Highland Fling or Whisky Sour.