Brush up on your scotch-whisky knowledge

If your Scotch whisky knowledge is limited to the likes of the occasional sip at your father in law’s place, you may be keen on learning a few basics.

Scotch whisky tasting, 2012

Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience

It can be hard for the Scotch enthusiast to navigate the innumerable varieties available at most bars, restaurants and pubs. Inspired from Edinburgh’s fantastic Scotch Whisky Experience and some personal travels, here’s a crash-course summary that may help you venture into Scotch Whisky discoveries without handing your fate entirely to the bartender’s hands.

A little bit of geography:

Scotland has four main Scotch regions. Each has distinct characteristics which can be helpful in making selection:

  • Speyside
  • Isle of Islay
  • Higlands
  • Lowlands

Speyside is renowned for its lighter taste and fruity – floral aromas. You might detect the scent of banana and dried nuts, though none of these ingredients are actually in the scotch. Situated in the northern part of the country on the inner (eastern) coast, Speyside is the home of many of the better-known Scotch whisky brands sold around the world, namely Glenfiddich, Aberlour and Glenrothes.

Glenfiddich washback tank

Islay is known for strong and distinct aromas of peat and smoke, said to be typical of Islay’s geography. While the distinct taste is due to many factors, most would agree that the smoky taste results from the drying process of the malted barley. Contrarily to other regions, Islay’s distilleries dry their malted barley over peat fire rather than over dry heat. My personal favorite Islay scotch is Laphroaig – some say that it has an almost “marshmallow” tasting finish, and although I never would have thought so initially, now I absolutely agree.

Lowland whisky is better known for its very gentle aromas, rich textures and citrus endnotes. While the lowlands used to be the biggest Scotch whisky producing area of Scotland, it now holds only 3 active distilleries: Auchentoshan, Bladnoch & Glenkinchie.

Highland whisky has very sweet aromas akin to vanilla and honey, or even crème brulée. The barley here is not dried with peat, but rather air dried. Some of the more popular brands amongst the array of distilleries are Dalmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenmorangie, Ben Nevis & Oban.


The color variation from one Scotch whisky to the next is attributed to the previous use of the wooden barrel in which it was aged. Consequently, darker blends typically come from barrels that were previously used for the aging of Port or red wine, while lighter Scotch whisky blends come from barrels that were used for Sherry or even American Bourbon. Each distillery has its own “recipe” when it comes to barrels in order to achieve distinct color and flavour.

Aberlour tasting


If you were thinking of saving that nice bottle you got from a colleague for aging, think again. Scotch whisky, unlike wine, stops its aging process as soon as it is taken out of the barrel and bottled. What’s more, a whisky blend inscribed “18 years” means that it is comprised of a blend of Scotch whiskies, the youngest of which is 18 years old. Depending on the master brewer’s choice of assembly and an impressive list of variables, your 18 year old bottle may be comprised of some 50 different varieties, some of which may be well over 18 years old.

Tasting for dummies:

Simply stuffing your nose into your drink for a deep sniff might send you into tears rather than help you decipher and appreciate the aromas of your drink. A helpful trick for pleasant tasting is to keep your mouth slightly open as you breathe from your nose – the circulation of air between your nose and mouth will dissipate the strong alcoholic smell and enable you to decipher subtle notes. This trick can also help in wine tasting.

On the rocks or not:

Scots are fantastic people and they’ll be the first to tell you that you should drink your Scotch Whisky however you want to.

While there are many ways to enjoy the drink, here’s an interesting fact about having it “on the rocks”: A cube of ice in your drink can both refresh and slightly dilute the drink, which can help you decipher its main aromas. Importantly though, it is better to add the ice after having poured the drink into the glass. Pouring the Scotch whisky directly onto the ice causes a reaction in which the ice basically sucks up most of the precious aromas – basically wasting the hard earned money you spent on the scotch from the upper shelf.

Adding a tad of water:

While this might be frowned upon by an unknowing bartender somewhere out of Scotland, there is no shame in adding a little bit of water to your scotch (as one does with Pastis or Absynthe). People are encouraged to do so in tastings, and even master blenders do it; like ice, a little added water can enhance the various aromas upon smell and taste. If you do so, however, make sure to add water slowly, for it is always possible to add water, but nothing can be done to save a drowned Scotch!


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Categories: Travel


Aspiring food writer, serious traveler, media enthusiast and communications specialist from Montréal, Canada. Follow me on twitter @aalavoie

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6 Comments on “Brush up on your scotch-whisky knowledge”

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