You love Scotch. But how well do you really know Scotch? Scotland’s signature spirit has a rich, long and rather controversial history. It’s an integral part of Scottish culture, and making it falls somewhere between science and art. Get to know your tipple of choice a little more intimately with these fun, if in some cases obscure, facts about Scotch.
- There is water in your whisky. The word “whisky” translates roughly from the Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha as “water of life.” Legally, Scotch must be distilled in Scotland from grains, yeast and water, and aged a minimum of three years in oak casks not exceeding a capacity of 700 liters in size that might have once contained bourbon, port, Madeira, sherry or even wine. There’s more water in the story: “glen” translates as “valley.” The Glenlivet refers to the valley of the River Livet.
- Scotch was once illegal. The English Malt Tax of 1725 shut down much of Scotland’s whisky production and drove many Highlanders to bootlegging. Not that this stopped people from drinking the stuff. Even King George IV called for his Glenlivet by name. Of course, the spirit back then was not quite the same as it is now. Distillers only started aging their whisky much later – as late as the 19th century, some speculate.
- Whisky is a way of life. The first written record of Scotch is a mention in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland on June 1, 1494. It continues to be vital to the Scottish economy today, as one in 50 jobs in the country is supported by the industry. It also represents the largest international spirits category, accounting for some 20% of total market share.
- Your Scotch may be fudging its age a little. Your whisky may claim to be 21 years old, but it may in fact be quite a bit older. Or some of it, at least. The age statement on the label refers to the minimum number of years the spirit has spent maturing in barrels. Most whiskies — even single malts — are a blend of casks from different years.
- Whisky and wood make magic. When it goes into the barrel, Scotch is clear. It gets its color from interacting with the barrel. The older the whisky, generally speaking, the darker. Over time, the amount of spirit in the barrel will diminish, at a rate of about 4% per year. The part that evaporates is referred to as the “angel’s share.” After 25 years, more than 40% of the barrel will have gone to the angels.
- The French love their Scotch. France consumes more Scotch than any other country. (The U.K. is the second-biggest consumer and the U.S. the third.) More Scotch is sold in France in one month than Cognac in an entire year. Scots can thank the phylloxera epidemic that plagued European vineyards for their whisky’s popularity: the infestation resulted not only in a shortage of wine, but a shortage of brandy.
- Scotch needn’t be straight. Don’t listen to those who brag about drinking their whisky straight. In fact, water can help a whisky open up, allowing its aromatics and the subtle nuances of its character to bloom. Just about every master distiller tastes his whisky with a few drops of room-temperature water added. Ice, on the other hand, masks Scotch’s complexities.
- Whisky is forever. Well, almost. A sealed bottle of whisky will last unopened for a century, if not longer. Open your bottle and you might be able to keep dipping into it for another five years.
This post is brought to you by our friends at The Glenlivet