Understanding Scotch – Malt Whisky from Scotland


My love affair with malt whisky started in the early nineties when I discovered the strong, peaty aromas of a Lagavulin. This was my first discovery of a whisky other than the standard Red Label and Black label that most of us in India had access to. My next malt whisky was the Glenfiddich 12 in its iconic green triangular bottle followed by the incredible Irish Whiskey (yes with a “e”), Midleton packed in an expensive wood carton, each bottle individually signed.

Since then, I started on a journey not only to sample and enjoy this fabulous gold liquid but also to build a collection of malts, which I must admit, over the years has appreciated more than the stock market!

This article attempts to demystify the malt whiskies based on my personal experience and will focus only on Scottish Malts, where it all began. This product is probably one of the few products in the world where it is identified by the name of the region it was produced in. All the whiskies mentioned in this article have been sampled by me and are in my personal collection as well.

If your “love affair” with “malt whisky” has just begun or you discovered malts a few years back then your journey for the appreciation of this delightful liquid has commenced. You would have also built a formidable collection of expensive malts in your private bar which you carefully pour for close friends and family.  And you must have a few bottles saved away for that special occasion.

You would also have understood that you need to add a “drop of water” to your malt to “open up the bouquet” and that it is heresy to have a malt whisky with “ice and soda”! As you built your collection, you would also have learned about the regions of Scotland. Every time you open a newly acquired bottle of malt whisky, you must love to talk about where you acquired it and for some of you, disclosing the price is also essential to establish the origin and lineage of your bottle of malt whisky.

Along with Japanese whiskies which are tantalisingly difficult to find at duty free stores, for love or for money and the availability of whiskies from Taiwan to Australia to France in addition of course to whiskies from Wales and Ireland, and more recently from “craft” distilleries, most whisky lovers are a little confused on what to buy and what to stock. I have left out the whiskies from North America from this article.

Single Malt is whisky from a single distillery. Malt is germinated cereal grains (cereal derives from the word Ceres, the name of the Roman goddess of harvest and agriculture) that have been dried in a process known as “malting”.

There are primarily six scotch production regions – Highland, Speyside, Lowland, Islay, Island and Campbeltown. Islay and Island are sometimes taken as a single region but I have chosen to keep these separate because of the uniqueness of the whiskies of these two regions.

The malt you indulge is always identified with the region it was distilled in. Each region has its unique characteristics. For most of us, the first four regions are from where we would normally be consuming our favourite dram. Malt aficionados swear by their love for a particular region. This love for a type of malt in the consumer lives up to the intense competition between the manufacturers to identify the uniqueness of their malt.

  • Highland: The Highlands is by far the largest region in Scotland both in area and in whisky production. Given the huge area, there is a reasonably wide range of styles from this region from the light and fruity styles of the South to the more-spicy and full bodied styles of the North. Highland whiskies are bold, flavorful, and frequently made with peat-kilned barley, giving them a smoky, medicinal quality. Some of the better known Highland whiskies are Glenmorangie, Old Pulteney, Ardmore, Oban and Singleton.
  • Speyside: Speyside gets its name from the River Spey, which flows through this region and provides its unique water to many of the distilleries. Speyside is home to more than half of the operating distilleries in Scotland. Speyside malts offer sweet aromas and rich flavor profiles. Apple, pear, honey, vanilla and spice will be some of the common flavours you will be able to “nose” in whiskies from this region. Some of the better known Speyside malts are Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Aberlour, Macallan and Cardhu.
  • Lowland: The whiskies produced in this area are generally the most light bodied of all single malts. You will get flavours of cream, ginger, toffee and cinnamon. Some of the better known Lowland malts are Auchentoshan, Blandoch, and Glenkinchie.
  • Islay: The Islay region is known for its peaty and strong flavored whisky. The single malts produced here are salty, peppery, and smoky due to extremities of the sea that surround the area. Some of the better known Islay malts are Lagavulin, Laphroig, Ardbeg, Bowmore and Caol Lila. If you like a peaty whisky, Bunnahabhain is probably the peatiest of them all.
  • Island: Scotch from the Islands generally that bridges the wide gap between Highland Scotches and Islay whiskies. Flavours tend to have citrus, peat, honey or black pepper. Some of the better known Island malts are Jura, Talisker, Highland Park and Scapa.
  • Campbeltown: Malts from this region have a very distinctive sea influence. You can detect the salt and brine as well as the peat that has been used. Flavours could range from vanilla to smoke to toffee. There are three Campbeltown malts left, Glengyle, Glen Scotia, and Springbank.

So the next time you are browsing through a selection of malts at a duty free shop, remember these whisky characteristics and then make your purchase decision. Unless you are a collector of whiskies, choose whiskies with flavours that you like and do not buy the “oldest” or the “most expensive” whisky.

For most of us whisky lovers, while I am a strong proponent of drinking responsibly, I would like to end with the stating that the word Whisky, in Scottish Gaelic means “water of life”! Think about your first few whiskies and reminisce in your journey since you sampled your first few whiskies.

In conclusion, as I said in my earlier article on “How to Understand and Appreciate Whiskies” (https://www.thequint.com/wine-dine/2016/10/04/whisky-scotch-drinking-beginners-guide-101-barrels-casks-distillery) , if you have paid for your bottle of whisky, you have every right to enjoy it the way you would like to!


The author, a whisky enthusiast over the past three decades, is also the founder Chairman of Guardian Pharmacies and the author of the best-selling books, Reboot. Reinvent. Rewire: Managing Retirement in the 21st Century; The Corner Office; An Eye for an Eye and The Buck Stops Here – Learnings of a #Startup Entrepreneur. 

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Understanding, Appreciating and Enjoying your Whisky



The love for whisky has remained constant and consistent over the decades and it is one of the fastest growing spirits in the world. Most nations brew some kind of alcohol but the whisky from only a few countries has now gained an international appeal.

How to drink should never be the subject of any paper and therefore this note simply outlines what to watch out for while enjoying your favourite dram. After all, since you will generally pay a lot of money in comparison to other types of alcohol, you don’t want to just drink and forget!

What’s the difference between scotch and whisky? 

The spirit from USA and Ireland is whiskey, whiskey spelt with an “e”. All other countries have “dropped the e”. Further, while all scotch is whisky but not all whisky is scotch. Scotch whisky is a legal term created to protect whisky made in Scotland. By law Scotch whisky has to be distilled and matured in oak casks for at least three years in Scotland. Given the demand for whisky, most whisky distilleries are dropping the “aging” of their bottles.

So you can get a Yamazaki or Hibiki from Japan, a Hammer Head from the Czech Republic, a Kavalan from Taiwan or a Brenne from France – all of these are whiskies but none of them is a Scotch.

141114-glenlivet-xxv-25-year-oldWhat is a single malt? 

Single malt simply refers to the whisky comes from one single distillery and the malt refers to the malted barley used in the whisky.

On the other hand, a blended whisky like a Chivas Regal or a Johnnie Walker is made from a blend of whiskies made from wheat or corn and “blended” by master blenders – who are no different from the expert chefs in high end restaurants.

So while you can find a malt distillery or a whisky distillery, there’s no such thing as a blended whisky distillery. It does not exist.

Is older whisky better? 

I have often seen people asking for old whiskies at duty free shops. However, older does not mean better. Maturity and age are very different for a whisky. The time your spirit spends in its cask is not as important as the quality of the cask.

Brewing is a natural process. Sometimes the cask is good and sometimes it is not. What happens inside the cask is between the spirit and the wood of the cask. There’s no way for any distillery to control that process. What is needed is lots of patience. The better the wood of the cask the better the whisky.

However, since the older whisky occupies a longer shelf life in its distillery, it automatically takes in more investment and hence is priced higher.

How do you nose a scotch?

The first experience we have with our whisky is with its smell, before it touches our lips and our tongue. Therefore, the first impression is the aroma. Every whisky has its own distinctive aroma and you would have heard terms like peaty, smoky, sweetish, etc.

Nosing a whisky is simply about how it smells.

After you have poured your drink into a glass (and while there are many shapes and sizes of glasses, the preferred choice for a malt is a tulip shaped glass which has a bulbous shape and a narrow neck) simply take the edge of the glass to the tip of your nose and take a deep breath of the aromatic liquid. You will first get the sweeter and lighter aromas followed by the richer aromas. As you “nose” more whiskies, you will be able to discern the many flavours in your chosen whisky.

When you think of flavours, dozens of impressions are created as you take your first sip. An easy way to start your journey is whether your whisky is sweet; does it have a vanilla flavor; what kind of a wood finish can your smell; is it smoky; is it peaty; does it have a medicinal taste; is it salty? Once you can start to make these differentiations, you can start to dive deeper.

Incredible isn’t it that you are able to enjoy your whisky even before you have taken the first sip.

Is there a special way to drink the whisky? 

Ideally, take a small sip and let it roll over your taste buds. Then let the lovely liquid find its way down your throat as you take in the flavours. We have five sensations – bitter, salty, sweet, sour and savoury. The tip of your tongue senses the sweetness first. As you breathe the fluid you will get the other flavours at the back of your mouth.

Don’t swirl the precious liquid around your mouth like you would do with a mouth wash and don’t swallow it and feel the spirit burn the back of your throat!

How should I drink my whisky? 

There is really no correct or right way to enjoy your whisky. Some people like to drink their whisky neat while others add a dash of water to open up the bouquet. Some add ice while other add the recently launched stone cubes to keep their whisky cold without diluting it. There are still other who love to add a large amount of aerated water or soda.

It is important to remember a few facts:

  1. If you are trying to learn the flavours and want to compare whisky, it is best to drink it neat
  2. Water breaks the surface tension of the alcohol and brings out the floral and citrus notes of the whisky to the forefront
  3. Ice chills down the oils and you get sweeter notes first
  4. Soda dulls all the notes with its carbon dioxide bubbles but if that is how you enjoy your whisky, so be it
  5. Then there are other ways that people drink whiskey with Coke or with a twist of lime or blended in a cocktail.

How you chose to drink it is your personal choice. One that you like to enjoy your whisky.

What is the “finish” of a whisky? 

You must have heard people talk about a “short” finish or a “long” finish” of a whisky. Experts love to use terms that they think will impress people like us about their knowledge.

Simply put, finish means how long you can taste your whisky after you have swallowed it. A duration of less than 15 seconds is considered to be a “short” finish and anything longer is a “long” finish”. Once again, remember that neither short nor long is a factor to determine whether a whisky is good or better – finish only differentiates between whiskies.

What is “proof”? 

The word proof is an indicator of the quantum of alcohol by volume in your whisky. Therefore, a 40% proof whisky means that in your drink of 30 ml, there will be 12 ml of pure alcohol. Proof varies in strength from 40% to 65% (there are more potent whiskies as well) based on choice made by a distiller. Therefore, the higher the proof the more potent is your whisky and the more careful you need to be when you indulge.

Finally, always remember that if you have bought your whisky, you own the whisky. Drink it any way you want it but drink it responsibly. The way you like it is the best way to enjoy it.



The author, a whisky enthusiast over the past three decades, is also the founder Chairman of Guardian Pharmacies and the author of the best-selling books, Reboot. Reinvent. Rewire: Managing Retirement in the 21st Century; The Corner Office; An Eye for an Eye and The Buck Stops Here – Learnings of a #Startup Entrepreneur.

Twitter: @gargashutosh
Instagram: ashutoshgarg56