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Scotland & Scotch Whisky

Scottish Islands -Portree, Isle of Skye

View on Portree before sunset, Isle of Skye, Scotland

Scotland & Scotch Whisky

If you ever find yourself in Scotland, you’d be hard-pressed not to take a sip of Scotch whisky or consume it in some of Scotland’s local meals. Whisky appears to be everywhere in Scotland. This article gives a background on the value of Whisky and some of the history of this alcoholic drink.

The rest of the world is thirsty for this Scotland-made distilled spirit: in 2017, Scotch exports climbed nine percent to a record £4.36B (US$5.6B or AU$7.8B), roughly equivalent to 39 bottles being shipped overseas every second, according to the Scotch Whisky Association.

According to Rachel McCormack in Chasing the Dram: Finding the Spirit of Whisky (2017), there are five whisky-producing regions in Scotland:

  • the Highlands,
  • the Lowlands,
  • Islay, on the Inner Hebrides,
  • Campbeltown,
  • and Speyside.

The industry directly employs 10,000 people, supporting 40,000 jobs across the United Kingdom, 7,000 of which are in rural areas, such as Scotland’s many islands, where other jobs may be hard to find. This makes whisky the third biggest industry in Scotland, behind energy and financial services. As of December 2017, there are 126 distilleries licensed to produce Scotland’s national drink.

Odyssey Traveller has several small-group tours to Scotland, including a special tour of the Scottish Isles with a whisky-drinking stop on the Isle of Skye. Click through to sign up for the tours, or read on to know more about the world’s favourite spirit.

The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009

There is a specific UK regulation governing the production, labelling, and presentation of Scotch whisky—The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009. To be Scotch Whisky, the spirit must mature in oak casks in Scotland for at least three years, though most are aged from eight to 20 years. (If you find a bottle of Scotch whisky without an age label, you are guaranteed by UK law that the whisky inside is at least three years old.)

According to law, there are five categories of Scotch whisky:

  • Single Malt – the gold standard of Scotch, single malt is distilled at a single distillery from only water, yeast, and malted barley, without any other cereal grains added
  • Single Grain – also distilled at a single distillery, but may have other grains or cereals (such as maize and wheat) along with malted barley
  • Blended Scotcha blend between one or more single grain and one or more single malt Scotch whiskies
  • Blended Malt – a blend of more than one single malt Scotch whisky from more than one distillery
  • Blended Grain – a blend of more than one single grain Scotch whisky from more than one distillery

A blend will consist of anything from 15 to 50 different single whiskies, combined to produce a whisky with a unique flavour and character.

By law, the minimum bottling strength is 40% ABV (alcohol by volume). “Cask strength” whisky, or the whisky poured directly out of a cask without being diluted with water, can be as high as 63% ABV. (To compare, the ABV for beer is only 4.5% on average, and 11.6% for wine).

But how did Scotch whisky come to be?

 “The Water of Life”

Distillation is the process of purifying a liquid through selective boiling and condensation. Historians still don’t know who first discovered this process, but evaporation was described by Aristotle in his 350 BC treatise, Meteorologica, in relation to purifying seawater.

Women were probably the first alchemists to use both evaporation and condensation during the early centuries AD. The development of the pot still, a distillation apparatus, is attributed to “Mary the Jewess” in the 4th century AD. In the 8th Century AD, Arabic polymath and alchemist Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan designed the alembic pot still, which led to the effective distillation of alcoholic liquor.

Modern pot stills in a distillery in Scotland

It is unsure how the art of spirit distillation reached Britain, but the Ancient Celts certainly used the process and gave a name to the liquid which invigorated them in the cold of winter—uisge beatha, “the water of life”. The Anglicised form “whisky” evolved from this original name.

The earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland appeared in the Exchequer Rolls (tax records) in 1494: “eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae” (aqua vitae is Latin for “water of life”).

The “eight bolls of malt” (a “boll” is about six bushels, and one bushel is equivalent to 25.4 kilograms) could produce almost 1,500 bottles, suggesting that distilling was already a well-established practise or trade by the 15th Century.

Considerable advances in distilling whisky were made in the 16th to 17th century, following the dissolution of monasteries during the Reformation, after Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church of England. Cast out of their sanctuaries, the monks made good use of their distillation skills and spread the practise. Whisky at the time was imbibed for its medicinal qualities, but later became a feature of Scottish social life.

Whisky and Taxes

Its popularity caught the attention of the Scottish Parliament, which passed an Excise Act in 1644, taxing whisky production for the first time. In an effort to evade the excisemen, unlicensed distillers sprouted all over the kingdom, with illegal trade originating from the Highlands. Tax rates continued to increase until the Acts of Union in 1707, which united the Kingdoms of England and Scotland.

By 1777, there were about eight legal distilleries contributing to the revenue of the United Kingdom in Edinburgh—and 400 illegal ones.

In an effort to avoid the excise burden, smugglers were forced to be creative. Stills were cleverly hidden, with one location even channelling the smoke from an underground peat fire to a cottage chimney 70 yards away. Smugglers came up with signalling systems to warn one another whenever the excisemen were in the vicinity.

Smuggling became standard practice for the next 150 years, partly because Highland magistrates, on whose lands illicit distillers were producing the liquor, understood that revenue from the illegal trade allowed the distillers to pay their rent. One of these landowners was the Duke of Gordon, who proposed to the House of Lords to make the legal production of whisky profitable.

The Excise Act of 1823

In 1823, Parliament passed the Excise Act, sanctioning the distilling of whisky in return for a licence fee and a set payment per gallon. The Excise Act effectively killed smuggling and laid the foundation for the successful Scotch whisky industry we know today.

Two more important events contributed to the industry’s success: in 1831, Irishman Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey Still, or the Column Still, which enabled a continuous process of distillation and led to the production of grain whisky, a less intense liquor than the malt whisky produced in copper pot stills.

The second event happened in the 1880s, when the phylloxera plague hit the French vineyards and wiped out the trade of wine and brandy. Buyers then turned to Scotch whisky to fill their cellars and their glasses.

Whisky Tourism

In 2003, Scotland launched ScotlandWhisky or the Scotch Whisky Tourism initiative, bringing together distilleries and the Scottish tourism and hospitality industry to offer unique experiences to travellers visiting Scotland. The initiative is supported by the Scotch Whisky Association, The Scotch Whisky Experience, Scottish Enterprise, Highlands & Islands Enterprise, and VisitScotland.

According to, whisky distilleries hit a record of 1.7M visits in 2017, with an average spend of £31 per person (US$40 or AU$55), versus £27 (US$35 or AU$48) in 2016. More than half of Scotland’s distilleries now have visitor centres dedicated to tourists and curious visitors who want to tour their facilities.

Isle of Skye

A whisky tour of the Isle of Skye and the Isle of Arran

Odyssey Traveller has a special tour of the Scottish Isles with a whisky-drinking stop on the Isle of Skye. The tour also has a stop on the Island of Arran. Click here to see the complete itinerary of the tour.

Both isles have their own distilleries. The oldest working distillery on the Isle of Skye is the Talisker Distillery on the shores of Loch Harport. It offers a tour of the distillery and a tasting tour of the different expressions of Talisker Single Malt.

The Isle of Arran has the Isle of Arran Distillery, the only working distillery on the island, which once housed many illicit stills on the Scottish west coast. The distillery also offers tours and tasting, and has a family-friendly restaurant called the CASKS Café for those who want to have coffee after all that whisky.

Tasting Scotch Whisky

The Scotch Whisky Association gives some helpful tips on how you can best enjoy your Scotch whisky.

Tulip versus tumbler. A tumbler is fine, but a tulip-shaped glass traps the aromas in the bottom and release them at the top of the glass—perfect for comparing whiskies by smell.

Colour me aged. The whisky colour comes from the wood of the cask, so a darker colour spirit means it is generally older. (A new-make spirit is as clear as water.)

Whisky legs. The “legs” of the whisky is the drips on the inside of the glass after swirling the whisky around. If the “legs” are thin and run quickly down the side of the glass, it may be a younger or lighter whisky. If the liquid is viscous (with “legs” that are slow and thick), this means you have an older whisky in your glass.

No matter how you prefer to enjoy your Scotch whisky, remember to drink responsibly. Have water available to reduce the alcohol content of your drink, hydrate, or to cleanse the palate in between whisky samples. Slàinte mhath!

If you’re not a drinker, no worries. The Scottish Isles have picturesque landscapes and a vivid history for you to discover. Hope to see you there!

Isle of Arran

Updated July 2021.

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Scotland & Scotch Whisky

Article for senior and mature solo and couples taking a small group tour of Scotland or the isles of Scotland including Iona, Orkney, inner and outer Hebrides to learn about the ancient history including standing stones to the industrial revolution.