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The Ultimate Guide to Whisky

Whisky, or the water of life, as our Gaelic ancestors referred to it, has been around for hundreds of years. The distillation process that creates whisky is hard to pinpoint; from Arabs using it to make perfume to Christian monks. Farmers in the Scottish Highlands were also known to distil spirits from their surplus barley in the 1400s.

In the years since whisky has become synonymous with Scotland, but they’re not all the same. Whisky is now made in countries as diverse as Ireland, Australia, India, Taiwan and the USA. As such there are multiple different types of whisky, all with their own characteristics, taste and smell (and in some cases, names!).

Most people will use the term ‘Scotch’ and ‘whisky’ interchangeably, but that’s not strictly speaking accurate. To be ‘Scotch’, it needs to be produced and matured in Scotland, in one of the official whisky-producing regions. Depending on who you speak to, there are either 4, 5 or 6 regions. The whisky also has to be aged there for a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels. It’s also distilled twice and as such, it then falls into several different classifications.

Single Malt

A whisky that is made from 100% malted barley and produced at a single distillery.

Single Grain

Like single malt, it’s made at a single distillery, but also incorporates additional grains beyond the barley. This is quite a rare commodity on its own since it’s more often used in blends (see below).

Blended Malt

As the name suggests, blended malt whisky is a blend of two (or more) single malt whiskies that come from different distilleries.

Blended Grain 

Again, this incorporates a mix of two or more single grain whiskies from different distilleries.

Blended Scotch

This is the most common Scotch sold and is a blend of one or more single malts blended with one or more single grains.

Like anything, the price of whisky varies depending on the quality of the drink itself. You can get budget and mid-range drinks, right through to premium whisky. You’ll pay a different price, as you would expect.

There are a number of specific characteristics that help decide the price. These can include the age of the drink, the type of whisky it is (see above), the name of the distillery where it was made and its alcohol content. It can also be determined by the brand of whisky and the country of origin. You can expect to pay anything from around £10 for a budget bottle and anywhere up to £600,000 for a 6-litre bottle of The Macallan M. In fact, a bottle of 60-year-old Macallan whisky became the world’s most expensive bottle when it sold at auction for US$1.9 million in 2019.

Around the world, as we alluded to earlier, whisky is known by a number of different names including bourbon, rye whiskey and of course scotch. Sometimes you’ll also see it spelt with an ’e’ before they, other times not.

Whisky production is almost like an art form. The nuances, subtleties and craftsmanship that goes into every drop can be a daunting cavalcade of information for the uninitiated. To understand the differences and the whisky industry as a whole, the best place to go would be to invest some time and money in the Jim Murray Whisky Bible, the world’ leading whisky guide.

Produced every year, each edition contains over 4600 detailed tasting notes on both the most popular and many of the least well-known, but equally deserving brands. Jim is a full-time writer and an expert on whisky. He was the world’s first full-time whisky writer so knows his stuff. You may not reach Jim’s level of expertise, but you can benefit from his decades of experience and knowledge.