The Scots lay claim to the earliest recorded history of distilling in the world. Those descendants of the Celts who mastered the art almost a millennium before the birth of Christ certainly enjoyed their fiery brews.
The earliest record of distilling comes from an entry in the Exchequer Rolls in 1494 when one Friar John Cor obtained eight bolls (a boll was an old Scottish measure of about six bushels, each weighing approximately 56 pounds) of malt “wherewith to make aqua vitae. ” The amount of malt involved would produce roughly 1500 bottles of whiskey, indicating that distilling was already a well-established practice.
Much like wine, Scotch whiskey is identified by the region in which it is made. Scotland has four distinct regions: Highland, Lowland, Islay and Campbeltown. These last two were sometimes combined and some simply refer to Eastern and Western Malts. In more recent times, the Highland Region has been sub-divided into northern, eastern, Island, and Speyside regions.
The unique method of using peat fires to dry the germinated barley and water is what makes this mixture “malted. ” The malted barley is then milled and made into a mash that will ferment, be distilled and ultimately, serve as the base for the rich, smoky flavor of Scotch whiskey.
The Islay malts, coming from close to the sea, have both the strongest smell and the most heavily peated flavor, capturing the aromas of both the ocean and the peat bogs in the region. Some even say that one can taste the sea in these malts.
The Lowland malt whiskeys are generally lighter than their Highland counterparts and more uniform in flavor as a region.
Whiskeys from the Northern Highlands are sweeter and more mellow than their Lowland counterparts. They have a richer flavor and, in some cases, a peat-like dryness as well. The whiskey from the Eastern Highlands also has this fruitiness about them, but with a hint of smokiness.
The Speyside whiskeys are the sweetest of all Scotch whiskeys and have more of a fruity flavor, sometimes overlaid with a taste of honey. The unique taste of Speyside whiskeys make them stand out from the rest.
The Island malts have a smoky flavor and resemble both the Islay and the Highland types. Perthshire, one of the “newer ” regions, borders the Lowlands and has lighter, cleaner tasting whiskeys, with a hint of fruitiness.
Campbeltown, once home to many distilleries, has dwindled in the number of whiskeys made there and is a sort of middle ground between Highland and Lowland malts.