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How to talk about Scotch Whisky

by Warrick Steabben on April 7, 2014

Anyone can pour a beer, but being able to knowledgeably discuss a fine liquor like Scotch whisky is a career building asset for a bartender or server. Scotch has a complex history and a taste that’s worth learning about—and experiencing first hand. Grab a whisky glass and let’s break it down.


Of course, Scotch whisky is made in Scotland. In fact, whisky was invented in Scotland more than 500 years ago. The distillation process was born out necessity. Scotland is relentlessly damp, so it’s a horrible place to store the barley and oats that are staples of the local diet and agricultural economy. However, the same cold, damp weather that gives Scotland a poor climate for storing grain makes it a great place to cozy up with a glass of something malted, mashed, fermented, distilled and matured. The word ‘whisky’ is derived from the Celtic for “water of life.”

Single Malt

The term ‘single malt’ refers to the product of a single distillery, not the product of a single process or even a single batch. If label says ‘single barrel’ or “single cask’, it means that the contents are part of a batch aged in a particular wooden barrel. The breakdown and evolution of the wood from batch to batch makes each one unique. Single malts are generally considered to be higher quality than blended whiskies.


Strict UK regulations require Scotch whisky makers to document each ingredient in each batch. When a bottle of Scotch has an age printed on the label, that age refers to the youngest ingredient. As with port and a good friend, “better with age” is a general rule when it comes to the flavours in a batch of whisky. Almost all bottles of Scotch whisky are matured for at least three years in oak barrels, but the best Scotch whisky is aged for at least eight years.


Like a fine wine, the region where a single malt Scotch originates geographically has an impact on its flavour and character.

  • Speyside, in northeast Scotland, produces some of the better-known brands such as Glenfidditch, The Macallan and The Glenlivet. Although Scotch Whisky is not a sweet drink, these tend to be slightly sweeter than whiskies from other regions.
  • For a smokier, heavier Scotch, look to the tiny islands of Islay and Skye. For example, Ardbeg and Talisker are known for their deep, smokey flavours.
  • Whiskies from the Highlands tend to be smooth, with complex, floral undertones. The Highlands give us Glenmorangie, Dalwhinnie and Oban, among others.

The Burn

Scotch, to a newbie, might smell like it is—or should be—on fire. Some people prefer to dilute their whisky or add ice before drinking, but most knowledgable drinkers of single malt Scotch turn up their noses at anything that could significantly dilute the drink. If you splash a tiny bit of water into your Scotch, it will help to release the aroma and enhance the taste. Without a splash of water, you’ll only know the burn and not the rich aromas of almond, honey or even lemon. However, half a tablespoon is enough.

Serve Scotch By Doing a RSA Course
Serve Scotch By Doing a RSA Course

The best way to learn about Scotch is to taste as many varieties as you can. Try to express the flavours in words and remember, there’s no ‘e’ in Scotch whisky. Just ask the Bard of Banff. As an RSA Melbourne graduate, you’ll know how to serve and drink whisky responsibly.