Technically, by law, whiskey can only be called “Scotch” if it is distilled in Scotland according to a specific set of rules. However, this doesn’t mean that single malt whiskey can’t be made anywhere else, nor that it can’t “compete” against Scottish Scotch in international tasting tastes. Indeed, to the consternation of Scots, in 2014 a leading whiskey critic ranked a Japanese single malt as No. 1. The Washington Post reported that Jim Murray awarded “World Whiskey of the Year” to the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, giving it a score of 97.5 out of 100. According to the Post, Murray “described it as a drink of ‘near incredible genius’ with a taste ‘thick, dry, as rounded as a snooker ball.’”
Yamazaki, the maker of the winning whiskey, is Japan’s oldest distillery, founded in 1923 and now owned by Suntory, the world’s third-largest distiller that also bought Jim Beam. Making matters worse, the Post cites Ron Taylor, a Scottish spirit judge who claims to be a “nonpartisan” drinker, as saying that it’s no surprise a Japanese whiskey won. Comparing the whiskeys of the two countries to cars, he says Japanese single malts are like a Lexus: “beautifully crafted, no vibration, smooth, consistent and always pleasant.” Think of Scottish whiskeys, on the other hand, like Maseratis: “They’ll knock you around and slap you around the face a little bit.”
So if these Japanese malts keep winning, why can’t they be called “scotches”?
As the New York Times reports:
“Single malt is simply whisky made from only water and malted barley at a single distillery. In Scotland, single malts are distinguished from blended Scotch, the province of familiar names like Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s and Chivas Regal, which are a blend of one or more single malts with whiskies distilled from other grains. Another category, blended malt Scotch, which used to be called vatted malts, is a blend of two or more single malts.”
Whereas other countries have traditional whiskies, “distillers with integrity will stick to the traditional definition, which includes aging the whisky in oak barrels for at least three years.”
This definition is not only traditional, it is enshrined by law. Laws regulating scotch whisky have been on the books in the U.K. since 1909 and recognized in the European Union since 1989. The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 expanded the scope of previous legislation from not only governing the way in which Scotch Whisky must be produced, but how Scotch Whiskies must be labelled, packaged and advertised, as well as requiring Single Malt Scotch Whisky to be wholly matured and bottled in Scotland.
Furthermore, the law goes the other way as well, providing that “The only type of whisky which may be produced in Scotland is Scotch Whisky.” (There are a number of other complex requirements; you can read them here.)
Note that “whiskey” is actually “whisky” in Scotland. According to the website “Whisky for Everyone,” the difference in the spelling comes from differences in the Scottish and Irish Gaelic forms:
“The Scots spell it whisky and the Irish spell it whiskey, with an extra ‘e’. This difference in the spelling comes from the translations of the word from the Scottish and Irish Gaelic forms. Whiskey with the extra ‘e’ is also used when referring to American whiskies. This ‘e’ was taken to the United States by the Irish immigrants in the 1700s and has been used ever since.”
This website also points out other differences between whiskeys make in Scotland and elsewhere, including the size and shape of distilleries, the use of peat in Scotland to dry the malted barley, the use of barley itself and the “terroir” itself in which the barley grows. (“Terroir” is the set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s qualities, and that lend it its character, from type of soil to water conditions, etc. Even water alone can affect taste, which is why New York claims its bagels are different from all other bagels.)
If you read a lot of detective books, you will no doubt be familiar with one of the most famous of Scotch whiskys, Laphroaig (pronounced ‘La-froyg’, from a Gaelic word meaning “the beautiful hollow by the broad bay.”) Laphroaig is made on the remote island of Islay in the Western Isles of Scotland, where the distinctive peat is said to give Laphroaig its rich flavor.
This single malt is a favorite of Peter Robinson’s Yorkshire Inspector Alan Banks, Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh detective John Rebus, and even Barry Eisler’s free-lance hit-man John Rain. Other whiskeys also soak the pages of fiction, from Loch Lomond, the Scotch whisky consumed by Captain Haddock in Hergé’s famous comic book series The Adventures of Tintin, to the many brands of scotch (mostly American) consumed by James Bond, to even a fictional scotch you will see in the movie “Pulp Fiction,” in which the character played by John Travolta drinks a creation by the director, McCleary Blended Scotch Whisky.