As the national drink of Scotland and a beloved beverage the world over, there are plenty of fascinating facts about Scottish whisky. From the origins of the name to the most expensive Scotch whiskies and the role of American bourbon in whisky production, here are 9 surprising facts about Scottish whisky to discover while you enjoy a wee dram of the golden nectar.
1. Real Scotch whisky must come from Scotland
Did you know that you can’t call any old spirit Scotch whiskey? Real Scotch whisky has to meet strict requirements before it can be classed as authentic Scotch whisky by the Scotch Whisky Regulations Act in Scotland.
Real Scotch whisky must be produced and matured entirely within Scotland. If a cask even so much as rolls across the border into England, it’s no longer true Scotch whisky. It must also be matured in casks made of oak for a minimum of three years and one day, although many whiskeys are matured for considerably longer than this. Authentic Scotch whisky must also have a minimum of 40% ABV (alcohol by volume) when bottled, known as being 80 proof.
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2. Scotland has a lot of whisky
Since Scotland is the home of Scotch whisky, it makes sense the country has a lot of the good stuff. But one of the most amazing Scotch whisky fun facts is that there are more than 20 million casks of maturing whisky in the country. That’s almost four casks for every person in Scotland!
There are over 100 distilleries across five regions producing Scotch whisky in Scotland, including the Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay, Speyside, and Campbeltown. From the clean and fruit Speyside whiskies and the rugged spice of Highland dramas to the strong, peaty whiskies from the island of Islay, there are endless Scotch whiskies to try across the country.
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3. The Scots don’t actually drink the most Scotch whisky
One of the most surprising facts about Scotch whisky is that the Scots aren’t actually the bigger drinkers. Most Scotch whisky is exported across the world to North America, Europe, Asia and South America.
In 2021, Scotland exported a whopping 1.38 billion bottles worth around £4.51 billion. If you laid out all those cases of exported Scotch every year, it would span the distance between Edinburgh and New York six times over!
The French are the biggest consumers of Scotch whisky, importing 176 million bottles last year. India comes in second, importing 136 million bottles, while the USA ranks third with 126 million bottles in 2021. The USA alone imports around £790 million worth of Scotch whisky. This is all good news for the Scottish government which makes around £125 from the 38 bottles being exported every second from Scotland.
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4. The real age of your Scotch whisky might not be what you think
When you enjoy a glass of single malt Scotch whisky, you probably think it’s the product of one cask. This is a common misconception as most single malts are actually a blend of whiskies from different casks to produce a distinctive taste for each distillery. While blended whiskies are the products of several distilleries, single malt whiskies all come from the same distillery but are often the product of several casks.
So how do you know the age of your whisky? By law, the age printed on the label of the Scottish whisky must be of the youngest whisky in the blend. So, if you’re drinking a 12-year-old single malt whisky, it may also have been blended with older whiskies aged 24 or even 40 years. The oldest whisky in the world is currently a Macallan whisky that’s been ageing since 1940. There are only 288 bottles in this limited-edition whisky, making it a coveted collector’s item.
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5. Rare Scotch whisky can be eye-wateringly expensive
The value of rare whisky has skyrocketed in recent years, with limited-edition whisky selling for millions at auction. The most expensive whisky ever sold was a bottle of The Macallan 1926 60-Year-Old Scotch which sold for a staggering £1.452 million or $1.9 million in 2019.
In 2018, a similar bottle from that limited release sold for $1 million, while in 2015, a six-litre crystal decanter of Macallan Imperiale ‘M’ whisky sold for over $628,000. And if you’d like to get your hands on the world’s oldest whisky, the 1940 Macallan whisky? That will set you back a cool $125,000 a bottle.
6. Whisky means “water of life”
One of the most interesting facts about Scotch whisky history is the story behind its name. The term ‘whisky’ derives from the Gaelic words ‘uisge beatha’ (pronounced ish-ka ba-ha), meaning ‘water of life’… which seems a fitting way to describe the golden nectar.
The Gaelic term comes from the Latin phrase ‘aqua vitae’ which also means ‘water of life’. It is believed that the name originates from a time when monks used spirits for medicinal purposes. The first known production of whisky dates all the way back to the 5th century when monks began distilling spirits in Ireland. The first reference to whisky in Scotland appeared in 1494 when the accounting records for the royal finances in the Exchequer rolls mentions an allowance of “eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.”
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7. Is it ‘whisky’ or ‘whiskey?’
When looking into facts about Scottish whisky, you might notice that it has two different spellings – some people add an ‘e’. In general, ‘whiskey’ is the spelling for Irish or American whiskey, while ‘whisky’ is the spelling in all other countries. The use of ‘whisky’ is even enshrined in Scottish history and law.
There’s actually a story behind the different spellings. The original word translates from the Gaelic language of both the Irish and the Scots. The Irish also wanted to differentiate between Irish and Scottish whisky in the 19th century, as Scotch whisky was usually of a lower standard than Irish whisky at that time – so they went with a different spelling. The Irish immigrants who went to the USA took the whiskey spelling with them.
8. The angel’s share
If you go whisky tasting, you might hear the term ‘angel’s share’. But what is it all about? Whisky makers store the golden nectar in wooden barrels, but even the tightest grain wood is still porous. As the whisky ages, the alcohol gradually evaporates about 1.5 to 2% every year that it matures. Whisky makers call this the ‘angel’s share’.
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9. Scotch whisky usually matures in American bourbon casks
While Scotch whisky is a proud product of Scotland, one of the most interesting facts about Scottish whisky is that around 90% of it matures in casks once used for American bourbon.
When Scotch whisky began rapidly expanding in the 19th century, whisky makers often used casks that once held sherry and port from Spain and Portugal. Once these became harder to find, Scottish distillers turned to Kentucky bourbon distilleries to buy old bourbon barrels.
There were several benefits to this, as bourbon has to age in new oak casks which can only be used once. That means there’s always a steady supply of casks for Scottish whisky distilleries. The casks also give Scotch whisky a unique flavour as bourbon casks are infused with flavours like vanilla, honey, fruit and caramel. Some Scotch whiskies are still aged in sherry casks which gives them spice and fruity flavours like cinnamon, cardamom, dates, figs or sultanas.
Do you know any fun facts about Scottish whisky? Let us know in the comments below!