A quick, simple definition of Scotch offers that the whisky hails from Scotland, and is aged in oak for three years or more. Misconceptions abound about precise government regulations, such as Scotch needing to be double distilled, rested in used bourbon barrels, or made solely from malted barley.
With five legally defined types of Scotch whisky, five official regions, and a sixth unofficial territory, certainly, there's plenty of wiggle room to explore. Step beyond the norms and find a diverse range of unique, outlier Scotch whiskies which are stretching the boundaries of the category and expanding the palates of drinkers as well.
Blended Scotch and blended malt Scotch account for approximately 90 percent of the global market, while single malt Scotch is certainly well known and appreciated. That leaves only a fraction for what remains, grain whisky, which is typically viewed as simply a component to the blends.
Now though, grain whisky is becoming more prominent on store shelves as both single grain whisky, and blended grain whisky. A great initiation comes in the form of Compass Box, and few Scotch brands scream "outlier" louder than they do. John Glaser's company, which sources and blends its wares, burst onto the scene in 2000 with Hedonism, a blended grain Scotch, the 15th anniversary release of which came out earlier this year, Hedonism Quindecimus.
Compass Box exceeds perceived expectations of grain whisky, as do other well known releases including The Peat Monster, Spice Tree and Flaming Heart, and the brand new This is Not A Luxury Whisky—a high-end bottling without the "high-end" trappings of many premium whiskies (where consumers end up paying for crystal decanters and tabletop display cases).
Double distilling whisky is the overarching tradition in Scotland. However, it's not a hard and fast rule. Take the case of Auchentoshan, proudly billed as "The Triple Distilled" Auchentoshan.
Generally, a third run through the stills produces a smoother, gentler whisky, the type of which is actually the hallmark of Irish whiskey rather than Scotch. At Auchentoshan, the process enables producers to distill to a lofty 81 percent ABV, high above average, before barreling at 63.5 percent ABV. Putting that distillation proof into perspective as compared to bourbon, distillers are not even legally allowed to distill above 80 percent ABV.
Triple distillation yields one of the more underappreciated ranges of whiskies on the market; spirits that offer a distinctive profile at relatively low prices.
Ages, Vintages & Barrels
Most Scotch is sold with an age statement, which, whether correctly or not, is often used by consumers to pinpoint quality and value. No age statement Scotch is quickly on the rise though, largely due to supply issues.
Still, certain other Scotch whiskies aren't sold with, or without, an age statement per se—but rather a vintage. Of course, do the math and a vintage combined with a bottling year quickly reveals the whisky's age, but nevertheless, it's a different approach. Instead of needing to target "12 years old," a vintage can be released at 10, 11 or 13 years, for instance, whenever it's at the desired profile.
Further, vintages can end up with different ages depending on when the whisky was actually bottled. For instance, a 2000 vintage could be partially released in 2010, while some of that same stock could be left to age for another 10 years before being released separately.
Vintages also create an environment where each new release is different from its predecessor. Year after year, a consumer isn't buying the "12 year old" which should be exactly as it was last year, but instead, is purchasing whatever the latest vintage is based on when it was distilled and bottled.
Take Balblair as a leading example. Current vintages include 1969, 1983, 1990, 1999, 2003, and 2004—some with multiple releases from the same vintage—while there are dozens of vintages that have come and gone.
Another brand to look at is the Glenrothes. Current vintages include 1978, 1988, 1991, 1992, 1995, 1998 and 2001. One good example of how vintage doesn't equal age is that the Glenrothes 1992 is significantly older than the 1991, while the 1995 is only one year younger than the 1991. It's about reaching a certain desired place, not reaching an age.
As for the actual barrels that age the whisky, the vast majority of Scotch is aged in used bourbon barrels. After that, it's sherry casks, although the number of brands widely using them is far less than many would think.
For instance, Macallan brand ambassador Craig Bridger estimates that 90 percent of first fill sherry casks in Scotland belong to the Edrington Group. More than 80 percent of those go to the Macallan, with the remainder going to other Edrington brands, such as Highland Park and The Famous Grouse.
To get a glimpse at other casks being used, look no further than Glenmorangie. The brand is famous for finishing their whiskies in barrels of all types, from port casks to French wine casks of various regions.
Distilleries: Old, New & Beyond
It's one thing to talk about the age of the whisky, and it's another to talk about the age of the distillery. The entire year of 2015 proved to be an outlier in this regard. Two iconic brands, from the same little island of Islay, celebrated their 200th anniversaries this year—Ardbeg and Laphroaig. They aren't even the oldest distilleries in Scotland, either.
Still operational distilleries with 18th century roots include Glenturret, said to have opened in 1775, Bowmore, dating to 1779, Strathisla, to 1786, and the aforementioned Balblair, 1790. Meanwhile, the distillery which predated Glenmorangie on the same site, called Morangie, is said to have begun distillation even farther back, in the early 1700s.
Brands and their distilleries find many ways to differentiate themselves because in the crowded Scotch marketplace, story is as important as quality or price.
As such, consumers know about Bowmore's No 1. Vault, the only barrel warehouse in Scotland below sea level, as well as Scotland's oldest; Macallan's Curiously Small Stills, the smallest in operation in Speyside; and the small handful of distilleries which still do their own floor maltings, including the Balvenie, Benriach, Bowmore, Highland Park, Kilchoman, Laphroaig, and Springbank.
Beyond old distilleries and those with unique stories to tell, nothing is more "outlier" than whisky from distilleries which aren't even open any longer. Whisky enthusiasts clamor to get their hands on remaining bottles from mourned closings such as Port Ellen or Rosebank.
Elsewhere, other lost distilleries are reviving themselves through new releases. Take the Rare Cask Reserves Ghosted Reserve, a 26-year-old release from William Grant & Sons which blends whisky from two shuttered distilleries, Inverleven and Ladyburn, into an entirely distinctive, limited release.
On the other end of the spectrum are the new Scotch distilleries, ready to embark perhaps on their own multi-century trajectories. In the last two years alone, openings included Annandale Distillery (technically reopening after being dormant for nearly a century), Ardnamurchan Distillery, Ballindalloch Distillery, The Glasgow Distillery Co., and Kingsbarns Distillery, with several more due to open soon. Go back just a few years farther and you'll find another true outlier—Eden Mill, Scotland's only distillery and brewery.
When Isle of Arran Distillers opened in 1995, it became the only distillery on, well, the Isle of Arran. Other islands distilleries, marking that unofficial sixth region, include Abhainn Dearg, on the Isle of Lewis, Highland Park and Scapa, both from the Orkney Islands, Jura, on Jura, Talisker, on the Isle of Skye, and Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull.
The next time you visit a liquor store or bar, don't be afraid to branch out and try something new, in whichever outlier realm it may fall.