Sorry, Sean Connery: Scotland's greatest export will always be whisky. The country's residents have been distilling for hundreds of years, and the alcohol is some of the most highly sought-after in the world.
It's also one of the most highly regulated spirits in the world. There are just less than 100 distilleries operating in Scotland, and they all must abide by the Scotch Whisky Association's rules. The alcohol has to be made entirely in Scotland and aged there in oak casks for at least three years and one day. (Most of the casks used are bourbon barrels made of American oak. Some distilleries also age whisky in old sherry, wine and even rum casks.) The final product has to be a minimum of 80 proof. After malting, the barley used for many Scotches, especially those made on the island of Islay, is dried using smoke from burning peat. This gives the finished whisky a pronounced smoky flavor.
There are two major categories of Scotch: single malts and blends. What's the difference? Single malts, like The Glenlivet or The Macallan, are made from 100 percent malted barley and are the product of just one distillery. A blended Scotch, like Johnnie Walker or Chivas Regal, is a combination of single malts from many different distilleries and aged grain whisky. (This smooth whisky is produced in a column still and can be made from any kind of grain, rather than just malted barley.)
Not that long ago, the only Scotches you could buy in the U.S. were blends. That began to change in the late 1970s, when Americans started to buy less whisky and more vodka. As a result, the blenders also began buying less whisky. In an attempt to spur sales, the distillers began bottling their single malts and marketing them directly to drinkers. Single malts have become so popular that many distilleries are now running around the clock and have stopped selling to blenders altogether.
Here's a shot of spelling with your glass of Scotch. Whisky from Scotland, Canada and Japan is spelled without an "e." Whiskey from Ireland and the United States is spelled with an "e."
How To Drink Scotch:
To appreciate Scotch in all its peaty glory, it should be sipped straight, but don't be afraid to add a bit of bottled water. That may sound like sacrilege, but it helps to open up the whisky's flavors and aromas, and it's actually how most experts and master distillers prefer to taste the spirit. For younger or more full-flavored whiskies, feel free to add ice or club soda. Scotch also goes well with ginger ale or in cocktails like the Rob Roy, Blood and Sand and Rusty Nail.
Noteworthy Single Malts:
Aberlour, Aberfeldy, Ardbeg, Ardmore, Auchentoshan, The Balvenie, Bladnoch, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Cragganmore, The Dalmore, Dalwhinnie, Glen Grant, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, Glenkinchie, Glenmorangie, The Glenrothes, Highland Park, Isle of Jura, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, The Macallan, Oban, Scapa, The Singleton of Glendullan, Speyburn, Springbank, Talisker