Whisky over ice sat on a wooden cask.

Scotch Whisky

The Scotch story dates back more than 500 years. How is this iconic whisky made, and how can the finished product be enjoyed?


Estimated reading time: 18 minutes



Scotch Whisky is a distilled beverage made from grain, such as barley, wheat, or rye. To be classified as Scotch Whisky, it must be aged in Scotland, in oak casks for a minimum of three years before being bottled at a minimum strength of 40% abv.
Want an insider’s look at how Scotch whisky is made? Join Ervin Trykowski, Global Whisky Ambassador & Emma Walker, Johnnie Walker Master Blender in the video below, as they take us on a journey from grain to glass.


People have been distilling spirits in Scotland for over 500 years. Back then, the spirit produced was referred to as ‘Uisge Beatha’ or ‘the water of life’ as it translates from the Gaelic.

As the centuries went by and distillation methods improved, considerable advances in the creation of the spirit were made. We have monks to thank for spreading their distilling expertise as they moved from monasteries into the communities where they put their skills to use. News of distillation methods soon spread from village to village and some people believed the spirits could be used for a range of things including health, prolonging life, and even in the treatment of smallpox. There is, however, no evidence to suggest the distilled spirits had any health benefits.

The years ticked by and ‘uisge beatha’ became known as whisky. It had become an integral part of life in Scotland and was frequently offered to visitors upon arrival at their destination as a welcoming toast.

A revolution in the Scotch story happened when grain whiskies first started being produced in the 1830s. The blending of these lighter grain whiskies with the more intensely flavored malt whiskies widened the appeal of Scotch considerably. It was in this arena that a man by the name of John Walker built his reputation for blending whiskies from the four corners of Scotland. 


You can learn everything about whisky production, all the way from grain to glass, by watching the video at the top of the page. In summary, there are six key steps:


Barley grains are soaked in water then dried and toasted in a kiln. Peat smoke can be used here to increase the whisky’s smokiness.


The dried, malted barley is ground into a coarse powder known as grist and mixed with hot water in a mash tun to dissolve the sugars from the grist, creating a sugary liquid known as ‘wort’.


The wort is transferred to fermentation vessels called ’washbacks’ before yeast is added to convert the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide through fermentation. This produces a liquid called ‘wash’.


The wash is distilled in traditional pot stills or continuous column stills. Pot stills are batch distillation systems (a legal requirement for producing single malt Scotch whisky), that produce a more complex and flavorful spirit. Column stills are used for continuous distillation, resulting in a lighter spirit commonly associated with blended Scotch whisky.


The type of casks used, often oak previously used for aging other spirits or wines, and the length of aging, significantly influences the whisky's flavor profile. While the minimum stipulated period a Scotch whisky must be aged is three years in casks, most are aged for longer periods. As it matures in warehouses, it interacts with the wood and air; absorbing flavors from the wood and gaining color, all of which help develop complexity of flavor and aroma.


Anywhere between 30-70% of a whisky’s flavor will develop as it matures in the oak casks, because of the spirit’s interaction with the wood.  Hence, the type of cask used for maturing Scotch whisky can have a significant impact on the flavor, aroma, and overall character of the final product. Different types of cask can contribute to the whisky through their wood composition and their previous contents. Some of the more common types of casks used for maturing Scotch whisky are:

Ex-Bourbon Casks

These are a staple in Scotch whisky maturation, they are American white oak casks previously used for aging bourbon whiskey. Ex-bourbon casks typically provide flavors such as vanilla, caramel, coconut, and spice.

Ex-Sherry Casks

Ex-Sherry casks, often (but not exclusively) made from European oak, are popular for their ability to add rich, fruity, and sometimes nutty flavors to the whisky.

Refill Casks

These casks have been used for maturing Scotch whisky multiple times and hence are less active in flavors, resulting in a more subtle wood influence and allowing the original character of the spirit to shine. Especially useful for maturing light whiskies such as grain whisky.


Important especially when considering sustainability and cost-effectiveness.  Refurbished casks are casks that have been previously used for maturing whisky or other spirits multiple times over an extended period. The casks are exhausted and no longer able to contribute flavors and need to undergo various processes to prepare them for re-use in the whisky industry.  The casks are taken apart, cleaned, and re-charred or re-toasted to rejuvenate the interior surface. 

It's important to note that many distilleries use a combination of cask types to create a diverse range of flavors and profiles. The choice of cask and its history greatly influences the final character of the whisky, making the maturation process a critical aspect of Scotch whisky production.


Blending is the part of the process where art meets science and several casks are blended together to create a consistent and balanced liquid. In the case of a single malt Scotch whisky, this is when a number of casks from the same distillery are blended together. In the case of blended Scotch whisky, it is when casks from more than one Scottish distillery are blended together.

Blending is a highly skilled process that involves mixing different whiskies together to create a final product that is greater than the sum of its parts. Each individual whisky has its own flavor and character, so it is down to the knowledge, expertise and intuition of the blending team to select the right whiskies at the right age to produce a Scotch whisky that is consistently exceptional.


Learn about the people that are taking the age-old process of producing Scotch Whisky forward, and their love and care of the liquid and the industry itself. This video talks about how large-scale whisky production still has the core, authentic approach firmly at its heart.


There is no right or wrong way to enjoy Scotch whisky. Some people enjoy it neat with no ice or water, but certain Scotch whiskies come alive with a dash of water, as it can help release subtle nuances in the flavor. Others prefer theirs on the rocks. Scotch whisky plays a hugely important role in cocktail culture worldwide and has done for generations, whether it’s in a classic Old Fashioned or something as simple and easy as a Scotch and soda in a Highball glass.


  • Single malt Scotch whisky – produced using only malted barley at a single distillery by batch distillation in pot stills. It must be bottled in Scotland.
  • Single grain Scotch whisky – made from unmalted grains such as wheat, or corn and small amount of malted barley at a single distillery.  Often produced by continuous column distillation.
  • Blended Scotch whisky – a blend of one or more single malt Scotch whiskies with one or more single grain Scotch whiskies. 
  • Blended malt Scotch whisky – a blend of single malt Scotch whiskies, which have been distilled at more than one distillery.
  • Blended grain Scotch whisky – a blend of single grain Scotch whiskies, which have been distilled at more than one distillery.


  • Scotch can only be made in Scotland.
  • Scotch must be matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years and have a minimum ABV of 40%.
  • Only three basic raw materials are used to make Scotch - water, cereals and yeast.
  • A blended scotch whisky can contain over 100 different scotch whiskies (although usually between 20-40).
  • The age on a bottle of any single malt or blended scotch whisky refers to the youngest whisky used to make the product.
  • There are over 140 distilleries in Scotland - every drop of scotch in the world will have come from one or more of them.