Whiskey, Scotch, Sodas and Pagodas
Whisky is a truly global drink. Whether you prefer Scotch, Irish whiskey, Japanese whisky or any other whisky there is a world of flavour waiting to be explored. So why not take some time to learn more about the history of whisky as well as its unique lexicon of whisky words.
With a heritage spanning more than 500 years, whisky is Scotland’s national drink. The country boasts five recognised whisky regions – Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown. Each produces whisky with different characteristics as the natural conditions vary between regions.
The word whisky is derived from the Gaelic word uisce or uisge meaning “water”. Distilled alcohol was known in Latin as aqua vitae which means “water of life”. The phrase was translated into Old Irish as uisce beatha and this became uisge beatha in Scottish Gaelic. It is pronounced ooshka-ba. When drinking in Scotland, you will still hear whisky referred to as uisge beatha.
The Scottish accent
Non-native speakers can find Scottish accents incredibly difficult to understand. While English is the standard written language of Scotland, a Gaelic language also exists and the Scots boast numerous accents and dialects, some heavily influenced by Gaelic.
Received pronunciation, the accent associated with the upper-middle class in England, is rarely heard in Scotland. Regardless of their backgrounds, Scots always speak with accents that are identifiable as Scottish.
To make matters even more complicated for outsiders, the Scots use a raft of words and expressions that are only heard in Scotland. There are far too many of these to mention them all here. However, the terms associated with Scotland’s national drink are useful examples of the country’s unique lexicon and we are not talking about the words used to describe Irn-Bru!
If you enjoy a glass of Scotch, here are further Scottish words and phrases that are worth knowing:
Dram – a common word for a measure of a whisky, as in “Do you fancy a wee dram?”
Quaich – this word is pronounced “quake” and it refers to a traditional Scottish whisky drinking cup that is a shallow bowl with two, short and vertical handles. The quaich is associated with friendship and is often used as a sharing cup.
Slàinte Mhath – pronounced slanj-a-va, this phrase means “Good Health” and is a friendly Gaelic toast made before drinking whisky.
Valinch – this is a large pipette used to draw spirit for sampling from a whisky cask. It is also known as the dipping dog or whisky thief.
What is Irn-Bru?
Perhaps the Irn-Bru reference above has left you feeling confused! Irn-Bru is an orange fizzy drink with a unique flavour that has been marketed as “Scotland’s other national drink”. It was officially launched in Scotland in 1901 and remains one of Scotlands most popular soft drinks.
Whisky or Scotch?
Whisky is a distilled spirit that is made from fermented grains and that is aged in wooden barrels or oak casks. The drink is produced in many countries and is known as whiskey in North America. Only whiskies produced entirely in Scotland are referred to as Scotch. It is worth noting that the Scots tend to refer to the drink as whisky and not Scotch.
The late 19th century saw a significant boom in the demand for Scotch whiskies and this led to the construction of new distilleries. The roofs of the old distillery maltings had previously been equipped with revolving, conical cowls. These facilitated the removal of smoke from the kilns below, but they were less than attractive features of the buildings. The newly built distilleries were completed by a new type of chimney which was both more efficient at drawing out the smoke and more aesthetically pleasing.
Designed by architect Charles Doig, the revolutionary chimneys were to become known as pagoda roofs. Doig couldn’t have realised it, but his design hinted at the future of whisky production because Whisky is now big in Japan! Indeed, in 2001, Nikka Whisky Distilling’s 10-year Yoichi single malt won “Best of the Best” at the Whisky Magazine awards.
Japanese whisky or whiskey?
Whiskey has been produced in Japan since around 1870 but commercial production began in 1923. Japanese whisky has more in common with Scottish whisky than with whiskies produced elsewhere. When the Japanese distilleries were built, efforts were made to replicate the conditions and production processes in Scotland, hence the similarities with Scotch. Several companies produce whisky in Japan, the best-known of which are Suntory and Nikka. Both companies offer blended and single malt whiskies.
The Nikka distillery was founded by Masataka Taketsuru who is recognised as the father of Japanese whisky. He studied whisky production in Scotland for three years and was an executive at Yamazaki Distillery before leaving to establish his own operation.
New regulations regarding whisky production are being introduced in Japan. By 2024, products that are to be labelled “Japanese Whisky” must be fermented, distilled, aged, and bottled in Japan, use some portion of malted grain in their mash, and use water sourced from Japan.
The market for Japanese whisky was almost entirely domestic until 2001 when Nikka’s single malt won the “Best of the Best” award. Japanese products have since garnered further significant awards and the popularity of Japanese whisky across the globe has grown enormously. The revenue generated by the export of Japanese whisky now exceeds that generated by the export of Saki.
Such is the popularity of Japanese whisky and the regard in which it is now held that prices have risen considerably. Rare bottles of Japanese whisky achieve impressive prices at auction and these prices can exceed €750,000.
In Japan, blended whiskies are generally consumed in cocktails most notably whisky highballs (ハイボール, haibōru). But single malts are usually drunk neat, on the rocks, with hot water (お湯割り,o-yu-wari) or with cold water (水割り,mizu-wari).
What’s the future for whisky?
The future for Irn Bru looks to be bright and, of course, orange. The enormous popularity of whisky also shows no sign of waning and Japanese whisky continues to gain traction in global markets. Japanese whisky isn’t Scotch, but it is giving Scotch a run for its money. People around the world are discovering new ways to enjoy whisky and new whiskies to drink including those produced in Japan. One day, Japanese whisky could boast a reputation to rival that of Scotch, you never know.
Nobody can be sure where and when whisky was first distilled. In the form that we know today, whisky probably originated in Ireland or Scotland. It remains one of the planet’s most popular tipples and has inspired a lexicon of unique words and phrases in every country in which it is produced. However, the true language of whisky is its taste and that is universally understood.
What’s your favourite whisky and why?