“All Scotch is whisky but not all whisky is Scotch.”
When it comes to understanding whisky, perhaps an interesting place to start is with the spelling of the word itself. You will notice, for example, that American and Irish malts end with “ey” while all Scotches end in “y”. The difference has nothing to do with linguistic or regional spelling variations, but rather as I understand, it goes back to a rebelliousness within the Scots and a somewhat pompous disposition of the Irish (who are recorded as the originators of whisky) toward the Scots. The Irish wanted distinction from the Scots with regard to their beverage, and so they spell it their own way. I would add to this that, in my humble opinion, the Irish may have discovered whisky (and for that we can thank them), but the Scots have perfected it.
Of course any particular nation can produce whisk(e)y, and many do. You can find whiskies from pretty much any region of the globe you’d like (America, Canada, Japan, Lithuania, the Middle East, and the like), but you’ll never see a bottle of scotch with the word “whiskey” on it. If you do, it’s not Scotch and the counterfeiter is showing himself as inadequate in his craft.
In addition to the spelling variation, the different types of whiskies often have particular rules for production. For example, in order for a whisky to be called “Scotch,” there are three dicta that must be met.
First, the whisky must be distilled and bottled in Scotland using only Scottish spring water from one of the five main regions: Highland, Speyside, Lowland, Campbeltown, or Islay. There have not always been five distinct regions, but over time certain sub-regions garnered particular prestige due not only to tradition, but to unmistakable flavor and character. For example, the Speyside region is now singled out among the Highland stronghold. Another example is Campbeltown, which is a notable peninsular region held by the Lowlands. Similarly, Islay is one of the larger southwestern isles holding premier distinction within what some historians would simply consider as the Island region.
Second, a single malt Scotch must be made from malted barley and have a minimum bottled ABV (alcohol by volume) strength of 40% or 80 proof.
Lastly, the whisky must be aged in the barrel a minimum of three years, although I recommend staying far away from most whiskies aged only three years, unless you prefer vomitus things.
Now, having said all of this, let me swing back around to my previous comment about the Irish. When you refocus the lens of whisky’s genesis, you can thank us clergy folk for the discovery of whisky since it was a monk who discovered the “aqua vitae” or “water of life” which the Gaelic picked up and carried as “uisge beatha” (pronounced “ish-kyuh beh-hah”) or “lively water.” That’s the better truth – at least the one to which I level my humble subscription.