The origin of Scotch Whisky names

If you’re a fan of single malt Scotch whisky (or just whisky here in Scotland), you may have wondered why there are patterns in some whisky names (Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, etc) or what can the name Bruichladdich possibly mean. This short post will explain how the names of most of the Scottish distilleries came about (with a bit of history & some pics).

The Gaelic language: The first piece of the puzzle is the ancient Scots language of Gaelic which is still spoken in the Highlands & Islands. Most of the Scotch whisky names come from this language. Infact the word “whisky” comes from the Gaelic word “uisge” meaning water. Many people, especially in Scotland, refer to whisky as the water of life.

Small history lesson: The Scots have always been expert spirit makers. Around 300 years ago, when the UK tax authority decided to start heavily taxing spirits from the far North, these small scale operations began to be done from some really remote areas to help avoid tax. In 1823, a law was passed which made it possible for making spirits profitable. Many legitimate distilleries were built in areas where the illicit alcohol was being made.

This lesson is pertinent to understand why Scottish distilleries are so remotely located.

Water source: Water is THE most important ingredient in the whisky making process & many whiskies have an exclusive source of water that makes it taste the way it does. Rivers are one of the primary sources of water for distilleries. This info makes it easy to decipher many whisky names in one fell swoop.

Nomenclature of Scotch Whiskies

Named after the village they are from: It’s that simple, many whisky names are literally the name of the village that the distillery is in. One of the high points of my recent camping trip was spending a night in the village of Lagavulin & that too in the erstwhile Excise House. Got the whisky nerd chills. BTW the next village to the west of Lagavulin is the village of Laphroig & to the east is Ardbeg  🙂 Note that village names have a meaning, of course.

Other notable examples: Aberlour, Aberfeldy, Dufftown, Tomintoul

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The village of Lagavulin

Named after the Glen (Valley) they are based in: The word “Glen” means valley in Gaelic & that quickly helps decipher a huge number of whiskies that start with the word Glen.

  • The most famous examples are Glenlivet & Glenfiddich, which are in the valleys of the river Livet & Fiddich respectively.dsc_0151_2
  • The other common type of Glen based names are of the type valley of the region. Ex: Glen Moray is valley of the Moray region.
  • Finally, there are deep meaning glen based names that mean “valley of {adjective}”. Glenmorangie = “Valley of tranquillity” and Glenfarclas = “Valley of the green grass.”

Gaelic words or phrase: Most of the whisky names fall in this category. Bruichladdich means “stony bank by the shore”. Bunnahabhain means “foot of the river”. Craigellachie means rocky hill & sure enough that’s what the village looks like.

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The coolest name in our opinion

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The village of Craigellachie on it’s hill (can’t see the rocks)

Further reading: This handy page on the Islay website describes meanings of many Gaelic words & specific meaning of place names. There are many websites that go through the specific meanings of whisky names.

P.S.: We hope to write up more posts describing briefly the Scottish distilleries we have visited. If you have any general questions you’d like covered in the posts, leave a comment below.

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