Just as France has its wine regions, Scotland has its whisky regions. Each one produces whiskies of various qualities which, even to the novice, are noticeable in taste, colour and aroma. Every distillery in Scotland has its own story to tell and peculiar traditions, adding to the romance and mystique of Scotch whisky distilling.
A visit to a whisky distillery is an unforgettable and unique experience, and no matter where you are in Scotland there will be a distillery nearby. A trip round Scotland isn’t possible for everyone, so it helps to be informed about the characteristics of each region’s whisky, and tailor visiting distilleries to individual taste.
The lowland region covers the area from the border with England and from the Clyde estuary to the Tay estuary. The main feature of lowland whiskies is their dry, light flavour and colour, mainly due to the lighter lowland barley and smaller amount of peat used in the barley drying process. Although they are light, they have a sweet, almost fruity taste and make a great aperitif, perfect for the newcomer to Scotch whisky drinking. Notable lowland whiskies are Auchentoshan, Bladnoch, and Glen Kinchie.
This is the largest of the Scottish regions and stretches from the lowland boundary right up to the north coast, and from west coast to east coast, taking in all the mountains, glens and moorland between. It is also the most complex of whisky regions because of the different sub-regions, each one producing whiskies of different qualities.
Northern Highland whisky tends to be stronger tasting with a complex array of flavours and aromas. Hints of heather and spice mingle with light peaty, smokiness to give a medium-bodied character. Some whiskies even have a very slight tinge of salt, perhaps due to the coastal locations of most distilleries. Notable northern Highland whiskies include Glenmorangie and Brora.
Whisky from the southern highlands is typified by its gentleness. The soil in the rolling hills is light and produces similarly light tasting barley which forms the bulk of whisky’s taste. It is also very fragrant and flowery, with a soft, sweet taste. Celebrated southern Highland whiskies are Glengoyne, Edradour, and Tullibardine.
The western highland whiskies are more robust in character than those of other Highland regions. Slightly peatier than inland whiskies, they have well-rounded flavours, and are very smooth on the palate. Notable western Highland whiskies are Oban, Glen Lochy and Ben Nevis.
Although Speyside is in the highlands, it is classed as a whisky region because of its high concentration of distilleries. This is the heartland of whisky with two thirds of all Scotland’s distilleries, some of them the most famous in the world. Rivers such as the Spey and Livet flow from the Cairngorm mountains and their waters’ purity is hallowed by distillers.
Speyside whiskies are light and sweet, elegant and complex. They are not peat-heavy and have only a hint of peaty smokiness. Some Speyside whiskies are household names, such as Glenlivet, Macallan, Glenfiddich and Aberlour.
Situated near the bottom of the Kintyre Peninsula, Campbeltown was once a major centre for Scotch whisky distilling with around 30 distilleries. Now there are only three. Their whiskies have a distinctive full-bodied “maritime” flavour and aroma and are among the less peaty malts. The three Campbeltown distilleries are Glengyle, Glen Scotia and Springbank.
Among whisky connoisseurs, the “island region” isn’t really a region at all. Some argue that it can’t be a specific region because some of the islands are very far apart, for example, Arran and Skye, whose whiskies have very different flavours. However, the islands of Mull, Jura, Skye, Arran and Orkney “traditionally” make up the Island malts. All have peaty, smoky bodies and full flavours, but there are marked differences in taste, colour and aroma. Famous island whiskies include Tobermory (Mull), Isle of Jura, Talisker (Skye), Highland Park (Orkney), and Arran Single Malt.
Islay (pronounced “eye-luh”) is so famed and loved by whisky experts it is classed as a region in its own right, although it is nearby the other west coast whisky producing islands. Its eight distilleries distill the strongest whiskies in Scotland and are distinctive by their rich, peaty flavours with hints of the sea, deep colouring, and full bodies. Islay’s better known whiskies are Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig.
Scotch Single Malt Whisky is a very strong alcoholic drink. Once a taste for it has been acquired, the palate becomes more alive to its full, complex flavours, and its smoothness makes it a pleasure to drink. Please enjoy your dram responsibly.
Photo by antonello franzil