Guide to the Scotch malt whisky regions
Like wines - and many other
drinks - the single malts of Scotland are grouped by region. As with wines,
these regions offer a guideline rather than a rule. Within Bordeaux, a particular
Pomerol, for example, might have a richness more reminiscent of Burgundy; similar
comparisons can be made in Scotland. The regions in Scotland, the Lowlands,
the Highlands, Campbeltown and the island of Islay have their origins in the
regulation of licences and duties, but they do also embrace certain characteristics.
This area tends to produce
whiskies in which the softness of the malt itself is evident, untempered by
Highland peatiness or coastal brine and seaweed. The Lowlands is defined by
a line following old county boundaries and running from the Clyde estuary to
the River Tay. The line swings north of Glasgow and Dumbarton and runs to Dundee
The Highlands, Islands and Speyside
By far the biggest region,
the Highlands inevitably embraces wide variations. The western part of the Highlands,
at least on the mainland, has only a few, scattered, distilleries, and it is
difficult to generalise about their character. If they have anything in common,
it is a rounded, firm, dry character, with some peatiness. The far north of
the Highlands has several whiskies with a notably heathery, spicy, character,
probably deriving both from the local soil and the coastal location of the distilleries.
The more sheltered East Highlands and the Midlands of Scotland (sometimes described
as the South Highlands) have a number of notably fruity whiskies. None of these
Highland areas is officially regarded as a region, but the area between them,
known as Speyside, is universally acknowledged as a heartland of malt distillation.
This area, between the cities of Inverness and Aberdeen, sweeps from granite
mountains down to fertile countryside, where barley is among the crops. It is
the watershed of a system of rivers, the principal among which is the Spey.
Although it is not precisely defined, Speyside is commonly agreed to extend
at least from the River Findhorn in the west to the Deveron in the east. Within
this region are several other rivers, notably the Livet.
The Speyside single malts
are noted in general for their elegance and complexity, and often a refined
smokiness. Beyond that, they have two extremes: the big, sherryish type, as
typified by The Macallan, Glenfarclas and Aberlour; and the lighter, more subtle
style. Within Speyside, the River Livet is so famous that its name is borrowed
by some whiskies from far beyond its glen. Only one may call itself The
only Braes of Glenlivet and Tamnavulin are produced in the valley, and only
Tomintoul in the parish. These are all delicate malts, and it could be more
tentatively argued that other valleys have malts that share certain characteristics.
The Highland region includes a good few coastal and island malts, but one peninsula
and just one island have been of such historical importance in the industry
that they are each regarded as being regions in their own right.
On the peninsula called
the Mull of Kintyre, on the west coast of Scotland, Campbeltown once had about
30 distilleries. Today, it has only two. One of these, Springbank, produces
two different single malts. This apparent contradiction is achieved by the use
of a lightly peated malt in one and a smokier kilning in the other. The Campbeltown
single malts are very distinctive, with a briny character. Although there are
only three of them, they are still considered by serious malt lovers to represent
a region in their own right.
is the greatest of whisky islands: much of it deep with peat, lashed by the
wind, rain and sea in the Inner Hebrides. It is only 25 miles long, but has
no fewer than eight distilleries, although not all are working. Its single malts
are noted for their seaweedy, iodine-like, phenolic character. A dash of Islay
malt gives the unmistakable tang of Scotland to many blended whiskies.
This material is extracted from Michael Jackson's Malt Whisky Companion published by Dorling Kindersley.