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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.
 

The Lowlands

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 and Perth.
 

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 Glenlivet, 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.
 

Campbeltown

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.
 

Islay

Pronounced "eye-luh", this 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.


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 Last updated: 5th February 2013