What’s in a Scottish Whisky Region?

I was recently asked what are the sensory differences between the different whisky regions. Given the thousands of whiskies produced from the over 100 distilleries, I found this a tricky one to answer, helpfully.

We are going to hear a lot about regions this year given Diageo’s vast investments in both their new spectacular Princess Street, Edinburgh Johnny Walker whisky experience.

The central theme of Diageo marketing appears to be based on the four corners of Scotland. ‘Four’?, ‘I thought it was 5 or 6 depending who you listen to’. Indeed. In each of their four corners there is also high levels of expenditure on new and improved visitor centres and distillery reopening. Cardu, Glenkinchie, Clynelish/Brora, Port Ellen to name but 4 corners. This will inevitably give a boost to the concept of the region and the attendant whisky tourism, which has to be welcomed.

To be clear according to the ruling 2009 Scotch Whisky Regulations the Scottish whisky Areas are:

Protected Localities:

Protected Regions

Campbeltown having only been saved by the reopening of Glengyle as it was down to two distilleries. ‘Islands’ lie in which ever region they are located with the exception of Islay of course.

Speyside lies entirely within Highland region.

I scanned a few magazine articles which shed no light on the question of regional characteristics.

Historically the regions are more to do with taxation than flavour. The original Highland Lowland split – differentiated the small farm (and illicit) distillers in the north and islands from the early large commercial distilleries in the central belt. Two distilleries in particular Kennetpans and its sister distillery Kilbaigie, neither of which exist today, except as ruins and a wall were basically legislated against in the 1784 Wash Act, to control their disproportionate influence on the London Gin market.

At no time did this line in its various positions give a physical geographic split so terroir was not in question here, except that the mountainous areas were to the north of the line by and large. The geographic Highlands in practice are above a different imaginary line stretching from about Oban to Aberdeen or thereabouts (depending who your geography teacher was at school and presumably what his or her geography teacher had taught them.

Peat was in the early days was a fairly universal fuel for distilling so again nothing there. Speyside for example was about 50% fuelled by peat the other 50% by the native birch forests. Illicit and farm Distillers basically used the most economic fuel at hand. The central belt distilleries were built on vast seems of coal.

Further legislation differentiated between large and small stills. Within an area such as Speyside, some distilleries have very large tall stills which promote lighter floral fruitier whiskies while others have smaller stills giving more sulphur notes promoting richer more savoury notes, due to the amount of reflux and copper exposure.

Barley can be purchased far from the region of the distillery and indeed from different countries. The amount of peated content in malted barley allows distilleries far from Islay or the Islands to produce peated expressions and several Speysides and Lowlanders produce excellent peated examples. The same grain can be bought from the grain merchant by two distilleries in quite separate regions and might not even be grown in Scotland. Having said this some newer distilleries are growing or sourcing their own grain locally which is a development to follow as its unique flavour profile is produced. Kilchomon, Bruichladdie, Daftmill , Lindores, Kingsbarnes and InchDairnie spring to mind. Of course as their market grows they will need to ship barley in from maltings to supplement limited quantities of local supply.

The same applies to brands of yeast, again some distilleries are looking for strains of local wild yeast and even the larger companies are working more to look at different yeast for improved productivity if nothing else.

Water gives something unique and clearly local through the composition of the salts in their water supply introduced in the wash. Some distilleries protect their valuable supplies of process water and use a different supply for the water intensive cooling duties. The impact of water, primarily during fermentation, on aroma and flavour profiles has been estimated at about 2%.

Sherry casks are used in every region although Speyside has some but by no means all of the best of these and a long history of using them.

The greatest impact on flavour profile comes from individual distilleries process. That process is not just the main equipment – stills, wash backs, condenser type and so on but goes into duration of fermentation, cooling temperatures , water ph values and literally a thousand variables before the new make spirit engages with the unpredictability of the cask.

Couple this with the input of the master distiller who determines all of these variables plus cut points and seasonal tweaks. Yes the different seasons and prevailing weather makes a difference as well and even on this subject the time of year the wood for the cask is felled. When the sap is high this can bring more bitter wood notes. I am told one side of a tree can produce different wood notes from its opposite side as a result of prevailing weather directions.

One example which in a way is an exception to what I have said is the fabulous Glenfarclas. One of the last independently owned family distilleries on Speyside – although it declares itself a Highland whisky true to its roots. It has large stills.

Ah.. so it produces light fragrant fruity whisky – No! It doesn’t. The stills are direct fired, giving a toasting effect resulting in a rich, savoury whisky further enhanced by their exceptional cask policies.

No two casks are the same. No two distilleries even a mile apart and sometimes even closer display similar in profile. Think Teanininch and Dalmore!

This is the magic of whisky. It takes skill and experience and is a daily learning evolving a mysterious product which can deliver the most complex of aromas and flavours of any other drink or food in the world.

So the answer about regional differences remains ‘it is complicated’ and I remain unhelpful – so sorry! I could have waffled on about my personal regional prejudices, ok I will.

Speyside produces many floral fruity, elegant complex whiskies with good depth of flavour.

Think Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Linkwood. But it also produces rich, complex whisky like Macallan, Glenfarclas, Mortlach, Cragganmore, Tamdhu and Balvennie.

Islay in general produces those peaty, briney, iodine rich, oily, smoky super strong drams, think Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg

But it also produces some great sherried whiskies like Kilchomon and Bowmore. My favourite Islay Bunnahabhain at it best produces unpeated gems.

Less well understood is that much of Islay’s new make is delicate and fruity behind the peat and very drinkable. Ardbeg produces fabulous instantly enjoyable new make, influenced by the purifiers in the top of the stills. Islay in general makes fabulous young whisky at 3-5 years old, which can display fruity berry notes and sweetness hidden behind the peat. Occasional releases of unpeated expressions such as those from Caol Ila are exceptional.

Highland region occupies a huge swathe of Scotland from the river Clyde to Orkney and the Hebrides.

It is the most difficult region to generalise and I have seen it described as rich but also described as grassy, which to me tend to be mutually exclusive! So my own generalisation would say the profile is rich, malty with dried fruit, and smoky hints.

Varying from lighter versions of this in the East to more maritime notes in the west, all of which is debatable.

You can find everything in this region the whiskies are as individual as the inhabitants of this wild, wet diverse are – particularly in the north.

The Islands in this region have other superb peated expressions Ledaig from Mull being my favourite but most, not all, Island distilleries have a peated expression or two. You can find complex fruity salty sometimes smoky expressions often honeyed from most corners of Highlands.

Think Glenmorangie, Glencadam, Fettercairn, Blair Athol, Dalwhinney.

Many great rich sherried examples can be discovered from Glengoyne, Dalmore and Edradour.

It always amuses me that Glengoyne distillery is situated in two separate regions – its distillery and warehouses separated by the Highland-Lowland line. It is Highland whisky nevertheless.

There are classics elsewhere which introduce Smokiness and peat such as Highland Park, Talisker and Ardmore.

There are great quite unique profiles such as Clynelish, Old Pultney, Glendronch, Macduff and GlenGarioch.

Lowlands produce hypothetically light delicate complex whisky.

For the Lowland flavour profile I think grass, floral, citrus, light and sweet.

Think Glenkinchie, Auchentoshan, Daftmill

But again I have tasted the meatiest, most savoury rich complex whisky from Glenkinchie as it aged 23 years in great casks.

Arran is one of my favourites delivering excellent examples of every dimension. Rich, sherries, peated you name it – whiskies which can rival any region.

There are fewer distilleries in this region but many new ones emerging. It will be these which determine regional profiles in the future. I particularly look forward to the reopening of Rosebank which was know as the Queen of the Lowlands producing fabulous whisky fitting the flavour profile I identified as generic, smooth, fruity, sweet, sherried. It was triple distilled like Auchentoshan so light, delicate and complex and full flavoured. Spicy and perfumed some said.

Campbelltown’s three distilleries produce excellent rich flavoured whisky usually with a bit of salinity. None of these are owned by Diageo hence the four corners of Scotland not mirroring the 5 regions. It would be good to see more distilleries emerging in Campbeltown.

If there is a Campbeltown flavour profile it would be: smokey, brine, tropical fruit, biscuity and well spiced and sweet. Rich drams with lots to offer.

Springbank is the superstar with quality richness in abundance if becoming difficult and costly to acquire.

But there is the peated Kilkerran which is simply awesome, the complex Hazleburn and Glen Scotia an everyman and woman’s whisky, sophisticated and flavoursome.

So now you can blind taste a whisky and immediately identify its region of origin. Good luck with that! Guess, Speyside there is a 40% chance of being right purely from the majority of distilleries being there.

Who cares – just enjoy the differences you notice and move on to the next.

Unhelpful – I hope so. For be it for me to reveal such a mystery even if I could which I cannot!