Scotland; a land of breathtaking scenery. Rolling hills and hidden glens interspersed with rugged mountains, gushing rivers and picturesque lochs, but above all, for some, a country famed for producing a globally loved product – whisky!
But Scotch whisky isn’t just ‘Scotch whisky’ in a generic sense; the origins of your favourite dram play an enormous part in its flavour. It’s widely accepted that Scotland is divided into five whisky regions –the Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown. Some class the Islands as a sixth region, but most include them with the Highlands.
So, aside from the use of different casks, how can each region impart such differing qualities in the resultant Scotch?…
Terroir – historically a word most widely associated with champagne and cognac, but one which is now frequently used when discussing whisky. Terroir in its simplest form means soil. However, when discussing drinks it has a broader meaning, which encompasses the surrounding environment and climate not just the soil. And this is where each region in Scotland has such variety on offer.
We’re going to take a virtual whisky tour around Bonny Scotland to uncover the secrets held within some of the popular whiskies and discover which well-known distilleries are situated within each region.
Geographically the largest, the Highlands whisky region is also the most diverse. Home to no less than 47 distilleries in wildly differing settings and subject to a vast array of environmental differences.
The briny sea air currents that batter the Orkney and Shetlands Islands, might be a bit of a nuisance to some, but they offer up an additional flavour profile of their own. The Orkney Islands have just two distilleries, one of which is;
Whilst winds of 100mph are commonplace in the Winter, they are affected by the Gulf Stream, which means the climate is actually temperate. This lack of extremes at either end of thermometer, allows a more controlled, even maturation period in the warehouses, but still allows that wonderful salty air to seep into the barrels providing an additional character found in so many of the coastal distilleries.
The heather cloaked moors cover the 4,000-year-old peat, which is hand cut for smoking the barley used in the whisky. Completely unique and not used in any other distillery, the peat gives a slow burn and imparts intense, complex floral aromas, giving Highland Park its exclusive smoky sweetness.
Whilst the brand itself needs no introduction what gives Glenmorangie its unique flavour may be less known. Situated in Tain on the shores of the Dornoch Firth, the distillery’s entire water supply is provided by the Tarlogie Springs.
Rain water spends decades slowly being forced through layers of limestone and sandstone in the Tarlogie Hills, until emerging, rich in minerals to provide a clean, light and fruity flavour to the whisky.
Situated in the Cairngorms, in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, the Dalwhinnie Distillery couldn’t be further from coastal influences. In fact, the Dalwhinnie is the highest working distillery in Scotland, drawing its water from Lochan na Doire – uaine “loch of the green thicket” situated at 2,000 feet, which contains both rainwater and snowmelt. Such extreme conditions produce a malty, smooth and sweet tasting whisky.
Now the Speyside region is actually located in the Highlands; confusing, we know, but there you have it!
Speyside is home to more than half of Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries, including some of the most famous and popular brands in the world.
The majority of these distilleries produce what is known as ‘Speyside malt’. This type of malt is characterised by its light, sweet and floral flavours which is due to the geology of the terroir. The Speyside region contains an abundance of Precambrian Quartzite, which is highly weather resistant. Consequently, there is very little mineral presence, resulting in very pure water. That, in addition to the lack of peat bogs, gives the whisky a unique flavour that is different from other regions of Scotland.
Some of the most well-regarded Speyside whiskies include The Macallan, Glenlivet and Aberlour. These brands are all produced by world-famous distilleries that have been in operation for many years.
Set on a 485 acre estate in the rolling Speyside countryside, the land on which The Macallan Distillery sits is the epitome of environmental empathy.
The estate is farmed sympathetically and in harmony with the natural beauty of its environment. Water is sourced from the river Spey and the whisky is produced without colourants, relying solely on the natural flavours of the raw materials and casks. Any other explanation is rather unnecessary, as the majesty that is The Macallen Whisky is known throughout the world.
Located in the village of Livet, in Rothes, The Glenlivet (translated as ‘smooth flowing one’) is another popular, world-renowned Speyside malt. Set amongst hills, an abundance of natural springs supplies the distillery with their water.
Although perhaps a little less well known that the other two whiskies, Aberlour certainly isn’t lacking in flavour. A full bodied, smooth and sweet whisky, developed courtesy of the soft water from the nearby mountain of Ben Rinnes.
The Lowlands region of Scotland makes up the southern part of the country and is home to some of the oldest whisky distilleries in Scotland. The Lowlands were also historically known as the “granary of Scotland” due to the large amount of grain that was grown in the region.
The climate in the Lowlands is generally milder than other parts of Scotland, which allows for a longer growing season for the grain. The whiskies from the Lowlands are therefore generally lighter and smoother than other Scottish whiskies.
Produced close to the city of Glasgow at the foot of the Old Kilpatrick Hills, this triple distilled single malt whisky is known for its light and delicate flavour.
Sitting amongst barley laden fields, with rivers of soft flowing water snaking though the hills, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Glenkinchie Distillery is a mere fifteen miles from Edinburgh. But it’s these very attributes which help produce a single malt with a sweet, citrusy and floral palate.
The most southerly of all Scottish Distilleries, privately owned Bladnoch (meaning “place of flowers”) sits on the banks of the river Bladnoch, from where their water is sourced. Bladenoch whisky is known for its floral, fruity and elegant flavours, with a hint of spice.
Islay is an island off the west coast of Scotland, and is home to nine working whisky distilleries. The whiskies from Islay are some of the most distinctive and sought-after in the world. Islay whiskies are typically very peaty in character, with strong smoke and seaweed notes, taking advantage of the abundance of peat and blanket bogs.
Peat is used during the kilning process (the drying of malt before it is fermented), and the more peat that is used, the more pronounced these flavours will be in the whisky.
Despite only having nine distilleries in operation, Islay is home to some of the most famous and iconic whisky brands in the world, including Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg.
Perhaps the most distinctive of these, with its strong medicinal notes and smoky flavour. It is definitely an acquired taste, but one that whisky lovers around the world keep returning to.
Laphroaig whisky is produced from water of the Kilbride Stream, which is, rather unappetisingly described as ‘murky’! However, this is due to its filtration through peat bogs, which are mainly composed of decayed seaweed and heather. Obviously this plays a huge factor in the final flavour, not to mention the presence of sphagnum moss packing in that medicinal hit!
Last but not least, strong Atlantic winds force their way through the cask, during maturation, providing a final salty tang.
If you’re looking for a more approachable Islay whisky, Lagavulin is a good place to start. It shares many of the same characteristics as Laphroaig, but is slightly sweeter and not quite as intense.
Another favourite amongst peat-heads, and is known for being one of the smokiest whiskies in existence. It is also incredibly complex, with flavours of chocolate, coffee, and even citrus fruits often being detected beneath the dominant smoke character.
Three miles up a hill behind Ardbeg Distillery sits Loch Uigeadail. From there, the water flows down and runs into Loch Airigh Nam Beist, after which it finishes its journey at Charlie’s Dam at the Distillery.
Plenty of peaty flavours have been picked up during the water’s course, and like Laphroaig, the proximity to the sea ensures a smattering of saltiness.
The smallest and least well known of the whisky regions, Campbeltown is located on the beautiful Kintyre peninsula.
Once the host of more than 30 distilleries, Campbeltown has in recent years reduced its working distillery numbers down to three. Fortunately, the area is enjoying something of a revival and more distilleries are on the horizon.
Campbeltown’s place in whisky history is due in part to the unique water source that many of the distilleries in the area share. The Campbeltown Loch provides soft water that is rich in minerals, which gives the whisky produced in this region a distinctive flavour, coupled with fertile fields for growing barley, peat bogs and the briny sea air.
The only distillery in Scotland to malt 100% of their barley using traditional floor malting methods, the distillery also distils its Springbank Whisky two and a half times, Longrow twice and Hazelburn is triple distilled. Each whisky therefore has its own distinctive, robust malt flavours, which are enhanced by the distillery’s peninsula location.
The only distillery in Campbeltown that uses locally-grown barley. The malt is dried in a kiln heated by peat smoke, giving its Kilkerran single malt whisky a distinct, smoky flavour, but not without floral and fruity sweetness.
A more subtle peaty flavour can be found in Glen Scotia whiskies, yet they don’t lack the richness, fruitiness and maritime finish found in the other Campbeltown Scotch. And all from one of the smallest distilleries in Scotland.