One of the most important ways we organize the many thousands of single-malt whisky expressions on the market is by their region of origin. Single-malt Scotch whisky is an intensely local product, and due to that locality, the styles tended to co-evolve among distilleries that were near each other.
These regional names at least give a small clue as to the style of the product. After all, a single-malt comes from a single distillery, so logically it comes from one specific place. This is a familiar way to categorize similar products, e.g., wine.
Note: Regional appellations don’t apply to blends since they may include ingredients from multiple regions.
However, it’s not a perfect system…
Even though whiskies from a given region do tend to have common flavor profiles, not all Speyside whiskies are unlike all whisky from other regions (the same could be said of any other region). As they say: The exceptions prove the rule….
One of the most awesome things about learning about single-malt Scotch is that you are frequently surprised, and you have to be open to that.
What are the officially recognized regions?
There are five official regions of single-malt Scotch whisky that have legally protected names:
You will frequently see more specific (yet unofficial) descriptive names used in books, even by very esteemed whisky writers like Michael Jackson (e.g., names like Eastern Highland, Island, Northern Highland, etc.). I am sure that these writers use these terms consistently but since there is no generally agreed definition of the terms, it’s safer to stick to the standard five names.
With that said, I do tag my distillery listings with the more specific names if I know them, but always in addition to the legal name, so you can find it either way. I wrote about this topic a few years ago, and it became clear the other day that it’s worth repeating.
Are they really different?
In a word: YES.
- Most single-malt Scotch is double distilled, except for those from the Lowland region, where triple distillation is more common.
- The rules don’t prohibit quadruple distillation, which Bruichladdich experimented with in recent years with their “X4” whisky. Note that Bruichladdich is on Islay, and that didn’t stop them from trying something different (they even make Gin, of all things…from Islay botanicals, of course!).
- The Highland region is the most diverse, both numerically and stylistically — even when you exclude the Speyside district, a dense conglomeration of Highland distilleries along the River Spey.
- Campbeltown is tied for the smallest region with the Lowland region (with three operating distilleries each), though Campbeltown used to have on the order of 30 distilleries. Campbeltown and Lowland aren’t similar by any means.
- Campbeltown is famous for whiskies with salty notes redolent of the sea, with deep fruits and strong flavors, whereas Lowland malts are generally lighter and more delicate, compared to other regions.
- Islay whisky has a reputation for being strongly flavored, i.e., intense, peaty, smoky, and while that’s true in many cases, there are more than a few exceptions.
Why are they different?
You might think that Scotland is a small country and the weather must be pretty uniform, but you’d be wrong. All over Scotland, there are lots of protected valleys, and elevation differences, prevailing wind differences, etc., that conspire to make real differences in the finished product.
For example, if you had to point to one thing that caused whisky on some parts of Islay to be smoky, it’s the persistent, driving rain off the Atlantic. Making malted barley for whisky in this kind of humidity is a real challenge. The malt had to be exposed to the peat smoke longer to compensate for the humidity.
This is no longer an issue today; malt is made in factories and the peat level is now a choice, not a byproduct. But people choose it because over many generations, it’s what they have learned to love. Ultimately, regional differences persist because they the people like it that way.
The styles are passed down through the generations, and when people grow up liking a certain style, and learning to make it, the style takes on a life of its own. Also, now that these businesses have global audiences, the customers’ expectations have to be satisfied as well. 🙂
Which region is best?
The one you like best. People get very passionate about questions like this, and what’s great is that there are so many good arguments, but in the end they are opportunities to try new things and expand your horizons.
There are lots of regions, and lots of expressions. Go taste them!