Scotland's Whisky Regions
Scotland is officially divided into five Whisky regions: Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Campbeltown and Islay. This division is based on the geographical and aromatic characteristics of the distilleries and their respective distillery character. The different Whisky regions offer distinct ways of looking at Scotch Whisky. Geographically, the regions are distributed across Scotland as follows: the Highlands occupy the largest area in the north of the country, Speyside is a small area in the eastern part of the Highlands, the Lowlands make up the southernmost part of Scotland, while Campbeltown and the Isle of Islay are each located in the southwest of the country. There are also other islands on which many Single Malt distilleries are located, which is why we also count the islands as an extra Whisky region.
The Lowlands extend over the entire mainland south of a theoretical line between Greenock and Dundee. On the other side of this line, the Highlands are situated. As the name suggests, there are many hills and mountains in the Highlands, while the landscape in the Lowlands is much flatter. The boundary between Lowlands and Highlands was originally defined by the Wash Act of 1784. In the past, Lowland Single Malts were usually triple distilled, giving them a lighter character, like Auchentoshan’s. Even today, Lowlanders are therefore still related to Irish Whiskey in terms of production and taste. In aroma, the Malts are usually intense with a soft body. Traditionally, non-peated malt is used for production. This is probably due to the fact that the Lowlands used to be home to the coal industry; as a result, the use of peat for heating was not common. The typical Lowland flavour is characterized by mild, elegant notes of grass, honeysuckle, cream, ginger, butterscotch, toast and cinnamon. For the most part, the Whiskies are light-bodied and work well as an appetiser or for beginners.
With around 40 distilleries, the Highlands are by far the largest region in Scotland, both in terms of surface area and Whisky production. The Highlands Whisky region covers the entire mainland north of the Highland-Lowland line. Whiskies produced in the Highlands exhibit a wide range of different aromas and flavours. From lighter to salty-maritime Malts, the Highlands offer a treat for all tastes. Typically, Highland Malts are lightly peated, yet spicy and heavy. The landscape is overgrown with heather, which is often reflected in the aroma of the Whiskies produced there. Since the Highlands occupy a very large area, they are also divided into smaller territories, depending on the compass direction, as well as Speyside. In the northern Highlands, distilleries such as Balblair, Dalmore, Glenmorangie and Pulteney produce medium-bodied, fresh Whiskies with heather, citrus and partly maritime notes. In the western Highlands, which are, for example, home to Oban and Ben Nevis lighter Whiskies with sweetish notes are usually produced. Whiskies from the eastern Highlands, the location of Glenmorangie and Glenturret, are typically dry and malty with light smoke. The southern Highlands are home to Deanston, Loch Lomond and Glengoyne, which produce mostly complex Whisky with a dry finish typical of the Highlands.
The area around the River Spey in northeastern Scotland, Speyside, comprises nearly half the total number of distilleries in Scotland. Due to its high density of distilleries and its high Whisky output, Speyside has long been officially recognized as an independent Whisky region. Speyside covers an area no larger than 15 miles wide. All the more impressive that so many Whisky distilleries produce in such a small area. Speyside is named after the river Spey, which is also the water source for many distilleries located there. Among the numerous Speyside distilleries, Aberlour, Balvenie, Cardhu, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenfarclas, Glenrothes and Macallan are worth mentioning. The two best-selling Single Malt Whiskies in the world, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, also come from Speyside. Their character can generally be described as light and grassy, like the Glenlivet, or rich and sweet, like the Macallan. The products are known for being hardly peated and very fruity. Among the Scotch Whiskies, the delicate and fragrant Speyside Whiskies are very suitable for beginners, because they are mild and less complex and intense than smoky products from, for example, the Islands.
The 'Islands' are officially treated as a subcategory of the Highlands, but since the flavours of the island Whiskies partly differ significantly from the Whiskies of the mainland, we have dedicated an extra category to them. The 'islands' stretch along the entire west and north coasts of Scotland - although Islay is known to count as a separate region. More precisely, they are the islands of Arran, Jura, Mull, the Isle of Skye, and the Orkney Islands. The associated distilleries are Arran, Highland Park, Jura, Scapa, Talisker and Tobermory. New distilleries are constantly opening in the region. Island Whiskies are extremely diverse. However, they are generally distinguished from Whiskies made in the other regions of Scotland by their smokier flavour and peaty undertones. This cannot be generalized, however, as there are also many non-smoky products from the islands, for example from the Arran and Tobermory distilleries (the peated Malt from Tobermory is called Ledaig), some bottlings from Highland Park, and independent bottlings from Scapa. Maritime, spicy, intense - this is the basic character of Island Whiskies. Some are complemented by smokiness, some by sweetness and others by floral accents.
The capital of the Kintyre Peninsula in southwestern Scotland gave the Campbeltown region its name. Campbeltown was once considered the 'Whisky capital of the world' and was home to over 30 active distilleries in its heyday around 1825. Due to poor economic developments, the number of active distilleries in the town declined over the decades to ultimately just two: Glen Scotia and Springbank. In 2004, the owners of Springbank reopened Glengyle, based on the old model. In the past, Whisky distillers benefited from the advantageous location on a peninsula: As they were out of sight of customs officials, moonshine distilling flourished on Kintyre and Campbeltown was not only the capital of Kintyre but also of illegal Whisky distillation. Distillery growth continued even after the legalisation of Whisky production in Scotland. However, when Prohibition was introduced in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century, Campbeltown distilleries also lost an important export market. As a result, most distilleries had to close. Campbeltown Whiskies are diverse and rich in aromas. Salty, smoky and fruity notes, as well as vanilla and caramel, can be found in these Single Malts.
Islay (pronounced eye-la) is 'the' Whisky Island in the southwest of Scotland. Islay has about 3,000 inhabitants, most of whom work in or for the Whisky industry. The jobs are distributed among the distilleries, agriculture with barley production, peat cutters - because peat is elementary for Islay Whisky - and also the catering and tourism industry around the Islay distilleries. Islay offers very good conditions for Whisky production because it has areas for the cultivation of barley as well as many peat bogs. Not for nothing is the island known for its intense, heavily peated Whiskies. Nine distilleries produce on Islay: Ardbeg, Ardnahoe, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. The remnants of the long-closed Port Ellen distillery have now become a large-scale malt house that supplies malted barley to many other Whisky distilleries. In the past, coal had to be imported for heating as well as for malting the barley and was thus correspondingly expensive. Peat burns very well and can therefore be used both for heating and for kilning the malt. Hence, the 'Ileach', the inhabitants of Islay, saved themselves the expensive purchase of coal and simply used the peat on their doorstep. Islay Whisky has a character all of its own, characterized by peat smoke and sea air and refined by sweet as well as floral elements of heather. This distinctive style of its own also qualifies Islay as its own Whisky region. Many also describe the aroma as 'medicinal', showing notes of iodine, salt and seaweed. Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich used to produce exclusively non-peated Whiskies. Since the turn of the millennium, however, they have also produced larger quantities of heavily peated Whiskies.