From gentle Lowland malts to peaty Islay whiskies.
From the briny malts of seaside Campbeltown to the smoky expressions of peat-covered Islay, Scotch whiskies are undeniably influenced by their local terroir. Although Scotland is a relatively small nation, roughly the size of South Carolina, its terrain and microclimates vary widely: A trip across the country will take you through fertile glens, sloping mountains, and rugged islands.
Even so, you should take the stringent divisions of Scotch whisky regions with a grain of, well, malted barley. Although the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009 specified three distinct regions (the Highlands, Lowlands, and Speyside) and two municipalities (Campbeltown and Islay) to boost the spirit’s Geographical Indication, there are no non-geographic requirements for the liquids with the labels. As with any distillate, the unique processes of each producer will affect the final product.
That said, these are the key differences between Scotch whisky regions—plus the islands.
Although it’s the smallest of the Scotch whisky regions, the town of Campbeltown is known for distinctive whiskies that show oily, briny, and smoky flavors influenced by its seaside location. Campbeltown was once the whisky capital of the world: At one point, more than 30 distilleries called the area home. But by the 1920s, the style that characterized Campbeltown whisky fell out of favor; meanwhile, Prohibition and the Great Depression led to decreased exports to the United States. By the 1930s, only two distilleries—Glen Scotia and Springbank—remained. Glengyle, a distillery with a history dating to 1872, reopened in 2004.
Location: The town of Campbeltown is in the southwest of Scotland by the foot of the Kintyre peninsula in west Argyll, which protrudes into the Atlantic.
Characteristics: Campbeltown whiskies are known for their briny, salty, and smoky flavors. Fruit, vanilla, and toffee flavors are also common.
Distilleries: Glen Scotia, Glengyle, Springbank
The Highlands cover the most geographical ground of all the Scotch whisky regions, and as such, the whisky produced in this region varies quite widely, from full-bodied and sweet Northern Highland whiskies to peaty Eastern Highland ones that might evoke Islay malts. Historically, Highland whiskies were made in smaller stills than their Lowland counterparts because the barley was scarcer in this part of the country, producing richer and heavier expressions.
Location: Scotland’s largest scotch region spans from the northwest of Glasgow to the Northern islands, encompassing picturesque glens, lochs, mountains, and coast.
Characteristics: Northern Highland whiskies, such as The Glenmorangie, are often full-bodied, rich, and sweet. Southern Highland whiskies, such as Aberfeldy, are often lighter, drier, and fruitier; some say they have more in common with their Lowland counterparts. Western Highland whiskies, meanwhile, such as Oban, might call to mind the peated whiskies of Islay. Eastern Highland whiskies display quite a range: They can be dry or sweet, and fruity or herbal.
Distilleries: Aberfeldy, Arbikie, Ardmore, Ardnamurchan, Balblair, Ben Nevis, Blair Athol, Brora, Cameronbridge, Clynelish, Dalmore, Dalwhinnie, Deanston, Dornoch, Edradour, Fettercairn, Glen Albyn, Glen Garioch, Glen Mhor, Glen Ord, Glencadam, Glendronach, Glenesk, Glenglassaugh, Glengoyne, Glenlochy, The Glenmorangie, Glenturret, Glenugie, GlenWyvis, Invergordon, Loch Lomond, Lochside, MacDuff, Nc’Nean, North Pool, North Port, Oban, Old Pulteney, Royal Brackla, Royal Lochnagar, Strathearn, Teaninich, Tomatin, Tullibardine, Wolfburn
This small island off the southern coast of Scotland is home to just eight distilleries. But what it lacks in acreage, it more than makes up for with the bold peated whiskies for which it is known, such as Ardbeg and Laphroaig. Peat is formed by the decomposition of organic material such as heather, mosses, and grasses, which turn into bogs, and Islay is covered with peat made of mostly sphagnum moss. This peat is often used to fuel the fire in the malting process for single malts, resulting in smoky-tasting expressions. All Islay distilleries make peated whiskies, although Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdach also make unpeated ones.
Location: Nicknamed “Whisky Island,” Islay is located off the western coast of Scotland, to the west of the island of Jura. Sphagnum peat dominates the landscape.
Characteristics: Islay whisky is known for being heavily peated, although Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdach also make unpeated malts. Peat is what contributes a smoky flavor to the liquid; some find the peat flavor to be iodine-like or medicinal.
Distilleries: Ardbeg, Ardnahoe, Bowmore, Bruichladdach, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, Laphroaig
Lowlands whiskies are often characterized as soft and gentle, attributes that they owe to their distillation process. Like most Irish whiskeys, many Lowland malt whiskies are triple-distilled instead of double-distilled, resulting in lighter and softer expressions. Also, producers historically used coal instead of peat to fuel the fire during the drying process. Today, much of the whisky produced in the Lowlands is used to make blended whisky due to its gentler flavor profile.
Location: The Southernmost parts of Scotland are dominated by rolling countryside and lush, fertile hills. The region is easy to visit for whisky aficionados, thanks to its proximity to Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Characteristics: Lowland whiskies are known for being light, sweet, floral, and gentle. They often show notes of honeysuckle, cream, ginger, toast, coffee, and cinnamon.
Distilleries: Ailsa Bay, Annandale, Auchentoshen, Bladnoch, Bonnington, Borders, Chain Pier, Clydesdale, Daftmill, Eden Mill, Jackton, The Glasgow Distillery, Glenkinchie, Holyrood, Kingsbarns, Lochlea, Lindores Abbey.
Also, check out this post The Secret to Picking a Good Scotch Whisky
Technically a subregion within the Highlands (producers can use either region on their labels), Speyside is the most densely populated whisky region in the world and lays claim to almost half the distilleries in Scotland, including such household names as The Macallan, Glenlivet, and Glenfiddich. For that, the region can thank its abundance of quality water from the River Spey, which many distillers use in their malts. A typical Speyside whisky is fruit-forward and shows notes of apples, pear, honey, vanilla, and spices, which come from the sherry casks in which it is often aged.
Location: Speyside is located in the lower northeast corner of the Highlands, between Inverness and Aberdeen. The landscape is characterized by fertile glens and its proximity to the River Spey, for which the region is named.
Characteristics: Speyside whiskies typically show fruity, honeyed notes such as apple and pear, as well as vanilla and spice. Much of the flavor profile comes from the aging process, as they are often matured in sherry casks.
Distilleries: Aberlour, Allt-A-Baine, Auchroisk, Aultmore, Ballindalloch, Balmenach, The Balvenie, Benrinnes, Benromach, Braeval, Cardhu, Coleburn, Cragganmore, Craigellachie, Dailuaine, Dalmunach, Dalwhinnie, Dufftown, Glen Elgin, Glen Grant, Glen Keith, Glen Moray, Glen Spey, Glenallachie, Glenburgie, Glendullan, Glenfarclas, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glenlossie, Glenrothes, Glentauchers, Inchgrower, Kininvie, Knockando, Knockdhu, Linkwood, Longmorn, The Macallan, Mannocmore, Mortlach, Pittyvaich, Roseisle, Speyburn, Speyside, Strathisia, Strathmill, Tamdhu, Tamnavulin, Tormintoul, Tormore
6. The Islands
Although they aren’t formally a Scotch region, the islands off the coast of Scotland (excluding Islay) are often considered a category unto themselves. Island whiskies will vary widely, but islands including Orkey, Jura, and Skye generally lay claim to peated, full-bodied malts that result from the windswept, rugged terrain and maritime location.
Location: The islands of Arran, Jura, Mull, Orkney, Skye, and Raasay span Scotland’s western perimeter.
Characteristics: Island whiskies will vary widely, although many show briny, salty, and peaty notes that reflect the terroir. Windswept Orkney has no trees, meaning the peat is woodless and comprises mainly heather, producing a uniquely aromatic whisky. Jura whisky is sweet and nutty, thanks to the sherry casks in which it ages.
Distilleries: Abhainn Dearg (Lewis), Arran (Arran), Highland Park (Orkney), Isle of Raasay (Raasay), Jura (Jura), Scapa (Orkney), Talisker (Skye), Tobermory (Mull), Torabhaig (Skye)
Also, check out this post Glasgow Distillery Launches Whisky to Commemorate Malt Tax Uprising