Learn how geography and terroir impact your favorite whiskies.
If you love scotch, this is a wonderful time to be alive. Already the most consumed whisky on the planet, the liquid is now enjoying an era of unprecedented growth. In 2018, the U.S. became the spirit’s first-ever billion-pound export market. And if you head to your local liquor store, you’ll see ample evidence on shelves dense with colorful bottles sourced from every corner of the country.
While extra-aged single malt is a phenomenon all its own—the perennial preference of the finicky connoisseur—it’s worth noting that blended scotch remains the predominant driver of scotch’s success. Don’t fall prey to the allure of exclusivity: There are plenty of blends, single grains, and non-age-statement malts worth exploring.
Typically, they’re divided into the five primary Scottish regions of production: Campbeltown, the Highlands, Islay, the Lowlands, and Speyside. Each of these respective provinces can be tied to a specific style or flavor profile. Some recommend taking this with a grain of salt—or barley, at the very least—as it may be nothing more than a fancy marketing ploy. Still, you can’t deny geography’s effectiveness in helping us break down an increasingly dense landscape of labels.
With a very broad stroke, here’s what you can expect in each category, along with a quintessential bottle for each.
Also, check out this article A Guide to the Five Scotch Whisky Regions, Plus the Islands
What was once the Victorian Whisky Capital of the World is now home to just three working distilleries. But what this remote seaside village lacks in numbers it more than makes up for in history and pride. Springbank is the last operation in Scotland to do all of its own floor maltings, and Glen Scotia has been running its production under the same roof since 1832. The liquid rolling off the still often imparts a tinge of salinity encased in a lighter body with caramel-inspired intonations, splitting the difference between Islay and Speyside. Even if you don’t enjoy the overarching style, you have to admire its enduring individuality as the only town to be recognized as an entire scotch region.
Bottle to try: Glen Scotia Victoriana ($80) is the full-flavored epitomization of its native region. There’s dark chocolate, lemon, and grapefruit zest—convincing window dressing over the darker notes of charred oak and smoke at its core.
Scotch talk: “Campbeltown is kind of the forgotten region, but it shouldn’t be. Springbank is the closest to a legit mom-and-pop operation in all of the Scottish distilling, while Glen Scotia is doing some truly innovative things with finishing.” —Aaron Goldfarb, author of “Hacking Whiskey”
Occupying the largest region by square mileage, the Highlands encompasses a wide variety of landscapes from Scotland’s craggy western shores to its windswept meadows in the north. The whisky made here is equally as diverse, ranging from smoky to sweet, limber to rich. One thing you know you’ll be drinking is a complex spirit that evolves on the tongue with every sip. In past centuries, remote distilleries would have relied more on peat-fired kilns to dry their malt. Today, Highland producers lean heavier on a cleaner grain base often with fruity undertones. Expect elegance, above all else.
Bottle to try: The GlenDronach 15-Year Revival ($98) is a heavily sherried expression that this revered purveyor brought back in 2018, after a three-year absence from shelves. Matured for a minimum of 15 years in casks that previously held oloroso and Pedro Ximénez sherries, it unfurls a billowing wave of dark fruit and tobacco spice on the tongue. If you want to know why whisky geeks go gaga over sherry butts, look no further.
Scotch talk: “A whisky drinker can most commonly expect a malt from the heart of the Highlands to be rich, full-bodied, and fruity with a slightly dry palate, while Highland malts from the coast reveal fruit with a hint of smoke and a crack of sea salt.”—Stewart Buchanan, global brand ambassador for The GlenDronach
Love it or hate it, this is the unapologetic home of the smoke monsters. Nicknamed “Whisky Island,” Islay is one big rocky peat bog off Scotland’s southwestern coast. The earth slowly decayed over eons into a coal-like fuel source, traditionally used to kiln-dry the malt. It imparts a medicinal iodine-like quality, most loudly exemplified in bottles of Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig. And those are just three of the nine working distilleries within the region. The other six often own more balance—as in the intricate subtleties of Bowmore, Bruichladdich, and Bunnahabhain. But you’ll almost always detect a tickle of campfire here. It’s such a distinctive element that would-be drinkers often avoid scotch altogether for fear that the liquid is “too smoky.”
Bottle to try: Bowmore 15 Year ($87) is the dram for you if you want to slowly dip your toes into the bog. Fruit and peat compete for attention on the palate, as the slightly spiced notes of an oloroso-sherry finish come tugging your tongue across the finish line. An ever-so-slight maritime edge is enhanced when paired with fresh oysters.
Scotch talk: “I find it crazy that an island so small can produce so much incredible whisky. The most distinct flavor profile of all the whisky regions is without a doubt Islay whisky. Burnt, sweet smoke, peated smoke with punchy heavyweight flavor—this is Islay.” —Iain McPherson, owner of Panda & Sons in Edinburgh
The line between the Lowlands and Highlands was originally delineated in 1784, as a matter of taxation rather than style. With the passage of the Wash Act, Lowland distilleries paid duty according to gallons produced as opposed to the size of their stills. As a result, malt facilities never proliferated here as they did further north. But what did develop was a gentler spirit, mostly non-peated and almost universally characterized as light-bodied. The locality is home to some of the oldest operations in Scotland, and it’s the only place with a broad commitment to the triple-distilled method more common to Ireland.
Bottle to try: Glenkinchie 12 Year ($62) is an easy-drinking dram that almost drinks like an aperitif. There are honeyed notes in the palate and a touch of grass on the nose. Pour this golden-hued liquid over rocks and under a splash of soda for the ultimate scotch highball.
Scotch talk: “Distilleries like Littlemill and Rosewood have long been the arbiters of Lowland quality, crafting elegant light-bodied whiskies with finishes that can almost be categorized as ephemeral.” —Joel Caruso, importer for Gordon & MacPhail
Straddling the river Spey as it flows from ben to bay, this region boasts the highest concentration of whisky distilleries anywhere on the planet—49 in total. Many of them settled into this rugged terrain over a century ago, in a futile attempt to foil the taxman. Today, renowned names such as The Balvenie, Glen Grant, The Glenlivet, and The Macallan all find their flavor here. They run the gamut from round, sweet drams to sturdy, earthy offerings. Regardless of the idiosyncrasies, as a whole, they remain quaffable and complex. If you were to visit Scotland’s Malt Whisky Trail, this is where you’d end up, at the quintessential scotch-making landscape.
Bottle to try: Glen Grant 18-Year Rare Edition ($138) is a crisp, refreshing whisky that exudes peach and pear under layers of vanilla and marzipan. It’s a joyful expression, representative of master distiller Dennis Malcolm’s well-noted joie de vivre.
Scotch talks: “One of my favorite things about Speyside is the community. At the end of the day, distillery workers and tour guides from the region are down at their local pub having pints or drams together no matter where they work. It really helps build the sense that folks are working for the region and the category of single malt Scotch whisky and not just their particular distillery.” —Allan Roth, ambassador for Glenfiddich
Also, check out this article A Whisky Lover’s Guide to Scotland’s Most Underrated Region