Scotland can be divided into six different whisky regions: Speyside, Lowlands, Highlands, Islands, Campbeltown and Islay. Each region has an unique flavour profile, although, as always, there are exceptions to every rule. It is also good to remember these are simply guidelines, not regulations. Overall, Scotland has around 130 whisky distilleries, and some 30 new ones are expected to open within the next few years.
Let’s look more into the flavours coming from each region.
Flavour profile: sweet, fruity, spicy, vanilla, full-bodied
Speyside is actually a sub-region of the Highlands, but it is worth separating it as this whisky region accounts for over 60% of Scotland’s single malt whisky production. This region is the driest and warmest part of Scotland, making it an ideal area for farming. The River Spey is also a great asset for whisky production. Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and The Macallan are the biggest producers from the region. You may find the occasional subtly smoky bottlings, but the majority of whiskies from Speyside are sherried, sweeter and fruitier.
Flavour profile: malty, fruity, sweet, spicy, salty, slightly peaty, grassy
Highland is the largest of the whisky regions and the area covers a wide range of flavours, from fragrant to slightly peated to rich sherry notes. Northern Highland whiskies are influenced a lot by the coastal locations of these distilleries. Slight saltiness is inevitable. Try Old Pulteney or Clynelish for a salty, briny flavour. The southern part of the Highlands produces sweeter sherried whiskies, although these are still lighter than the sherried ones coming from Speyside. Try Glendronach for a range of sherried whisky. One commonality across most of the Highlands is the dry finish of the single malts.
Flavour profile: peated, salty, oily, spicy, sweet
Scotland has nearly 800 islands, out of which 95 are inhabited. There are around 100 000 people living in these islands. As a whisky region, Islands covers Skye, Arran, Mull, Jura, Lewis and Orkney. Islay, on the other hand, is a separate whisky region altogether. Each island has its own flavour profile, and everything from light, fruity and citrusy to very peaty is possible. The Islands doesn’t always make the cut and is often considered to be a part of Highlands instead of its own whisky region. It is considered a region due more to its geography rather than to the style of whisky it produces.
Flavour profile: peaty, sweet, fruity, salty, grassy
The Campbeltown region used to be a buzzing place with over 30 distilleries, but today the area is supported by only three: Glen Scotia, Springbank and Glengyle. Glen Scotia is lighter and grassy, Springbank is stronger and often peaty, and Glengyle salty and citrusy. Glengyle has only had a few releases as the distillery is fairly new.
Flavour profile: unpeated, citrusy, light, floral, grassy, sweet
The Lowland region produces mainly grain and blended whisky. Its style is light, zesty, easy-drinking single malts, making them the ideal choice for cocktails and whisky beginners. The Lowland area used to be one of the big guns when it came to whisky production, but mass production didn’t work in its favour and the area very quickly got a reputation for poor-quality single malt. It simply couldn’t compete with the more flavoursome whiskies coming from other regions. It seems this is still in people’s minds as Lowland whisky is often considered the least favourite. Saying that, the area is growing in whisky production. Distilleries like Lindores Abbey and the Glasgow Distillery Company have recently started whisky production, and more distilleries are expected to open in the near future.
Flavour profile: peaty, salty, oily, fishy
Scotch coming from Islay is considered to have the strongest flavour profile. Most Islay whiskies are super-smoky, made by malting barley over burning peat. These whiskies are often described as having a medicinal and salty flavour. Basically, these whiskies are an acquired taste. However, not all scotch coming from the island is peaty. Bunnahabhain, for example, only recently released a few peaty expressions. I remember trying their 12-year-old during my first ever whisky tasting and I was surprised how enjoyable it was as I had this image of the harsh smokiness of Islay whisky. As it’s aged in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, the flavour was full-bodied and fruity. A lot has changed since those days as today I’d go for a bit more smokiness and citrus, although I would never say no to a classic Bunnahabhain!
These regions work as good indicators of the specific styles of various distilleries, although these days many distillers like to experiment and create special edition bottlings that don’t necessarily match the typical flavour profile of the distillery. As I mentioned earlier, these flavour profiles are simply guidelines, not rules.
There’s currently a lot of interest in scotch, which has helped many of these regions to grow back to their previous glory. We are simply spoilt for choice! Every time I attend a whisky tasting, the variety just blows my mind. I have learned so much about the range of flavours available and my own taste preferences. Have a read of my previous article about my tasting with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society – they have a very helpful categorisation system for all the whisky tasting notes.
Do you have a favourite whisky region? What are your flavour preferences?