A Beginner’s Guide To The Scotland Whisky Regions
The Scotland Whisky Regions
I’ve been drinking scotch for years. Although I know the difference between Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, and American bourbon, it wasn’t until we started traveling to Scotland that I started to learn more. After visiting Edinburgh, I learned more about the Scotch regional flavor profiles and the Scotland whisky regions. After visiting Speyside, I started to feel more like an expert. Whether you are new to whisky or a budding aficionado, this post will help you learn more about the regions where whisky is produced.
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Why Learn The About The Scotch Regions of Scotland
There are more than 100 distilleries producing whisky in Scotland. It would be silly to think they all taste the same. In fact, the complete opposite is true. The flavors and aromas of each and every whisky changes based on the whisky region where it is produced.
Even within a region, there can be different flavor profiles based on the local micro-climate, the type of barrels used, and more. The flavor can range from peppery or smoky to floral or citric. Some people like to say that the different Scotland whisky regions are as distinctive as terroir when it comes to winemaking.
For years, Eric always preferred Irish whiskey to Scotch whisky. Part of this could be because he is an Irish citizen. Much of it, though, has to do with the flavors of some of the whisky he tried in the past. He doesn’t like smokey flavors in general, so when trying some of the more peat-flavored scotch whiskies he sort of wrote off whisky in general. Until we started to dive deeper.Looking for what to else to drink in Scotland? Check out our Scotland Drinks Guide
The Water Of Life
There is almost a mythology surrounding whisky. The Scottish people tend to talk about whisky distillers as harnessing a spirit. It’s a spirit that flows through the rivers that provide the water and the land that provides the barley for the production process. After all, the word whisky is a version of the Gaelic word for water of life. There’s also a romance surrounding the alchemy of distillation. At its heart, though, is the attempt by every distiller to capture the essence of their location, of their terroir, and of Scotland.
What Is Scotch
First off, scotch is defined as a spirit that is produced in Scotland. There are only three ingredients in Scotch: water, malted barley, and yeast. When it comes to answering how is scotch made, the same underlying process is used to make all scotch whisky. This includes fermentation, distillation, and maturation.
Fermentation is the process of turning something into alcohol. Distillation converts a liquid into a vapor, which is then turned back into a liquid form but more concentrated. Maturation is the process where the scotch is matured or aged. Scotch must be aged for at least three years in oak barrels. When a whisky refers to its age that age refers to the youngest whisky in the barrel. Aged whisky tends to look darker in the whisky glass, but the color also depends on what kind of barrel is used to age the whisky.
Barrels are most commonly made from American oak and were previously used to make American bourbon. It is also common to see whisky distillers using various types of sherry casks as well as even port wine casks.Check out our Buying Guide to the Best Whiskey Glasses
What Are The Different Types Of Scotch
Although the flavor of a scotch is in part determined by the whisky regions, the flavor and aroma will also be affected by how the whisky is produced and what type of scotch it is. There are a variety of different scotches. This is part of the reason why you can buy a bottle of scotch for €10 or €100 or €1000.
Blended scotch is a whisky that is a blend of scotch from more than one distillery. People tend to think of blended whisky as less expensive and of an inferior quality than a single malt. This is not always the case. Because whisky can be made from malted barley or other grains a blended malt whisky is one that is generally made from malted barley. A grain whisky is less intense with a lighter flavor than a malt whisky.
Single malt whisky is a whisky from a single distillery. When people look for great scotch, they often are asking for a good single malt scotch. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a single malt scotch is one that is made from a single batch or matured in a single barrel. It still might be blended, but it means that the scotch is only produced by one distillery.
For example, Cardhu is a single malt scotch whisky produced in Speyside. Cardhu is also one of the whiskies that is used by Johnny Walker to produce its blended whisky.
Scotch Regions Pro Tip – Nomenclature
Scotch is whisky that is produced in Scotland. Whiskey with an “e” is whiskey produced outside of Scotland, including Ireland. Whiskey with an “e” can also be used to refer to American whiskeys. Bourbon is produced in a similar fashion but is from the United States, generally from Kentucky. Scotch whisky is produced from malted barley whereas bourbon is distilled from corn.
The Five (Six) Whisky Regions Of Scotland
In 2009, The Scotch Whisky Regulations (SWR) defined the five major scotch regions, which include Highlands, Lowland, Speyside, Campbeltown, and Islay. Some people tend to include Islands as part of the Highland region. In this post, I define the six Scottish whisky regions. Of these regions, Speyside is the biggest of the scotch whisky regions by number of producers (and our favorite!).
The scotch flavor profiles of each region means that, for the most part, you can anticipate the broad flavor of a scotch based on its region. There are certainly exceptions. The flavor profiles are more guidelines than set rules.
Drinking Scotch Pro Tip
When looking to try a new scotch whisky brand, it’s a good idea to look for whiskies that are produced in the same area as the ones you’ve enjoyed in the past. But, there are exceptions to every rule.
Highland Scotch Whisky
There are over 25 Highland scotch distilleries. “The Highlands” of Scotland are probably one of the most famous geographic regions of Scotland. Before I really knew anything about scotch, if someone asked me to pick a scotch based on region, I probably would have said Highlands, kind of out of default. It is the largest whisky producing area by square kilometers in Scotland. Geographically, the Highlands subsume Speyside, but Speyside is now its own distinct region.
Geographically the largest whisky region, it encompasses almost the whole of Scotland above Glasgow and Edinburgh. Because the region is so large, it’s more difficult to describe the flavor profiles. There is a lot of difference within the region.
Some of the scotch flavor profiles of Highland whisky includes oak, heather, dried fruit, fruitcake, and smoke. Expect a flavor of sweet cereal in the north and dry fruit in the south. The whiskies tend to be more spicy and intense than the Speyside whiskies. Many people tend to break up the Highland distilleries into four sub-regions (north, south, east, and west) based on geography. The most famous Highland scotch brands include Dalmore and Glenmorangie in the north and Oban in the west.
Speyside Scotch Whisky
There are close to 60 Speyside distilleries located in the area around the River Spey in the northeast of Scotland. Although Speyside used to be considered part of the Highland region, there is such a high concentration of distilleries in the region it is now on its own. Speyside is also ground zero for whisky tourism because many of the distilleries are easily toured. Tastings abound! And, these 60 or so distilleries product more than 60% of Scotland’s single malt whisky.
Some of the most famous Speyside whisky distilleries include Macallan, Glenlivet, and Glenfiddich, although there are some artisan and family-owned distilleries in the region. These three distillers make up about one-third of the entire single malt whisky market. There’s also a lot of history to the region. The first licensed distiller started in Speyside in 1824.
The Speyside whiskies tend to exhibit the flavors of apple, pear, vanilla, nutmeg, dried, fruit, oak, and malt. Many of the distillers use Sherry casks to age the scotch, which also tends to make the flavors a little different to the Highland whisky distilleries. Scotch aged in Sherry casks tends to be heavier and richer. Overall, they tend to be the sweetest of the bunch.
Eric likes the whiskies in this region because they tend to have a lot less peat than those from other whisky regions. For this reason, many Speyside scotch brands are good “starter” whiskies for new whisky drinkers. There is plenty of diversity, though, and there are some wonderful options for more advanced scotch drinkers.Check out our Ultimate Guide to Visiting the Malt Whisky Trail
Lowland Scotch Whisky
There are less than five Lowland whisky distilleries, the most well-known of which is probably Auchentoshan. There is also a new distillery located within Glasgow called The Clydeside Distillery, which is part of this region. Lowland is the second largest by square kilometers, even with the small number of producers. The region covers the south of Scotland up to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Currently, more land is devoted to farming and agriculture than scotch production in this region of Scotland.
Lowland scotch tends to have flavor profiles that are more earthy, including grass, toast, toffee, and cinnamon. Overall, they are smooth and light in flavor, with little peat. Some people refer to the Lowland whiskies as the “feminine” whiskies because they are so light.
Another unique thing about the Lowland scotch whiskies is that traditionally they were triple distilled. Most scotch is double distilled. The only Lowland whisky distiller that continues with this tradition is Auchentoshan. This makes the Lowland whiskies more similar to Irish whiskey.Check out our Guide to Whisky Tasting In Glasgow
Campbeltown Scotch Whisky
At one time Campbeltown hosted over 30 distilleries on the west coast of Scotland. Now, less than five remain including Glengyle and Springbank. In between, the region struggled in part because of improvements in transportation. This meant that distillers who were once out of range for distributors became more readily accessible. Also during that time, many of the producers started to produce inferior product in order to produce higher quantities. The industry overall suffered.
In this region, it is hard to provide a strict flavor profile as each distiller produces its own version of whisky. Some distillers even produce wildly different versions under one roof. Prepare for smoke, grass, brine, salt, vanilla, and dried fruit. These whiskies also tend to be a bit on the peaty side.
Islay Scotch Whisky
The land of the smoky peat. Once we started learning more about whisky, we started to realize that Eric was not a fan of the smoky scotch whiskies. We learned that as a general rule, the scotch from Islay (pronounced “eye-la”) tends to be more heavily peated. There are, though, exceptions to every rule.
The reason why scotch can be considered “peaty” is because traditionally peat was used as fuel for malting barley. This adds the smokiness to the scotch production. Now, as much as most malted barley is toasted and dried using coal or steam, peat is still added in the process to introduce the peated flavor.
Islay is the smallest of the whisky regions, as it is located on an island west of the mainland. It serves an important place is history, though. It is believed that whisky production arrived on Islay from Ireland in the 13th century.
There are fewer than 10 Islay whisky distillers, the most famous of which are Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin. The most common scotch flavor profiles are smoke, seaweed, brine, and apple. As much as the reputation in Islay is for peated malts, the distillers in the north of Islay tend to be less peaty and more palatable. They also have a reputation for being more salty because the island faces tough weather from the sea.
Islands Scotch Whisky
Although the Islands scotch whisky region sometimes is considered along with the Highlands, there are some differences. This region includes distillers located on the islands surrounding the mainland of Scotland. There are fewer than 10 distilleries in the region. Some of the most-well known distilleries include Highland Park, Jura, and Talisker. Officially, these distillers are not recognized by the Scotch Whisky Association as part of an official Scotch Whisky Region.
The flavor profile of Islands whiskies include smoke, brine, pepper, and also honey. The profile is pretty diverse considering the islands are somewhat scattered. The one thing they have in common is peat and salinity.
Where To Learn More About The Scotch Whisky Regions
Before traveling to Scotland to learn about whisky, I did a lot of reading to ensure I made the most of the experience. There are a few books in particular that I would recommend to learn more. Each of these books also includes a Scotland whisky map as well to help learn more about the flavor profiles.
FAQs - Whisky Regions Of Scotland
One question we get when it comes to the flavors of Scotch and how to taste it is whether Scotch is gluten free. I understand the concern because cereal and grains contain gluten. From my research any gluten that is contained in the cereal or grains is removed during the fermentation and distillation process.
There are no animal products used in the production process of Scotch. There is no fining or clarifying like there is in the production of wine.
To be considered scotch, it must be matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years. After that, sometimes scotch is moved into an empty cask for a short, additional maturation. This process is called finishing.
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The Scottish Whisky Regions
I’ve been enjoying my journey to learn more about Scotch whisky. Even though we haven’t visited all of the regions, we’ve tasted whisky from them all. I understand that these guidelines are not hard and fast rules. They certainly help any budding aficionado in their own personal journey to learn more about the whisky world.