| Scotch Overview
Scotch Malt Whiskey
Scotch malt whiskies tend to be grouped within a
number of regional categories, usually Speyside, Highland, Campbeltown, Islay,
Islands and Lowland, though sub-divisions are frequently made within these
Such classifications really exist for geographical convenience rather than
stylistic similarity. Within each there will be major variations of character,
which is one of the factors that make Scotch malt whisky so fascinating.
Characteristics of the Speyside Region are
usually either big, rich and fruity sherry cask whiskies or light, sweet,
complex and floral malts. More than half of Scotland's 89 operational malt
whisky distilleries are located within the Speyside region of the north-east.
For many aficionados, Speyside is the
whisky region. It is to malt, as Cognac is to brandy.
Speyside boomed during the late 19th
century, when blended whiskies began to take the world by storm. The smooth,
comparatively subtle character of many Speyside malts was ideally suited for
blends destined to be assaulted by soda siphons in gentlemen's clubs and
officers' messes around the British Empire. No fewer than 21 distilleries were
built on Speyside during the 1890s alone.
Today, Speyside remains home to many of the greatest names in Scotch whisky,
such as Glenfiddich, Glenfarclas, Glen Grant, The Glenlivet and The Macallan.
Stylistically, Speysides vary from the light, soft, floral nature of whiskies
like Knockando and Cardhu to weighty, more complex and heavily sherried malts
such as Mortlach and The Macallan.
Fairly coastal and peated whiskies in the
north and softer fruitier whiskies in the south. Highland is the largest of the
malt regions of Scotland. Due to the
sheer size of the region it produces the widest range in styles of whiskies.
According to historic excise legislation,
Highland malt whiskies are distilled north of a line stretching between
Greenock on the Firth of Clyde in the west and Dundee on the Firth of Tay in
the east. Whisky commentators often sub-divide the vast Highland region into a
number of smaller areas, within which there may be stylistic similarities.
References to Northern, Western, Eastern and Southern Highland areas of
production are common.
Geographically, the Highland region of malt whiskies embraces Scotland's most
northerly mainland distillery of Pulteney, in the Caithness port of Wick, and
its most westerly in the shape of Oban. Interestingly, although so far apart,
these two whiskies share similar characteristics, in that both are
comparatively dry, with a whiff of sea salt about them.
Some of the leading - though incredibly diverse - Highland single malts are the
complex Clynelish spirit from the east coast of Sutherland, Dalwhinnie, Royal
Lochnagar, Glengoyne, Aberfeldy and Edradour. Edradour has long prided itself
on being Scotland's smallest distillery, and is situated near the popular
Perthshire holiday town of Pitlochry.
Whisky from the Campbeltown region is
rich, full-bodied, with a good coastal feel and occasionally on par with Islay
for peatiness. Once the 'whisky capital' of Scotland, this region once
contained up to 34 distilleries with no fewer than 21 working distilleries
during the 1880s. Campbeltown lies near the southern tip of the remote Kintyre
peninsula in Argyllshire.
When Campbeltown was at its distilling height, stylistically, its whiskies
tended to be big-bodied, heavy, peaty beasts, eventually even referred to as
'stinking fish' when quality was sacrificed for quality during the 1920s.
Today, Campbeltown's whisky- making industry is a shadow of its former self,
with just Springbank, Glen Scotia and Glengyle in operation, though Springbank
remains a classic malt with a worldwide reputation for excellence. Distilling
recommenced at Glengyle in 2004, after almost eight decades of silence, and the
Scotch Whisky Association subsequently reinstated Campbeltown as a separate
whisky region, having previously included its whiskies in the Highland category
for a number of years.
Islays are generally regarded as the most
assertive and distinctive of all Scotch malt whiskies, noted for their
powerful, smoky single malt whiskies with peaty, medicinal and seaweed
characteristics. Islay is one of the Western Isles of Scotland, situated
furthest to the south. Islay is home to eight working distilleries, the most
recently established being Kilchoman, a 'boutique,' farm-based operation which
commenced production in 2005. The Island is very flat and consists largely of
peat. Most of the distilleries use a high proportion of peat when malting the
barley used for production.
There are great stylistic differences
between the Kildalton distilleries of the southern Islay shore (Ardbeg,
Laphroaig and Lagavulin) and the gentler, less dominant malts from further
north on the island, including Caol Ila and the gentle and very lightly peated
Once principally used for blending
purposes, Islay single malts have become extremely fashionable during the past
couple of decades, with Ardbeg, Bowmore, Lagavulin and Laphroaig all gaining
something approaching cult status with drinkers. Other notable distilleries
include Port Ellen and Caol lla. One of the great recent success stories of
Islay has been the renaissance of Bruichladdich distillery since its re-opening
in 2001 after several years of silence. There is a lot to discover in Islay
single malts and despite only being a small island it produces some of the most
sought after single malts in the world.
Due to their location, Island Whiskies
often have a coastal feel, often salty, with seaweed characteristics and a
soft, sweeter peat aroma. The Island region describes all of whisky producing
isles apart from Islay, namely Mull, Skye, Orkney, Arran and Jura. The Islands
category of malt whiskies includes Scapa and the world-renowned Highland Park
from the Orkney islands to the north of mainland Scotland, along with western
distilleries such as Jura, Tobermory, and Arran. It also includes the mighty,
complex and peppery Talisker from the Isle of Skye. This is a very disparate
category of whiskies with the elegant and quite delicate Arran malt having
little in common with Talisker, for example.
Whisky in the Lowland Region is light,
delicate and full of character. The Lowland region of malt whisky production
lies south of the theoretical line between Greenock and Dundee, which separates
the Highlands from the Lowlands. History has not been kind to the area, and
today only Auchentoshan, near Glasgow, Bladnoch in the far west of Galloway,
and Glenkinchie, south of Edinburgh, survive, along with a small-scale,
farm-based distillery at Daft Mill in Fife, which gave new impetus to the
classification when it opened during 2005.
Many connoisseurs consider Rosebank, near Falkirk, to have been the best
Lowland of all. Sadly, however, it was the victim of a major 1980s rationalisation
programme by owners The Distillers Company Ltd, and is now a lost distillery.
Stylistically, Lowlands tend to be comparatively light-bodied, aperitif
whiskies, noted for their delicacy and soft, grassy aromas and flavours.
Lowland describes the Scottish mainland south of
the imaginary line between the Forth and Loch Lomond. In what was once a busy
distilling region, only three are left in production.
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