Whisky has been called Uisge Beatha – the Water of Life – for time immemorial in Scotland. To be honest, this phrase has always seemed a little high-minded to me; surely there’s so much more to it all than just this drink, right?
It wasn’t until recently when I’d had a long autumnal day on the hill, gotten to where I was staying the night, put on the fire and settled in with a dram, that the realisation hit me like a thunderbolt.
Does life get better than this?
It was a mixture of experiences muddled together but somehow pure for it. The slight soreness from climbing the hills, the fresh air blowing through my lungs as though to clear them of cobwebs, the relief of relaxation and the cosiness of settling in for the evening. It all came together in one beautiful moment, which tasted of complicated sweetness labelled Glenmorangie.
Scotland and whisky – deliberately spelt without the e of the Irish and Americanised varieties – are inseparable these days. The first written reference to whisky goes back to 1494, but it’s believed that distillation had been going on in highland glens for generations before. This tradition and the unique features of the landscape are what give scotch whisky its distinct flavours. Additionally, it is protected by a Geographical Indication trademark worldwide to avoid imitation and misuse, similar to champagne only being produced in one region of France.
With this, you’d expect that all whisky tastes the same or similar. In reality, there are 6 whisky regions in Scotland, each with distinct flavours and traits which make them unique from the others. With this in mind, we shall explore them all.
For Every Rule an Exception
It goes without saying that for every rule there are exceptions, in fact some would say that these are what prove the rule.
Thus is it the same for whisky. For every Laphroaig filled with typical Islay flavours, there is a Bunnahabhain undercutting the trend entirely. While Talisker may be said to epitomise whiskies of the Islands, there is also Arran which is far lighter and more citrusy.
Above all, this is to say that your mileage may vary and experimentation is encouraged.
The Lowlands have very few distilleries, less than five these days, but they stand out for their cohesive palate. Starting at the Highland line just north of Glasgow, the region encompasses the central belt
all the way down to the English border.
These whiskies are typically unpeated, which leaves room for more complex and delicate flavours in the mix. They also stand much further inland than many of the other distilleries on this list which means the saltiness typical of other regions gives way to botanical and grassland flavours.
Historically, Lowland distilleries all triple distil all of their malts, but today Auchentoshan is the only distillery which still keeps to this staple. The region almost went extinct at various points in its history, and numbers plummeted to under five active despite once sporting dozens of distilleries. Fortunately, there has been a resurgence in local talent keeping these fresh flavours alive in the past ten years, and the region has recovered.
Auchentoshan 12 Year – Orange and lime carried with a slight nuttiness which has a ginger spice finish.
Glenkinchie 12 Year – A smooth start that flowers into a fresh and sweet flavour that ends with hints of aromatic botanicals.
Campbeltown is a lesson in business which goes far beyond the whisky world. Once there were as many as 34 distilleries at the end of the Kintyre Peninsula, benefiting from a good port to transport goods across the Atlantic to the American market. However, following improved transport links for their eastern competitors and internal pressures, corners began to be cut in the distilling process in an effort to cheapen mass production. This reduced the quality of product in an ever more premium market and spelled Campbeltown’s downfall. Albeit they were dominant for a time, with the great depression, their segment of the market dried up.
Presently there are only three distilleries in and around Campbeltown. A distinct mingling of Highland flavours with the islands’ unmissable saltiness characterises the region’s whiskies. This coupled with a dry feel, and a strong nose, means that Campbeltown is a region on the rise – especially with Glengyle reopening into active distillation in 2004 after 80 years in disuse.
Glen Scotia Victoriana – Roasted sugar and spice that finishes on dark chocolate and fruits for everything nice.
Kilkerran 12 Year Old – Citrus mixes with honeycomb and butterscotch in a premium dram.
Neighbouring the regions of Campbeltown and the Islands is the island of Islay, and despite being the smallest region geographically, the locals punch above their weight in whisky. The island is home to eight distilleries renowned for peaty single malts bursting with flavour.
Legend has it that the density of distilling spots on Islay is because the first distilling traditions came from Ireland via the island before making their way to the mainland. Like much of whiskies origins, the truth is lost in the smoke of myth and has been rubbed away by the passage of time like water over these ancient sites. Regardless, we do know that Bowmore is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, dating back as far as 1779.
Islay brings smokey flavours to the table with the Atlantic’s saltiness and undertones that develop over what feels like an eternity. If Islay should be known for nothing else, it is that you can taste the gradual layering of flavours from each and every year they’ve been in the cask. Similarly, you can enjoy some of these years as you make miles on our road cycling tour of Arran, Islay and Jura.
Laphroaig Triple Wood – Smokiness like the best of an evening by a fire with a surprising sweetness throughout.
Ardbeg Ten Year – A depth of peaty flavours which gave way to citrus and a caramel finish.
Even more sparsely populated than the Highlands but brimming with unique culture and community, the Islands off of Scotland host some of the nation’s most characterful single malts. Spanning from Orkney, which hosts two distilleries, across the Outer Hebrides to Jura and Arran – The Islands is an unofficial region which is technically part of the Highlands, according to the Scotch Whisky Association.
However, even the most cursory taste will tell you why the Islands stand apart in characteristics and charm. Similar to Islay and Campbeltown, the salt of the sea permeates all Island whiskies but is taken a step further. Alongside naturally occurring peat introduced in the malting phase, these are the stand-out flavours of Island whiskies. Take a moment, though to taste for tinges of botanicals and sweetness, for it is this melding of direct and complex which makes Island malts so distinct.
The Highlands are by far the largest region by geographic area, but they only produce about 25% of the total whisky made in Scotland. That still makes them the second largest region behind Speyside, and oh the variety. From Old Pultaney’s trademark saltiness to Glenmorangie’s subtle flair, the Highland region has the most diverse flavours.
It also holds one of the strongest traditions of illicit whisky making, which only stopped when it became more profitable to go legit after the Excise Act of 1823. Before that whisky was made by moonshiners, who distilled under the light of the moon to avoid the dreaded taxman.
In general terms, there are trends across the whole highlands. To the west, you’re more likely to taste peated whisky, while the east typically carries more delicate notes. Aside from that, malt and heather flavours, combined with smokiness hints, are common in Highland single malts.
Glengoyne 10 Year – Flavours of soft oak with a hint of grass and a twist of liquorice. A tasty nutty finish rounds it off.
Glenmorangie La Santa 12 Years – Honeycomb and nutty sweetness combine with radiating cinnamon accents.
Speyside is Scotland’s largest whisky distilling area by both volume and density of distilleries. Speyside has about 60% of Scotland’s distilleries and a similar production capacity by volume. That means that, as distillers tried to differentiate malts, the variation between whiskies is far greater here despite their closeness in location.
With the fertile lands by the River Spey making barley abundant and dozens of rivers and tributaries in the area alongside an easy transportation network going back centuries, Speyside is a distillers’ dream.
This veritable paradise of brewing conditions and knowledge means that it is a Mecca for whisky connoisseurs. You can also paddle by ageing barrels across multiple distilleries as you make the River Spey descent by canoe with us.
Aberlour Warehouse No. 1 – A grassy nose plunges into direct citrus paired with a short pear sweetness.
Tamnavulin Sherry Cask – A sweet delight of tangerine mixed with sticky toffee pudding for a complex and decadent flavour.
“Whisky is not a drink, it is a philosophy on life.”