Eight months ago I started The Beginner’s Guide to Single Malt Whisky in an effort to share the copious amount of whisky knowledge I’ve picked up on my travels around Scotland. Part 1 hashed out the different styles of whisky worldwide and narrowed our sights on single malt Scotch whisky. Last week I rolled out part 2, which went into some detail on the process of making single malt whisky and broadly discussed from where whisky’s flavors originate. I mentioned part 3 would focus on how to enjoy single malt whisky, but I think that’s best covered last; instead, today I’ll focus on Scotland’s whisky regions and discuss some of the confusing but important terminology found on bottles.
Scotland has a more rudimentary regional designation system than the French do with their wine appellations, but the idea is the same: the specific combination of climate, geography, and cultural factors – terroir – matters. This is why you hear people claim they enjoy Islay or Speyside whiskies – these are regions that indicate a specific style of single malt whisky, not specific products. The system is not without controversy. You can find heavily peated and smoky whiskies, typical of Islay, being made in Speyside (see Benromach) and smooth, unpeated whiskies typical of Speyside being produced on Islay (see Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain). Nevertheless, Scotland’s whisky regions give you a pretty clear idea of the style of whisky common therein.
Let’s get started.
Campbeltown is a small town at the southern end of the Kintyre Peninsula, which juts into the sea between the isles of Arran and Islay. In days of yore, more than 30 distilleries operated in this small area and Campbeltown was the self-styled “whisky capital of the world.” Today, only three distilleries make whisky here: Springbank, Glengyle, and Glen Scotia. If you’ve heard of Hazelburn and Longrow, those are specific brands distilled at Springbank. Whisky is a boom and bust industry, and Campbeltown is currently in a lull, but who’s to say things won’t turn around? Campbeltown whiskies are typically full-bodied with deep flavors and wisps of salt and peat on the finish.
The Highlands is an enormous region that covers all of Scotland north (with a couple exceptions) of an imaginary line horizontally bisecting the country near Fife. Of all the regions, the whiskies in the Highlands are the most heterogenous. From Oban to Glen Garioch and Pulteney to Deanston, the range of distilleries is extensive and far flung. There are few characteristics that tie all the Highland single malts together, but in general they tend to be lightly sweet with drying finishes. In my personal experience, I find them to be of lighter body and with floral and mild peat smoke notes. Naturally, Highland distilleries along the coast tend to produce whiskies with sea air and brine notes while distilleries near Speyside tend to be sweeter. I find this region to be the least useful for dictating a specific style.
The Islands are technically part of the Highlands region, but whisky drinkers, writers, and aficionados have made it an unofficial region of its own based on the different character in these whiskies. Geographically, this region includes all of Scotland’s islands except Islay. Highland Park, Talisker, Tobermory, Isle of Jura, and Isle of Arran all fit in this region. Island whiskies evoke the sea and are peatier than their mainland counterparts (though less so than Islay whiskies). Here the peat smoke is more sweet than savory. Arguably some of the most complex and delicious drams hail from this region.
Islay is the kingdom of peaty whiskies. The style is so unique that this 250-square mile island earned its own region. The names of the distilleries on Islay are well known: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig. Islay distilleries produce whiskies with strong flavors of smoke, peat, seaweed, and briny sea air. Paradoxically, rather than turn away new single malt whisky drinkers, Islay whiskies often become a newbie’s favorite because the flavors are easily discernible. That said, many of Islay’s whiskies aren’t beefy smoke monsters, but rather more nuanced drams focusing on Islay’s softer elements.
Remember the imaginary Highland line? The Lowlands region fills the area south of the line all the way to the English border. Like Campbeltown, there are only three working distilleries at the moment: Auchentoshan, Bladnoch, and Glenkinchie. Lowland whiskies are generally light in color and body, smooth and unpeated, and known for sweet, floral, citric, and dry notes. I find Lowland whiskies to be easy drinking and subtle.
The grand-daddy of all regions, Speyside is a small chunk of land carved out of the Highlands region and stuffed like a haggis with 50 distilleries. You know these whiskies: Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Macallan, Glen Grant, Aberlour, Balvenie, and the list goes on and on. Speyside distilleries make sweet, often dark, Sherried whiskies almost always lacking the pungent aroma of peat smoke. On the other hand, several distilleries in Speyside make light, floral whiskies with a complex sweetness. Scotland’s Malt Whisky Trail is in this region, but it only includes distilleries who are willing to pay to be included. A better bet is to get lost driving around and make your own trail.
Reading the Label
Reading the label on single malt whiskies sometimes seems like it should come with a dictionary. As desire for authenticity in Scotch continues to rise in importance, so has the appearance of distilling minutiae on Scotch bottles.
Newmake spirit enters the cask between 65-75% alcohol, and over time, at least in Scotland, the strength drops as the spirit ages. When it’s time to bottle the whisky, it’s still very strong – anywhere from 50-65% ABV – and distilleries typically strategically water it down to between 40-46% for flavor reasons. Cask Strength denotes the fact that the whisky in the bottle has not been diluted with this spring water prior to bottling. Cask strength whiskies are more potent and more flavorful (in my opinion), and they usually do well with a splash of water.
Every barrel of whisky has a unique flavor, so how do distilleries produce a consistent product over time? The distillery’s master blender selects the barrels he needs to reproduce the distillery’s signature character and vats them together in something like a big cauldron, marrying their flavors and aromas. A Single Barrel/Single Cask whisky indicates that the barrel that produced this whisky was not vatted with other barrels; instead, the whisky comes from a single barrel at the distillery. These are exciting whiskies because they’re often unpredictable and alive with unexpected flavors and aromas. They’re a huge draw for collectors since each barrel is different from the next.
Americans have been jerks to the single malt whisky industry. Apparently, back in the 70s, we complained about how single malts became cloudy when they were chilled with ice. It turned off consumers so distilleries started to chill filter whisky, which is the process of chilling whisky so that fatty acids, proteins, and esters precipitate out and then passing it through a filter that removes these components. Unfortunately, these fatty acids, proteins, and esters impart quite a bit of flavor to whisky. Why you’re adding ice to your single malt I’ll never know. These days distilleries are coming back around and more and more of them are choosing to skip chill filtration. Whiskies that are marked as Non Chill-Filtered/Un-Chillfiltered are just these whiskies. As much as possible, stick to non chill-filtered whisky. You won’t regret it.
There’s a belief that the darker the whisky, the better it is. This is not true, of course, but the mistaken and pervasive belief has convinced some distilleries to add flavorless caramel coloring to their whiskies to darken their tone. In this era of authenticity, choosing not to add color to whisky is worthy of a label mention, so you might see Natural Colour/No Colour Added on bottles at the liquor store. This is less important to me than chill filtering, but I’d rather have the real deal than a spray-tanned one.
Hopefully this part of The Beginner’s Guide to Single Malt Whisky has helped to calibrate your whisky interests. In part 4 I’ll talk about the process of enjoying a good single malt. I promise. Continue on to part 4.