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Issue 22 - The whisky regions of Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 22
August 2005

 

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The whisky regions of Scotland

Different regions of Scotland produce different styles of whisky. Dominic Roskrow explains how each area can vary

Been to one distillery and think you’ve seen them all? Think again. Not only do distilleries vary enormously in terms of size and operation, and with regard to the facilities they offer and the tours that they provide, but the product itself varies massively too.

Indeed no other drink offers so many different tastes, which is why malt whisky attracts so much interest and attention. When you consider that Scotch contains just three ingredients – water, yeast and barley – then it is even more astounding.

Basing your touring holiday around some key distilleries is as good a way to travel as any. Many distilleries enjoy beautiful locations and give a purpose to your travels. How about touring the island distilleries for instance – and going to six wonderful but vastly different islands?

Scores of factors during the distillation and maturing of whisky influence the final product, but without doubt location is a crucial factor.

For the purposes of comparison Scotland can be divided up in to a number of different whisky regions, and although there are exceptions to the general rule, some generalisations about regional style can be made.

This is a guide to the principle whisky producing regions.

The Lowlands.
If you draw a line across Scotland from the Firth of Tay to Loch Fyne then the area to the south can be defined as Lowland.

There are only a handful of working distilleries in this region, and not all of them are malt distilleries, because the region is rich in wheat, too. There are just three operating malt distilleries in this region today – Auchentoshan, Bladnoch and Glenkinchie, though whiskies from closed distilleries such as Rosebank and St Magdalene are much sought after.

Lowland malts tend to be light in colour and delicate in taste, often with a dry finish that many find ideal to be served as an aperitif. They can be quite sweet on the palate and tend to be made without peated barley.

Campbeltown.
Traditionally a region in its own right, the area on the west coast of Scotland known as Kintyre used to have scores of distilleries but now has just three: the part-time Glen Scotia, the hybrid distillery at Springbank (where Longrow and Hazelburn are also distilled) and the recently reopened Glengyle.

Islay.
Islay is the island off the West Coast of Scotland and with the addition of recently-opened microdistillery Kilchoman it has no less than eight distilleries. You can get to Islay by ferry from Tarbert on Kintyre or by plane from Glasgow. Islay is best known for peated whiskies but this is only part of the story. True, Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin, which lie side by side in the south of the island, are the best examples of powerful, pungent peated whiskies, but the further north you go, the less prominent the peat content.

Bruichladdich (pronounced Brook-lad–e) isn’t peaty at all.

The other islands.
Each of the islands with a distillery has its own taste, but in my view some of the best whisky in Scotland comes from this source.

Arran: The distillery is just 10 years old, has a purpose-built visitor centre, and the tour is as good as anything you’ll find anywhere in Scotland. The whisky is sweet, rich, malty and chewy – and most certainly unique.

Jura: You reach Jura by a short ferry ride from Islay across a vicious stretch of fast flowing water.

There’s just one road, and a lot of cattle and sheep with attitude. But the distillery’s pretty and welcoming, and the whisky is in stark contrast to those made on the next island. There are several bottlings and for the most part peat isn’t used.

Standard bottlings tend to be quite thin and tangy but very drinkable.

Mull: The island is reached from Oban and the Tobermory distillery is on the far side of the island by the pretty town of the same name. Children love it here as Tobermory is where the television show Balamory is filmed. Tobermory whisky is arguably the lightest and least dominant of the island malts, but the sister brand, Ledaig, is peated and holds up well alongside Islay malts.

Skye: Talisker is the whisky James Bond drinks, and it should come as no surprise that it is a powerful, masculine malt ideally suited for the many intemperate days that Skye endures. Pepper and spice are its main characteristics.

Orkney: Orkney lies to the North of Scotland and it’s an amazing place to visit – as I have stated in this magazine on more than one occasion. It boasts two great distilleries – the recentlyreopened Scapa, which makes very drinkable melon and fruit whiskies with amazing balance; and Highland Park, which makes whiskies that balance perfectly wood, fruit, and smoke.

Speyside.
Technically this is the region around the River Spey but it actually includes distilleries built on tributaries. The region lies between Aberdeen and Inverness and stretches down to Aviemore. It boasts more than 50 distilleries and obviously includes a variety of styles. But classic Speyside characteristics include rich fruits such as bananas, apples and raisins, toffee-like sweetness, and some floral qualities. They tend to be complex and sophisticated and in the main are unpeated. Some of the most famous whiskies of all come from this region, including Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and The Macallan. Personal favourites include Glenrothes, Balvenie and Longmorn.

Highlands (non Speyside).
Some whisky writers divide this region in to four, with the Eastern region being Speyside. The northern area is made up mainly of coastal distilleries, though Glen Ord is a couple of miles inland. Whiskies tend to reflect the harsh and wild environment. They tend to be robust but not weighty, with hints of smoke and salt. The central region includes some of the most visitor-friendly distilleries in the whole of Scotland, with Edradour, Glengoyne, Tullibardine and Aberfeldy all particularly well respected for their visiting facilities. To the west are Oban and Ben Nevis.