A tour of scotland
Scotch whisky is a culture of variety and exploration. The unique geography, water and commercial accessibility of each region has played an important part in the development of the unique styles found in each place.
We begin in Speyside, a region know for fruit character like apples and pears, honeyed malt and spice. The Speyside region is small and it’s distilleries cling to the River Spey, which is known for it’s clean and pure water. Water is such a vital component of whisky that one of the first things any distillery will talk about is the source of their water.
Fire and heat is another crucial element of whisky production and traditionally, you use whatever is close to hand to stoke your fires. There’s not a lot of peat in Speyside and so while the region is hugged by the Highlands, there’s hardly any peat used in production or in the malts. There is a lot of sherry casks though. These fortified wine casks (usually oloroso or pedro ximenez) bring Christmas cake fruit and spice notes that naturally enhance traditional Speyside flavours.
The Highlands of Scotland are vast and diverse, filled with mountain peaks, burns and lakes. The water is cold and clean, running down the hills over heather and rock. During Spring and Summer, the Highlands are lush and evoke flavours of heather, vanilla, toffee and fruit. The Highland malts are diverse – with 39 distilleries active in the region.
Dr. Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie is obsessed with wood – from exploring forests and varieties of oak to the casks that have housed all manner of spirit and wine. The Nectar D’or is one example of where cask management and finishing has become one of the most important parts of whisky production.
Once the malt is finished being distilled – it’s clear as water. The colour and lots of additional flavour comes from the cask the whisky is aged in. When using a range of casks and then marrying them together before bottling – a master distiller is able to pull vanilla, sherry, sweet wine and stonefruit or spice, charcoal and smoke from the cask assortment they use. The Sauternes wine casks bring a zesty lime and meringue, sweet dessert quality to this Highland malt.
The Isle of Islay may be one of the most well-known Scotch whisky regions in the world – mostly for the bold and confrontational levels of peat found in their whisky. On an island that contrasts white sands with rocky, seaweed laden outcrops that hug a coastline of damp, peat bog – in every sip you can taste salt, rainwater, the fresh coast and warm crackle of a smoky fire. It’s home to some of the world’s most traditional Scotch whisky as well as some of the most progressive.
The Port Charlotte Heavily Peated 10 Year Old Single Malt is from Bruichladdich, who were known for being one of the only distilleries on the island to not make peated malt. Islay malts are typically peated because that’s the easiest fuel source – there’s not a lot of forest on the island. Known as the Progressive Hebridean Distillers, Bruichladdich have pushed the boundaries of peat bringing clean malt, sweetness and citrus through the smoky beachfire aromas. It is in part smoked fish, pastrami and brisket before giving way to brown sugar toffee and fudge. A real treat.
There are very few Lowland distilleries still in production, but they are mostly farm distilleries scattered around Glasgow and up to Edinburgh. With a distinctly industrial nature, there is ginger, spice and lots of grassiness to be found in these often-underrated whiskies. Among the Lowland whiskies is where you’ll find the only triple-distilled whiskies in Scotland, a tradition and method borrowed from the Irish neighbours. Lowland whiskies are often lighter in style, with less honey and heather than their Northern Highland neighbours and less salt than their coastal cousins.
Many of the whiskies you don’t recognise straight off the shelf have been made primarily for distribution into larger blends. Single malt Scotch Whisky has really only found footing in the last 30 to 50 years – started by Bessie Williamson from Laphroaig and then continued on. For centuries, blended malt was where distillers made their profits and how we drank whisky. The exploration of the unique character of each distillery and region has opened up discussion and research into the role of terroir in whisky and whether the appellations have as much of an influence as they do in wine.
Regardless, the Scotch Whisky Association fund an ongoing and exhaustive effort to protect all that is Scotch whisky around the world from contraband and controversy by administering the strictest whisky laws in all the world.
Campbeltown was one of the original and oldest distilling towns in Scotland, primarily because of it’s crucial role as a busy trading port through the 16th and 17th centuries. As trade routes changed, the distilleries were eventually disestablished until only Glen Scotia and Springbank distilleries remained. Famous whisky writer Michael Jackson (the other Michael Jackson) once wrote …
‘Wandering around Campbeltown is an exercise in distillery archaeology. Tantalising glimpses of old sites remain – a cracked and faded painted sign, the shape of the windows on a block of flats, the incongruous sight of a supermarket with a pagoda roof. The fragility of the whisky industry is evident and, for all the thick red sandstone walls that remain, there are infinitely more that have gone.’
That was more than 15 years ago and a third distillery, Glengyle has risen from the ashes. Interestingly, all three distilleries are family-owned and supported in a gargantuan effort to restore Campbeltown’s malt pedigree. They’ve done well as Campbeltown malts are in hot demand around the globe.
Chair of the New Zealand Whisky Association
“It was my pleasure to host you on this quick whistle-stop tour of the Scottish whisky regions. My hope is that it was a chance to enjoy some of the unique characters of each place.”
I’m one of New Zealand’s leading spirits writers, industry advocates, educators and spirits judge. My tastings are full of storytelling, laughter and sensory experiences. I’m co-founder of The Feed which was born at the convergence of my experience in media, the food & hospitality industry, business transformation and strategy.
You can read my work in Cuisine, Dish, The Shout and Whisky Magazine. Purchase a copy of the 2021 Guide to New Zealand Gin – I compiled over 140 unique tasting notes and guides to the booming NZ gin industry.
Do you have questions about whisky or spirits in general? I’d love to assist you.