Scotland is a small country, but we like to think we punch above our weight. Whether it be the telephone, the pedal bike, penicillin, the television, or the steam engine - we’ve contributed our fair share to the world stage. If you find yourself celebrating at one of our famous Scottish ceilidhs, though, or relaxing in one of our plentiful watering holes, there’s one creation that we seem a little prouder of than most: our national uisge beathe, Scotch Whisky. Here at Trakke we’ve communicated our passion for the stuff pretty often, but one thing has been missing: a basic guide to the whisky regions of Scotland.
Because you could be forgiven for thinking that Scotch Whisky is simply Scotch Whisky. After all, the legal requirements state that it only needs to be distilled and aged in Scotland – there’s no mention of where. But with different areas, there exists different histories and heritages, and in recognition of this the Scotch Whisky Association recognises six distinct whisky producing regions in the country.
And we’re here to get you up to speed.
Known for a “light and grassy” whisky style, the lowland distilleries have been dwarfed in number by the proliferation of distilleries on Speyside, Islay, and in the Highlands. Still numbering in the single figures, there were at one point fewer than 5 active distilleries still running, and many of those traditionally focussed on creating whisky for blends, rather than single malts.
The lowland region has been experiencing somewhat of a renaissance, though. With significant investment by Chivas, the opening of the Kingsbarns Distillery in St Andrews, and the early bottles coming out of the Eden.Mill distillery, there’s a new spate of exciting, varied, and interesting whiskies to be found coming from the region.
And then there’s Daftmill – a small farm distillery, with a tiny capacity of only 20,000 litres per year, distilling barley grown entirely on-site. While many young distilleries release expressions as soon as they can (at 3 years old), Daftmill is a little different. Despite opening in 2005, they’ve yet to release a single drop!
The broadest recognised area, the highlands region covers a vast expanse, and takes in all of Scotland’s coasts. From Old Pulteney (winner of World Whisky of the Year in 2012 for their incredible 21 year old) in the far north, all the way down to Glengoyne in the south. From Oban in the west, to Glen Garioch in the east. It’s impossible to generalise about the character of highland whiskies, because they’re as varied as a whisky can be.
With the coastal distilleries famous for the influence of the sea, and the West Highland distilleries offering gentler peated expressions than their Islay siblings, a journey through the highland whiskies is a journey through Scotland itself. And with some of the most famous distilleries in the world – from Glenmorangie, to Dalmore – along with some of the most exciting new distilleries to enter the field (we’re particularly excited for Ardnamurchan!), you could spend a lifetime exploring the Highlands region alone.
If Scotch Whisky is the king of spirits, then some would argue that Speyside is its crown. A distinct region that follows the path of the river Spey in the north east of Scotland, it has almost half of the distilleries found in the entire country. It’s home to one of the most valuable whisky brands in the world, The Macallan (two of whose bottles recently sold for $1.2 million at auction), as well as the two most popular Scotch Whisky brands by volume – Glenfiddich, and The Glenlivet.
Famous for a variety of expressions, but particularly noted for the sherried expressions that make their way out of the area, it’s a great destination for fruity, spicy, and floral whiskies, and an interesting step aside from some of the heavier, peatier spirits found further to the west.
So popular is Speyside as a whisky producing region, that, like the Feis Ile festival on Islay, it has its own festival. The Spirit of Speyside festival takes place on the first weekend of May every year. If we thought visiting eight distilleries in a week was difficult, we’re not sure how we’d manage over fifty!
The Scottish islands are a world of exploration unto themselves; from the Orkney Islands stretching away from north east coast, moving down the west through Lewis and Harris, Skye, Mull, and Arran. They’re places of such distinct character that sometimes when we visit, we’re equally proud, as well as confused, at their being part of the same country as the mainland.
And the whisky landscape on the islands is no different. Creating beautiful coastal whiskies, with notes of brine, and smooth yet deeply complex flavour profiles, a trip to the island distilleries of Highland Park, Talisker, Tobermoray, Jura, Scapa, and Arran, is a trip through these unique and remote locations off the Scottish mainland. Grouped together for ease, they’re an opportunity to celebrate each individual place - for often each distillery is the only one on the island.
Campbeltown is only a small area on the south of the Kintyre Peninsula, jutting out into the ocean on the west coast of Scotland. Once it had as many as 30 distilleries, and was rightly claimed by many as the “whisky capital of the world” for the sheer variety and quality of spirit that came out of the area. Times have long since changed, and there are only three active distilleries left in the once thriving area. So, in the present day, a survey of the Campbeltown whisky landscape is really just a survey of Springbank, Glengyle, and Glen Scotia distilleries. Three strong characterful whiskies, no doubt, but far fewer than the area was once so famously known for.
But whisky isn’t just about the present, it’s about heritage, and history. Campbeltown retains its place in the landscape of Scotch Whisky not simply for its three excellent remaining distilleries, but for its contribution to the history of Scotch Whisky as a whole, and how it shaped and built these communities in Scotland.
What can we say about Islay that we haven’t said already. It’s a magical island, where the whisky, the place, and the people are blended together to the point where you can’t discuss one without the other. World renowned for its peated whiskies, that range from a phenol content (the chemical that imparts the “smoky” flavour) of 30 parts per million, to the almost unbelievable Octomore 08.3, which is peated to 309ppm, it’s a whisky lover's dream. That’s not to say it’s only for peat lovers, it still comes out with some of the finest unpeated expressions in the whole of Scotland (we love Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain, in particular!).
World famous also for its Feis Ile festival – a large part of which focuses exclusively on the island’s whisky output - and with (presently) only eight distilleries, it’s also a region of whisky production that you can explore in one trip. We’ve even known some people to visit every distillery over a single weekend!
Islay whisky isn’t just a spirit, it’s a mixture of everything this beautiful island has to offer. Centuries of tradition, the passion and craft of its people, and the sheer quality of its raw ingredients. More than anywhere else in Scotland, when you pour an Islay whisky, you’re pouring part of this beautiful country into your glass.