Cask Curriculum: The Regions of Scotland
Earlier this month I sat down with The Scotch Test Dummies for a LIVE tasting of our August 2018 outturn on YouTube. During the tasting we enjoyed an open discussion about the different regions of Scotland and the unique style of whisky produced in each.
Understanding the different styles attributed to each region can be somewhat confusing, both for beginners and seasoned enthusiasts alike. Here is a simple breakdown of the broader characteristics of the 5 styles and a unique Society whisky that will allow you to experience each.
The largest whisky-producing region by volume, Speyside is often referred to as the heart of the Scotch whisky industry. The region is known for producing sweet and fruity whisky with very little, if any, smoky characteristic. Think orchard fruits drizzled in honey with a generous helping of vanilla cream: that is Speyside! Speyside distillers will commonly mature their malt whisky in Sherry casks, which will give the whisky those rich notes of dried, dark fruits and baking spices. A perfect example of a true Speyside whisky is Cask 73.98 ‘Layers of harmony’.
The largest region by geographic footprint, the Highlands is home to some of Scotland’s most iconic distilleries. Whisky produced in this vast region is more diverse than that of Speyside but is often summarized by its fruity and somewhat earthy flavor profile with a faint hint of smoke. Cask No. 13.56 ‘The dark side of the melon’ is a perfect representation of the Highland style.
Situated just beneath the Highlands, the Lowland region of Scotland is known for producing whisky that is soft and gentle with common notes of freshly cut grass and honeysuckle. Some Lowland whisky is even triple distilled, giving it a light and airy character. Lowland whisky is often the most approachable of all five regions. Cask 5.60 ‘Sweet surrender’ is a stunning example of an elegant Lowland whisky.
The small island of Islay is home to 8 distilleries that produce some of the most polarizing whisky in all of Scotland. It is famous for its use of peat, which gives its whisky a bold, smoky profile. When combined with the salt water and brine characteristics of the ocean surrounding it, Islay whisky is often an acquired taste. Cask 10.135 ‘Delicious sear and sizzle’ is as Islay as a whisky can get!
The fifth and final official region of Scotland is Campbeltown. Once a powerhouse of a whisky producer, home to 34 distilleries, only 3 now remain. The quality, uniqueness and rarity of whisky produced in Campbeltown makes it one of the most sought-after regions by Society members today. Not as intensely flavoured as whisky produced on Islay, Campbeltown whisky delivers notes of brine dried fruits and a thin veil of smoke in an often dry and punchy flavour profile. A remarkable example of Campbeltown whisky at its very best is Cask 27.111 ‘A coal bucket of marshmallows’.
There is no doubt that each region of Scotland is unique. That being said, the boundaries are not always black and white. Islay distillers, for example, while known for producing peated whisky, are not the only ones doing it today. Several distilleries in Speyside have adopted the style of whisky for themselves, adding their own unique approach to producing smoky whisky. At the Society, we celebrate not just the classic regional representations but these very exceptions as well. Individuality is, after all, the spirit of single cask whisky and the soul of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.