A Tour of Scotland: Understanding Scotch Whiskies
Even to a whiskey drinker comfortable with bourbons and Irish whiskeys, Scotch can seem like a whole different world. Due to the varied climate of Scotland, from the wind-buffeted western islands to the famous highlands, Scotch can be incredibly different from distillery to distillery. So join us now for a whisky tour of Scotland, where we will see what makes this noble dram so unique.
Perhaps the most recognizable Scotch whiskies come from Speyside, a small but densely-packed region in northeastern Scotland named after the river Spey that runs through it. Despite being a smaller region than its neighbors, Speyside has more distilleries than the others by an order of magnitude; ask your average tippler their favorite Scotch and there’s a good chance you’ll get a Speyside distillery named, and if you’ve ever picked up a bottle of Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Aberlour, or countless others, you’ve experienced Speyside. Speyside Scotches are generally light on smokiness, and may be aged or finished (after an initial run in old bourbon casks) in casks that once held wine or other spirits, and these traits give them a sweeter, more easygoing nature that is attractive to a Scotch neophyte. Distilleries like Glenfarclas and Macallan mostly use sherry wine casks to impart flavors or orange peel, almonds, and cloves, while others like Balvenie use casks that contained the likes of rum, port, and Madeira to give its Scotch different levels of sweetness and spiciness to stand out from the crowd.
Surrounding Speyside are the imposing Highlands, which take up nearly half the island and as a consequence contain the most varied styles of Scotch in the country. Glenmorangie drinks like a Speyside Scotch, especially its trio of casked expressions like the port-casked Quinta Ruban, or the Sauternes-casked Nectar D’Or. On the other hand, Oban is dense and heavy with peat and smoke, and would be a shock to anyone who has only experienced sweeter drams. The famed Scottish moors dominate the landscape, which provide the variance in wind and temperature that effects Highland barley so differently. There is a style for everyone within the Highlands, and even seasoned Scotch connoisseurs will come back to their favorite Highland bottle.
South of the Highlands are, of course, the Lowlands. Like Speyside, Lowland Scotch can be a great place to start with Scotch whisky, because the whiskies that come out of the region are easily approachable. Lowland Scotch would be an especially easy entry into the whiskies of Scotland for those who are ardent fans of Irish whiskey. Like Irish whiskey, Lowland drams like Auchentoshan can be triple-distilled, which gives them that characteristic citrusy fruit taste that anyone who cut their teeth on Green Spot or Redbreast would recognize. Notes of ginger, toffee, and lemon custard are all easy to recognize in a glass of Lowland Scotch, and its light sweetness on the palate makes it easy to like.
The western coast of the country is a long island chain called the Hebrides, and generally the climates of each island are the same: very cold, very windswept, and very barren. These conditions combine to make some of the roughest, brambliest whiskies in the world, of which the island of Islay is a shining example. Deep in the southwest of the Hebrides, Islay dominates the western whisky regions in Scotland, and brings us monstrous drams bathed in the taste of peat, impregnated into the barley from the burning of said peat during grain malting, and sea salt iodine from the cold maritime air around the island. Islay is a style on the rise, and even those who have not tried any Islay whiskies may recognize names like Laphroaig, Ardbeg, or Ron Swanson’s favorite Lagavulin. Like French wine, Islay Scotch can be imposing and alien to the uninitiated, but also like French wine, getting a handle on the style reveals untold complexities within each glass, as the peat and smoke and salt complement and flatter the barley. Islay Scotch lasts forever on the palate, with each minute revealing to the imbiber a new facet that was initially hidden under that ruggedness.
Islay is the most famous of the Hebrides, but many of the other islands in the chain house distilleries as well. Talisker and Arran are both easy enough to procure, and like Islay Scotch, these islands produce whiskies that are as rough and powerful as the land they are made on, with notes of the briny sea salt characteristic to all of the islands, as well as heather and ash.
And that brings us to the last region in Scotland, Campbeltown. Far to the southwest, near the coast of Ireland, Campbeltown was once known as “The Whisky Capital of the World”, but those days are long gone, and now Campbeltown has within its region only three distilleries: Glen Scotia, Glengyle, and Springbank. Like the Highlands, Campbeltown thrives on variety, and its whiskies are an interesting mingling of the salt and smoke of Islay and the sweet simplicity of the Lowlands; Springbank’s Hazelburn is triple-distilled and fruity, while Longrow from the same distillery is peated and briny.
As you can see, Scotland’s whiskies are as varied and complex as the most daunting European wine regions. This is a topic that could require research to fully grasp, and we hope that we’ve managed to make things more clear to those curious.