Monday, 24 April 2017

Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Scotch....but were too lazy to Google

Highland. Speyside. Lowland. Islay. Campbeltown. Islands. Whence cometh these appellations? Well, besides being geographic areas of Scotland, they are the six whisky producing regions of Scotland. There used to be four. Some say there are only five. Some say "there can be only one". No wait, that's Highlander. Fret not, ladies and gentlemen, I'll explain. Each region's whisky has its general characteristics, but variations within each area can be significant. Below you'll find some history and descriptions of each region. Kindly note that my opinions are just that: personal opinions. Oh, and like a good scholar, I've even cited my sources at the end. My university professors would be so proud.

Actual photo from my undergrad days

A Very Brief (and mostly true) History of Scotch

Scotch whisky evolved from an elixir known as uisge beatha, which means "water of life". How fitting, since I'm pretty sure uisge beatha is what confered immortality upon Connor Macleod. Maybe. The earliest documented record of distillation in Scotland was in 1494, as recorded in the Exchequer Rolls (records of royal income and expenditure). A friar produced enough uisge beatha for about 1,500 bottles, suggesting that distillation was well-established by the late 15th century. The dram was used as medicine and as a "reviver" during the cold, Scottish winters.

Scotch whisky was first taxed in 1644, leading to an increase in illicit whisky distilling. It was also the year the Scots army marched on York and joined Parliament's army. I'm not saying the whisky taxes caused the revolt...but I'm not saying they're unrelated.

By 1780, there were approximately 400 illegal distilleries in Scotland. If you've ever visited Scotland, and I haven't, you may notice that some distilleries are in remote locations. There's a good chance this was done to avoid frequent visits from the taxman, the lawman, and obnoxious neighbours. The modern era of scotch distilling was ushered in by the Excise Act of 1823. The Act eased restrictions and regulations on licensed distilleries and made it harder for the illegals to operate. In 1824, George Smith founded The Glenlivet, and was the first man to obtain a legal distilling license in Scotland. His friend the Duke of Gordon was kind enough to gift Smith two pistols for protection, as Smith was hated and was often threatened for going against popular sentiment. The pistols are still on display at The Glenlivet distillery's visitor centre. Perhaps I'll start a GoFundMe campaign to pay for my trip to examine the aforementioned pistols. You know, for educational purposes.

George Smith's pistols

The Regions

The Highlands

This is the largest geographical whisky producing region in Scotland. There is quite a variety among the flavours of Highland whiskies, owing to the way the soil, water and proximity to the ocean all combine to affect taste. Highland malts are often smoky, though not nearly as smoky as Islay malts. They are sweet, but not as sweet as Speyside whiskies. Most are light to medium bodied and tend to have a dry finish. Well-known Highland Malts include Oban, Ardmore, Glendronach, Dalmore, Ben Nevis and Old Pulteney. Contrary to popular Hollywood opinion, there can NOT be only one.

It's pronounced "PUHLT-knee"


Speyside was once considered part of the Highlands, but like a blue-faced Mel Gibson, it cried out "FREEDOOOOOOMMMMMMM !!!!" and seceded from the yoke of Highland oppression. Ok, maybe it wasn't that dramatic. "The Speyside region was defined in The Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009.  Under the new regulations, distilleries including Glendronach, Ardmore, Tomatin, Macduff, anCnoc and Royal Brackla, previously considered by many to be Speyside distilleries, became officially classed as Highland." (taken from The Whisky Exchange) The Speyside region, which gets its name from the River Spey, houses more than 60 distilleries, the most in any area of Scotland. Speysides generally fall into two categories: smooth and sweet or light and fruity. Rich malts like The Macallan, Glenrothes and The Balvenie are examples of the first type while The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich are typical of the second.
Was this the founding of Aberlour?


Most Lowland malts end up in blends. They are typically much lighter and fruitier than other scotches. As a general rule, Lowland malts are not peated. A few distilleries still produce single malts from this area. With Lowland scotch you shouldn't expect a big, bold taste, but rather something light and smooth; an ideal breakfast pre-dinner dram. Distilleries still producing single malts are Auchentoshan, Bladnoch and Glenkinchie. If you don't like big peat or smoke, a Lowland scotch might be your thing. I found Auchentoshan 12 a little too mild for my taste. Not bad or unpleasant in any way, but not remarkable. Kind of like mild salsa. Or Brendan Fraser. Then again, Auchentoshan 12 is an "entry-level" single malt. I've not tried any of their older (i.e. more expensive) expressions. I would have no problem recommending Auchentoshan 12 to someone new to single malt whisky. Or to someone who liked Encino Man.


Ok, so the Islands are not an officially designated whisky region. They're technically classified as Highland malts, but I'm told they resent this subservience the way a third of the Québécois population resents being a part of Canada. Whiskies from the Islands tend to be peatier and smokier than other Highland malts, often with a note of brine on the finish, but they aren't as bold or powerful as their sisters on Islay (with the possible exception of Talisker). Islands scotches are Venus to Islay's Serena. Island distilleries include Highland Park, Isle of Jura, Talisker and Ledaig.

You're good, Islands, but Serena, er I mean Islay is just better


The "Queen of the Hebrides" IS an officially designated whisky region. Owing to its harsh, stormy climate and flat, peaty terrain, most Islay (pronounced EYE-la) scotches are generally smoky, peaty and dry. Islay's smoky style comes from malting the barley over burning peat. This imparts flavours known as phenols. The smoky Islay malts can overpower the unsuspecting and inexperienced enthusiast. Islay is the Daenerys Targaryen of regions, savvy? There are seven active distilleries on Islay, each producing whiskies so wonderful you might not realize how easily they can kick your ass and steal your lunch money. Note that two Islay distilleries (Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain) do produce some unpeated malts. Peated Islay whiskies are not for the faint of heart. The seven active distilleries on Islay are Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Caol Ila (cool-EYE-la or cool-EEL-ah), Bruichladdich (uhm, go with "brook-LADDY"), Bunnahabhain (BOON-a-ha-bin), Bowmore, and Kilchoman (kill-HOE-man or kill-OH-man). The Port Ellen distillery "went silent" back in 1983. Islays are my favourite whiskies.

Don't underestimate Islay, lest you get burned


There were once over 30 producers in this region, there are now only three: Glen Scotia, Glengyle and Springbank. Whisky video blogger extraordinaire Ralf "Ralfy" Mitchell claims that "Springbank is Scotland's finest distillery, bar none". That's a bold claim. Of course, Ralfy strongly objects to caramel colouring (Springbank doesn't use any) and chill-filtering (Springbank is unchilfiltered) because they are "not natural". I like and respect Ralfy but in my humble opinion, the "not natural" argument is irrelevant. Whisky Jedi Sir Richard Paterson insists that many tests have been done and that caramel colouring and chill-filtering do NOT affect the taste of whisky. Some insist that chill-filtering changes the texture or body of the whisky. Distilleries don't release the same expression with and without caramel colouring, or chill-filtered and unchilfiltered. Ergo, we will never be able to compare these processes directly, rendering this a moot point. Now you could argue that caramel colouring and chill-filtering are purely cosmetic and are therefore unnecessary. And in this case, I'd probably agree with you. Most people who are concerned with a consistent appearance are probably drinking cheaper blends (many of which are fine whiskies, btw) and not high-priced single malts. Single malt afficionados tend to cherish diversity and variation, even with different bottles of the same expression. Campbeltown malts are usually full-bodied, with toffee, vanilla, smoke, peat, and a briny finish. From all the chatter on whisky blogs, it appears as though the malts coming out of this area are the real deal. The only down side for those of us in Ontario is that these whiskies can be hard to find. That said, if you can find a bottle in stock at an LCBO elsewhere in the province (check online), your local LCBO can often have it brought in for you. As much as I criticize the LCBO, I feel it is fair to point out the things they do well. No need to drive across the province to buy a bottle of Springbank 10 Year Old.

campbeltown whisky
As scarce as hen's teeth

So there you have it: the important stuff you need to know about scotch. If you have any questions you don't feel like Googling, don't hesitate to drop me a line. If you got a kick out of this little article, please share it with others.

Slainte mhaith !


1. Scotch Malt Whisky
2. Master of Malt
3. The Whisky Exchange
4. Whisky Advocate
6. Scotch Whisky Association

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