If there’s one thing you should know about when picking out a nice Scotch whisky (and yes the Scottish spell it “whisky” while Americans spell it “whiskey”) it’s the regions from whence they come.
Knowing the region generally gives you a preview of what to expect. So until you’ve built up your knowledge of specific distilleries, use this guide to understand what it’s going to taste like before your order it or buy it.
Here’s some helpful information on each region from the good people at the Scotch Malt Whisky group in the UK. They’ve also got tons of other great information. Along with that we’ve brought you our top picks from each of the regions.
The Highlands is by far the largest of all the whisky producing regions and offers you the greatest variations of style. You will find some of the best known distilleries in this region.
On the mainland in the Western Highlands there are only a few distilleries. The malts from these West Highland distilleries are much less peaty than the malts which are found in the Islay region, although you can detect a slight whiff of smokiness. If there was a common character shared by West Highland whiskies it is they tend to have a sweet start and dryish finish.
The character of the far North Highland malts are greatly influenced by the local soil and the coastal location of the distilleries. They tend to be light bodied whiskies with a spicy character and a dryish finish, sometimes with a trace of saltiness.
Malt whiskies from the Central, Southern and Eastern Highlands are quite a mixed bunch. They are generally fruity and sweet but not as sweet as the malts found in Speyside. They are lighter bodied and sweet and just like other Highland malts they tend to have a dry finish.
The Lowland region lies South of an imaginary line that runs from Greenock on the West coast of Scotland to Dundee in the East. Most of the Lowland malts produced in this region end up in blends, but there are a still a few single malts available to try from this region.
Malts from this region are light in colour and have quite a dry finish. The dryness comes from the malt itself, not from peat as Lowland malts tend to be produced with unpeated malt. You may also find a certain sweet fruitiness to the flavour. Lowland malts are regarded as an excellent aperitif.
Generally speaking, Lowland region whiskies are mellower than whiskies from the neighbouring Highlands, and are very much appreciated by those new to malt Whisky and experienced malt drinkers alike.
Speyside is not officially a whisky region but it is generally accepted as a subdivision of the Highlands Region. Over half of all Scotland’s distilleries are located in Speyside. Speyside malts are typically the sweetest of all Scotch Whisky Malts and many of the most popular single malts are produced in Speyside.
The huge selection of Speyside malts offer a variety of strengths and can generally be broken down into two categories, the heavy, rich sherry flavoured malts and the more complex light floral flavoured malts. Speyside malts are essentially sweet whiskies, although some can have a little peaty character with just a slight whiff of smoke.
MLDC best bets: Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Macallan
Various Islands (Orkney, Skye, etc)
Like Speyside the Islands are not officially a whisky region, the Islands is another subdivision of the Highlands Region. The Islands are a geographical region rather than a characteristic one. The Islands region includes all of the whisky producing Isles of Scotland namely Mull, Skye, Orkney, Arran and Jura. The Isle of Islay is considered a region on its own.
Due to the location of the Islands distilleries their whiskies tend to have a coastal feel to them. They are slightly more peaty in character than most highland malts but not to the extent of peatiness that you will find in Islay malts. The peatiness is generally softer and sweeter than there stronger cousins from Islay.
Isle of Jura, Talisker
There are eight distilleries on the island of Islay (pronounced Eye-luh). Islay is located in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. The island is often lashed by sea winds and rain, these elements certainly have a say in the whisky produced their. Islays surface is very flat and consists largely of peat, which has a huge influence on the flavour of the whiskies produced here.
Islay whiskies are the strongest flavoured of all Scotch whiskies and tend to be dry and peaty. They are renowned for their strong peaty smokiness which comes from the peat fuel which they use for malting the barley.
The character of Islay malt whiskies are very often described as being very smoky and medicinal, salty and sea weedy with a dry finish and sometimes with quite a bite.
The smoky flavour of Islay malts can be an acquired taste, but if you have a taste for a smoky dry malt then Islay malts are the malts for you.
Campbeltown lies towards the end of the Mull of Kintyre peninsula on the West Coast of Scotland. Today there are only three distilleries producing whisky here, but in days gone by there were over 30 distilleries here.
The Campbeltown single malts are very distinctive, tending to be full bodied, renowned for their depth of flavour and also for their slightly salty finish. With peat adding a hint of flavour similar to that found in an Islay malt.