What are the Whisky regions of Scotland?
Scottish Whisky, or Scotch, can seem pretty complicated when you first get into it. There is a myriad of bottlings, unpronounceable distillery names and different types of barrels to get your head around. However, the whisky regions of Scotland can help simplify things a little as they each have a general “style”. By knowing the style of whisky produced, you can more easily find what you want or explain what you like. If you’re just getting started with whisky, we recommend checking out the Best Whisky for Beginners. Or, if you are looking for more in-depth information, read about How Whisky is Made.
Having worked in bars and restaurants since I was 18, including a whisky bar, I know how overwhelmed I was the first time I stepped into the whisky world. Luckily, once you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to navigate.
There are 6 whisky regions in Scotland: Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Islands, Campbeltown and Islay. We’ll go through each one explaining the general style of the region and a couple of examples of whiskies to try.
Lowland Whisky Region
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 are generally produced with unpeated malt. You may also find a certain sweet fruitiness to the flavour. For this reason, Lowland malts make for excellent aperitifs.
Generally speaking, Lowland region whiskies are mellower than whiskies from the neighbouring Highlands. That mellowness makes puts them top of the order list for anyone who is new to drinking malt Whisky.
Highlands Whisky Region
The Highlands is by far the largest of all the whisky-producing regions and offers you the greatest variations in style. Here, 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 still detect a slight whiff of smokiness. If there was a common character shared by West Highland whiskies it is that they tend to have a sweet start and dryish finish. Oban 14 is a good example of this Scottish whisky region.
Next, looking at the North Highland malts where the character is 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. Old Pulteney was, until very recently, the most Northerly distillery on the mainland and typifies these whiskies.
The 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. Instead, they are lighter-bodied, sweet and generally just like other Highland malts although they tend to have a dry finish. For a great example of whiskies from this area, try Royal Lochnagar or Old Fettercairn.
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Campbeltown Whisky Region
Campbeltown lies towards the end of the Mull of Kintyre peninsula on Scotland’s West Coast. 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. They tend to be full-bodied, renowned for their depth of flavour. Also for their slightly salty finish with peat adding a hint of flavour similar to that found in an Islay malt.
For a quintessential Campbeltown whisky, Springbank 10 year old is a great option. Alternatively, Glen Scotia malts are lighter and grassier compared to Kilkerran which has a distinctive oily, salty profile.
Speyside Whisky Region
Speyside is not officially a whisky region but it is generally accepted as a subdivision of the very large Highlands Region. This area is home to the highest number of Scottish distilleries, accounting for over half the total number.
These Speyside malts offer a variety of strengths which we can break down into two categories. First is the heavy, rich sherry flavoured malts and second are 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. The style makes some of the best whisky for beginners.
The Islands Whisky Region
Similar to Speyside, the Islands are not officially a whisky region. Instead, it is another subdivision of the Highlands Region.
The Islands are a geographical region rather than a characteristic one. Although Island whiskies do share traits due to their locations. This region includes all the whisky-producing Isles of Scotland, namely Mull, Skye, Orkney, Arran, Jura, Raasay, Shetland and Lewis. The last whisky-producing island, the Isle of Islay, is a region on its own.
Due to the location of the Islands distilleries, their whiskies tend to have a slight saltiness to them. They are slightly peatier 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 their stronger cousins from Islay.
Islay Whisky Region
Islay (pronounced eye-lah) is the last of the whisky regions of Scotland. The island, located in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, houses eight distilleries. Due to its location, the sea winds and rain lash the island and these elements certainly have a say in the whisky produced. Islay’s surface is very flat and consists largely of peat which has a huge influence on the flavour of the whiskies produced here.
Whiskies from Islay have the strongest flavour of all Scotch whiskies. They are, on the whole, dry and peaty, renowned for their strong peaty smokiness. This taste comes from the peat fuel which they use for malting the barley.
You will often hear the character of Islay malt whiskies described as being very smoky and medicinal. There are salty and seaweedy flavours, with a dry finish and sometimes 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 ones for you. Caol Ila 12 is a lighter peated Islay malt, so it’s better for those getting to know this style. Whereas Lagavulin 16 is a heavily peated, intense whisky for anyone who loves this kind of whisky.
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