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Whisky Basics 2/4 – Regions — Dramming
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Whisky Basics 2/4 – Regions

by Oliver Klimek on July 23, 2009

This is the second part of a series of four articles about the basic properties of whisky. The first part deals with the diferent types of whisky. Here I will look at regional variations.

1. Scotland

Scotland has by a large margin the highest amount of active distilleries in the world, so it is globally the most important whisky region. In terms of whisky, it is historically divided into several distinct regions. In earlier times the differences between whiskies from different regions were much stronger than today, when many distilleries have started to experiment with changing the parameters of production.

1.1 Lowlands

The Lowlands are the part of Scotland south of the line Edinburgh – Glasgow (approximately). The Lowland whiskies have a reputation for being exceptionally smooth. As opposed to other scotch regions, whisky in the Lowlands is usually triple distilled. Another factor is the milder climate with less temperature changes that can affect storage. In the 20th century whisky crisis, Lowland distilleries were especially hit because their smooth taste was for many whisky drinkers too similar to the cheaper blends.

Younger Lowland malts usually are on the light side of the taste spectrum, but when they are aged, they can evolve into amazingly complex top class whiskies.

Typical examples: Auchentoshan and St. Magdalene (closed)

1.2 Highlands

In short, the Scottish Highlands are anything above the Lowlands that is not an island. Most of the Scottish whisky distilleries can be found here. The area along the River Spey has an exceptional concentration of distilleries, the so-called Speyside is usually treated as a separate region.

Highland whiskies are generally more complex than lowlanders. Some distilleries also use a bit of peat for their malting, but many go for a rather “clean” taste, relying more on their own distillery character than on other influences.

Typical examples: Royal Lochnagar and Clynelish

1.3 Speyside

As just mentioned, here we have the highest concentration of distilleries in Scotland. But assigning a separate region to Speyside has more practical reasons than being caused by a real difference in whisky style. But nevertheless some Speyside distilleries have gained a historic reputation for extensive use of old sherry casks for maturation, resulting in exceptionally full-bodied whiskies.

Typical examples: Macallan and Glenfarclas

1.4 Islands

On the Scottish Isles there is a fair number of distilleries as well. Here, peat was the common fuel as it was available in abundance. So it was and still is also used for malting the barley. Distilleries use varying levels of peat, so there is a certain bandwith in whisky characters.

Another differnece to whiskies from the Scottish mainland is the coastal influence, as one might call it. Many tasting notes speak of salt, seaweed and iodine.

Typical examples: Talisker (Skye) and Highland Park (Orkney)

Lagavulin distillery

Lagavulin distillery

1.5 Islay

Like Speyside, Islay is a only a very small region. But this is not only justified by the fact that there are seven active distilleries on the Island. But furthermore, most Islay distilleries take the “island character” to an extreme. On Islay the most heavily peated malts are produced. Their smoky, phenolic taste makes them completely different from just about every whisky produced on the mainland.

Because of its unique character, Islay whisky has a very strong following but is also disliked by many who prefer a more gentle variety of whisky. For many whisky lovers including me, a whisky from Islay was the kick start into the whisky adventure.

Typical examples: Bowmore and Lagavulin

2. Ireland

Although Ireland is said to be the origin of whisky – or whiskey as it is spelled there – not much of the glory is left today. There are many brands available, but all come from just a handful of distilleries. Blends and vats are quite common in Ireland, single malts are an exception. An Irish speciality is Pure Pot Still, which is made from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley.

Most Irish Whiskey is distilled three times, giving it a smoother character, similar to the Scottish Lowland whiskies.

Typical examples: Bushmills and Redbreast

3. America

The New World is a different world also regarding whisk(e)y.

3.1 USA

US whiskey is commonly associated with Bourbon, but there are also other types like rye whiskey. What makes American whisky (please note that some distillers DO omit the e) different from their European counterparts in the extensive use of corn. Another important difference is the use of fresh oak barrels, as opposed to the use of used ones in Scotland. More on that topic will follow in the last part of the series.

Large mass consumer brands dominate the market, but there are also smaller distilleries with very high quality products. There are also a couple of distilleries that make single malt. Generally speaking, US whisky is more on the sweet side than Scotch with a distinctive taste caused by the use of corn.

Typical examples: Jack Daniels, Eliah Craig

3.2 Canada

Canada does not have a great reputation for high class whisky. Nearly all of the production goes into blends, but like in the US there are some small distilleries trying to deliver quality over quantity. Rye traditionally was a major ingredient, but today, most whisky is made from other grains.

One thing about Canadian whisky is disturbing to most whisky lovers: Canadian law permits up to 9.09% flavouring additives. This may be anything from brandy to fruit juice. Of course not all brands make use of this, but that law really is not the best backing for the reputation of Canadian Whisky.

Typical examples: Canadian Club, Seagrams

4. Japan

Many non-experts in whisky find it amazing that Japan is a notable whisky producing nation. But in the early 20th century, Japanese businessmen came to Scotland to learn how to make whisky. It took a while until they got it, but since then, Japanese whisky has reached a quality standard that is equal to Scotch. Top Japanese whiskies have already beaten top Scotch whiskies in blind tastings by designated whisky experts.

Because Japanese whisky was “modelled” after Scotch, it is quite similar to it. Of course the different distilleries (about a dozen altogether) have their on characters , just like in Scotland. The character and quality of Japanese Whisky is the final proof that good whisky can be made virtually anywhere, if you just try hard enough.

Blending and Vatting are quite common in Japan. But other than in Scotland, the Japanese regard blending more as a form of art than as a means to make profit with cheap ingredients. This is why Japanese blends often rate significantly higher than Scotch and are nothing to be frowned at.

Typical examples: Yamazaki, Yoichi

5. India

Did you know that India is the biggest whisky producing nation? The problem is that most of what is called whisky in India is more like a kind of rum because it is made from molasses. But there are notable examples that can compete with Scotch.

Typical example: Amrut

6. Rest of the world

6.1 Europe

Nowadays, whisky is made in many European countries. All distilleries are fairly recent projects born from the idea “Why not give it a try?” Almost all were started by people who first distilled something else like fruit brandy or gin. Most are single malts, some use other grains. The results are mixed. Some whiskies are fairly promising, but others are just plain awful.

This leads us to a question many of you might already have in mind: And what about England?

Well, geographically it shouldn’t be any problem to make good whisky there. In the 19th century there were some English distilleries, but they are gone for good. Only recently a new distillery has opened in Norfolk that is due to release its first whisky soon. Perhaps there also seems to be some mental barrier reaching back to the old times when England and Scotland didn’t really like each other too much, to put it mildly. There is also a fairly recent whisky from Wales.

Typical examples: Slyrs, Armorik

6.2 Oceania

In Australia and New Zealand there are a couple of distilleries that produce fairly solid whisky. Tradition reaches back to colonial times and has recently been revived.

Typical examples: Lark, Milford

The third part of this series will cover the production of whisky. Read on…

Pictures from flickr by sashafatcat and Brian Forbes

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Capn Jimbo's Rum Project July 11, 2011 at 2:31 pm

One of the best overviews on whisky I’ve seen in awhile, nicely done. Just one addition – the notion of regional differences in Scotland (with the exception of Islay) – is disappearing. Years ago these differences were quite valid, particularly in that the Lowlands were largely known for blended whisky while the Highlands became known for the single malts. Of course that changed and the regions mentioned, eg Speyside, did indeed have regional character.

Unfortunately, the corporatization of even Scotch has changed all this. The regional styles are no longer regional, and there multiple styles made in all regions. Author David Wishart made this abundantly clear in his great book “Whiskey Classified” wherein he recognizes the loss of regional variation and accordingly classifies whisky by flavor profiles.

He is well recognized for his study, classifications and reviews. The point: don’t be surprised if your Speyside tastes like it came from or resembles another “region”. Nice work.


Oliver Klimek July 11, 2011 at 2:53 pm

I too have noticed this since writing this article almost two years ago. You may have missed it, but I recently wrote an article called Down With Whisky Regions! which you might want to check out.


Rob pascoe January 24, 2016 at 9:04 pm

I live about 30 miles or so from the Welsh distillery that is situated in Brecon. I was wondering if you have an opinion on the Penderyn whiskers we have here.


Rob pascoe January 24, 2016 at 10:25 pm

Sorry,should have read whiskys. Predicted text.


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