All aspiring whisky afficionados will sooner or later be confronted with the concept of Scotch whisky regions. Most likely this first encounter will happen in a whisky shop – either online or offline – where the stocked bottles are grouped into “Highlands”, “Speyside”, “Lowlands”, “Islands” and “Islay”. Sometimes even “Campbeltown” is treated as a proper region.
They may think “Why not?”. After all it is the same with wine. There is a difference between Bordeaux and Bourgogne, and Italian Pinot Grigio is clearly an all different stuff than German Grauburgunder. So they are not surprised to learn that the regions concept is also officially codified in the regulations of the Scotch Whisky Association that have even made it into UK law.
Digging a bit deeper they will find out that the reasoning behind the Scotch whisky region concept is based on historical differences in the styles of whisky produced in the regions. It is “light and grassy” for the Lowlands, “maritime” for the Islands, “peaty” for Islay and … errr … what was it for Highlands and Speyside again?
Everyone who has tasted whisky from more than ten Scottish distilleries knows that this is only a very crude approximation; or should I say rubbish?
Yes, there are the Islay peat monsters like Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Laphroaig or Caol Ila. But what about Bunnahabhain? The first time I tasted the Bunnahabhain 18 yo I was immediately reminded of the Macallan 18. Also the whisky from the Highland distillery of Dalmore is closer to Speyside heavyweights Macallan and Glenfarclas than to their relative neighbours of Teaninich or Balblair.
And things really get whacky when you look at the “Islands” region. Talisker is definitely at least as “Islay” as Bowmore and Bunnahabhain, Highland Park may just go along with the “maritime” label but with their “house style” they are pretty much a singleton on the Scotch whisky map. Their immediate neighbours on Orkney are Scapa who make a totally different whisky. Tobermory and Ledaig are pretty different incarnations of the same distillery, and Arran might as well be a Highland or Speyside distillery.
When you finally take a closer look at the Speyside distilleries, the stupidity of the regions concept can no longer be denied. What is a typical Speyside whisky, a sherry monster like Glenfarclas, a fruit bomb like Glenlivet or a light dram like Cardhu?
Especially in Speyside, many distilleries operate for large conglomerates that produce top selling blends like Johnnie Walker, Ballantine’s or Grant’s. The whisky style of a distillery is often dictated by the needs of the blenders. To see this phenomenom in a nutshell you should best visit Dufftown. Grant’s own Glenfiddich and Balvenie which are literally next door to each other. Glenfiddich has a rather light and fruity style, Balvenie is a bit richer and famed for its honey flavours.
Even more striking is the difference between Mortlach and Dufftown distilleries. Both are owned by Diageo, and they are located just half a mile apart in the same beautiful glen, but they produce entirely different whiskies. Mortlach is a full-bodied, rich and “beefy” single malt while Dufftown whisky is rather light and grassy. Dufftown used to make richer and nuttier whisky in the past, but with more and more Lowland distilleries closing, Dufftown distillery was ordered to produce a mock Lowland malt to secure the supply of this whisky style for the Diageo blends.
To futher complicate things, there are the chameleon distilleries like Bruichladdich or Benriach that produce such a wide variety of whisky styles that any attempt of categorization is futile. What does the Laddie Classic have in common with the Port Charlotte?
Is There Such A Thing As A Whisky Terroir?
The regions concept is based on the assumption that like in the wine world the location of a whisky distillery has an influence on the character of whisky. The examples cited above clearly show that this is not the case. There are just too many variables involved in whisky making to justify such an approach.
And there is also a big difference between the production of whisky and wine: Apart from the cheapest adulterated supermarket brands, wine is grown and produced locally or at least regionally. Pomerol wine is made from grapes grown in Pomerol, Mosel riesling is made from grapes grown on the steep slopes bordering the Mosel river.
The barley for Scotch whisky may come from virtually everywhere. A large quantity is grown in Scotland, that’s true, but apart from very few examples the barley is not harvested and malted in the immediate surroundings of the distilleries. And of course some barley is also imported, with quite a bit even coming from England. Oh dear. And don’t get me started on the maturation issue…
Do We Need Regions Only To Sort Distilleries?
I shamefully admit it. I too have grouped the distilleries for my tasting notes according to the traditional whisky regions. It’s hard to give up a habit. But I may just do it. Get rid of this usesless nonsense.
When I told my friend Keith Wood of Whisky Emporium about my intention to write this artcle, he asked me if he could contribute his feelings about the issue. How could I refuse?
“Whisky Regions”, now there’s a good concept Oliver and one which I think deserves one of those infamous Gold Medals when it comes to tourism, but whisky?
Let me begin by reminding everyone about the new laws regarding Scotch whisky, its production, ageing process and labelling which came into force as of 30th November 2009, in which the five so called whisky regions were defined as Highlands, Lowlands, Campbeltown, Speyside & Islay.
All well and good one may say, but I personally used to subscribe to the concept of six whisky regions as I also included ‘Islands’.
“Used to”? You ask.
Well, if I’m honest I guess I still do, albeit only really geographically as I truly believe the days of categorising and identifying whisky characteristics by geographical location are over.
Yes, in general Islay whiskies tend towards peatiness. Lowland whiskies towards a certain lightness and freshness, complex Speysiders ….. etc …. You already probably know all the wonderful fairy stories explaining how local water, warehouse location and just ‘terroir’ itself define a distilelry’s product, which is often very different to the product of the distillery right next door!
What about the recent proliferation of peated Speyside whiskies, or unpeated Islay ones, none of which exactly enforce the terroir or connected arguments. Then there’s the fact that a large proportion of distillery product isn’t even warehoused at the distillery any more as it’s carted off to massive centralised warehouse complexes owned by the large corporates, as you so eloquently E-Pistled for the Maniacs last year.
There again, ‘Guilty as Charged’ I plead as I look back at my notes from 2006 when I ran a series of whisky tastings and sure enough, one was entitled “Regions” and if wish to know the drams I used were; A G&M Bladnoch, Springbank 15y, Benromach 21y, a 1989 Highland Park, Glen Garioch 8y and a Bruichladdich Links (just to disprove the terroir thing!). So yes, I will talk about whisky regions, in fact they area brilliant marketing tool when introducing someone new to whisky, but we do have a saying in England that rules are there to be broken, possibly this one comes in that category!