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Down With Whisky Regions!

by Oliver Klimek on June 13, 2011

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!

 

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Steffen Bräuner June 13, 2011 at 5:49 pm

True True

I have even seen grain distilleries regionalised as “Highland” etc., dunno what to think of that!

Steffen

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Oliver Klimek June 13, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Now that really is nice twist. Highland grain whisky from American maize or English wheat.

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Ryan Marshman June 13, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Brilliant article.

A very passionate topic of mine – in a former life I was a successful retailer of many, many malt whiskies and one of the very first things I set about doing when trying to form a regular customer into a pliable and valuable, informed and enthusiastic one was set about debunking the terroir myths.

Historically speaking, it makes sense. Isolated strains of barley may have existed exclusively in an area local to one distillery, peat – primitive coal, degrading organic material is undeniably different, but in this free trading import export world of ours the local nuances are well and truly lost.

I’m thrilled to see someone with some credibility has written about it.

On a somewhat sour note, I would like to point out that the first thing under “Related posts” is an article entitled “Whisky Basics 2/4 – Regions” So close, yet so far!

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Oliver Klimek June 13, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Yes, those were my “textbook” beginnings ;-) I will rewrite this for sure.

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Steffen Bräuner June 13, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Ah leave it, when you are tryng to get the basics, regions can be useful, Don’t let the fact they are meaningless change that :-)

Steffen

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_MosStef_ June 13, 2011 at 10:05 pm

That was a great read, Oliver! I think you got it just about right.

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Marc June 14, 2011 at 11:53 am

Hi Oliver. I don’t see the big deal… but I also do not equate a region with a flavour profile, and as long as whisky enthusiasts know enough to do the same, then there is no real problem. No where does the SWA say that the region must conform to a specific flavour profile. Its just a way to orientate a drinker to the geography of Scotland and help his mind have a vague idea of where his whisky came from. Any more meaning than that cannot and should not be extrapolated.

As @bruichladdich01 on Twitter has said the region classifications were in large part due to administration of distilling licenses. It is only past (and in some cases present uninformed) whisky drinkers that created the perception that a region is synonymous to a style. (This used to be much more of a ‘truth’ than today.) It is up to us more informed drinkers to change that perception, however, I think continuing with the regions is a good thing as it is rooted in whisky history and does no harm.

If you told me a new distillery was opening in Achuvoldrach by the Kyle of Tonuge, I would look at you like I was mentally disadvantaged. But if you tell me its in the Highlands, my mind would would see an image of Scotland and I would have at least some kind of idea where the distillery could be (and where it definitely cannot be.)

It is up to all of us who know better to do our part in chipping away the misconception, but I don’t see reason to remove the region classifications.

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Oliver Klimek June 14, 2011 at 12:11 pm

I understand your reasoning, Marc, but I still believe it would be better to get rid of the regions. The region-taste myth is perpetuated in so many modern publications that the orientation aspect is perceived as secondary. And I frankly don’t care if a distillery is on the River Spey or the River Tay. Is it really more important to know in which part of Scotland Glenfarclas is located as opposed to say Midleton in Irleand, Forty Creek in Canada or Yamazaki in Japan?

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richard June 14, 2011 at 10:34 pm

I enjoyed the post and totally agree.
Can you explain why the “single malt flavour map” hasn’t caught on?

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Oliver Klimek June 14, 2011 at 10:44 pm

It seems the regions concept has been burnt so deeply into the minds of so many people that new concepts have a very tough time to be universally recognized.

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Marc June 14, 2011 at 11:00 pm

The problem with the flavour map as I see it, is that it is “owned” by Diageo and thus you rarely see a map with anything other than Diageo whiskies on it. It also is requires careful placement of a whisky on the various gradients and as such is hard to categorically place any whisky that is not an extreme example of a flavour corner.

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richard June 14, 2011 at 11:38 pm

Marc
I would be more than happy to debate with you where to place that Springbank 18,
Bruichladdich 18, or a Mortlach 32 yr old. Any of them may require several taste comparisons. Clearly that cannot be a bad thing.
I use the map all the time.
I think Diageo is missing out on such an opportunity. If anybody from Diageo is read reading this please contact me.
Richard.

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