Nevertheless, it offers relative novices a useful handle
on malt whisky.
And although the importance of geographic factors like local barley and
micro-climates has diminished in recent decades, they still play a role in
the production process. So, here's a brief synopsis on the geography of
Scotland. The home of bagpipes and haggis is located in the north of the
British isles and divided by scholars into the five main malt whisky regions;
Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown. Each region can
be subdivided further. The Lowlands region, for example, is divided into four
areas; Central, East, West and Borders - that with just three active distilleries.
Soon after I started drinking single malts, I discovered that these whiskies
all had their own unique character. Interesting - what could be the cause?
According to the stories spread by PR people that would be 'TERROIRS'
of Scotland - five or six main whisky regions, often divided into different
subdivisions like 'Livet' or 'Findhorn Valley' in the central Speyside area.
Until recently I had little reason to doubt these stories, but by the time
I passed the 2000 malts mark I had learned that 'terroir' is over-rated.
In the first chapter I explained why I'm focussing my liquorous affections on whiskies
from Scotland. It must be much bigger than it looks on this map, because at one
point in history there used to be over 300 different distilleries in the Highlands
alone. Nowadays, there are less than 100 active distilleries left in all Sotland.
Especially single malts from this island Islay
Ah, I remember it well...
So, the area in which a particular single malt whisky is produced is still an important factor.
But there are many more influences at work here. A whisky is influenced by the varieties and quality of the
barley that is used for the mash, the minerals in the water, the size and shape of the stills, the mood of the
stillman, etc. The single most important factors by far are the type of wood used for maturation, as well as
the duration of the maturation itself. Try comparing the Glenmorangie 10yo with the Glenmorangie Port
Wood Finish, for instance. The only difference is some two years of extra maturation in port barrels - but
what a difference those two years makes! However, we're in danger of getting far ahead of ourselves.
Before whisky can be matured it has to be distilled first - the topic of the next chapter.
I will get to the topic of 'maturation' in a moment, but I want to share a few
thoughts on peat first. In fact, that will probably be the very first 'geographical'
distinction you will be able to make after you've taken your first shaky steps into
the wonderful world of whisky. You won't mistake a glass of Lagavulin 16yo for a
Lowlander or a Speysider, even if you haven't tried many different malts before.
It's amazing how such a tiny island (located off the coast of mainland Scotland,
west of Glasgow) can produce a class of whiskies that are so very distinctive.
The peaty character of these Islay malts doesn't come from Islay, though...
Whisky & Whiskey (Jim Murray)
The peaty, smoky style of many Islay malts has nothing to do with
the brown 'peaty' water that is sometimes used during production.
It is caused by the fact that the germinating barley is dried over
peat fires instead of, for example, coal fires or central heating.
The fragrant smoke carries over into the barley, then the whisky.
As you go along you'll discover more and more differences
between different malts. Although many single malts reveal their
origins in their nose and taste, every one of them is unique.
The product of distilleries only miles apart can be very different.
It's the wide variation in character and style which sets single
malts apart from other drinks like cognac, bourbon and wodka.
Although many tall tales about the whisky 'terroirs' of Scotland
need to be taken with a grain (or in some cases a few
spoonfuls) of salt to make them palatable to the discerning brain, a geographical look at the distilleries of Scotland can still
be enlightening and enjoyable. The Interactive Distillery Map of Scotland in the 'Distillery Data' section of Malt Madness
provides an overview of all active (and recently closed) malt and grain whisky distilleries in Scotland. It's a work of beauty!
But so far I've only talked about Scotland - what about other countries like Ireland, Japan and the USA?
Well, as the name suggests, Malt Madness focusses on MALT whisky - and Scotland is still the undisputed #1 by far.
Nevertheless, very interesting things are happening in other countries as well - and older grain whiskies and blends can
be very appealing too. I'll go deeper into those segments of the whisky world in the Advanced Beginner's Guide, but you
can also find some information in the Deviant Drams section. (However, please note that this site section isn't finished yet.)
So, at the end of the third chapter of the guide , you find yourself packed with enough malt trivia to impress your local barkeeper.
That's quite enough 'dry' theory on a 'wet' topic for now, wouldn't you agree? I'd say it's time we focused on more serious business.
And when I say 'business' I mean business like the noble art of distillation for example - which is the topic of the next chapter of this guide.
The Romans could have reached ISLAY
if they would have had
any balls (and would have been able to swim). The small island
is located not far beyond the Westernmost edge of the ruins of
the Antonine Wall (a less familiar relative of Hadrian's Wall).
Because of their typical peaty style, most Islay whiskies are
immediately recognisable as such. However, the peaty, smoky
character of Islay malts isn't an actual 'regional' trait as such.
region is the 'ugly duckling' of the five regions.
It's positively the smallest of the Scottish malt whisky regions, named after the only proper town on the Kintyre peninsula.
These days, there are only 2 active whisky distilleries left in the whole Campbeltown region; Springbank and Glen Scotia.
Some people perceive the whisky brands Glengyle and Longrow as separate Campbeltown whiskies as well, but those are
actually produced by the people that run the Springbank distillery. Things used to be very different a century ago, though.
Campbeltown was booming and the small town and area was home to more than 30 malt whisky distilleries.
But that's ancient history - very interesting in itself, but perhaps not the most suitable material for a 'Beginner's Guide'.
However, it is a topic I've investigated further in the Advanced Beginner's Guide - an extensive addition to this basic guide. Even though the importance of 'terroir' is sometimes overrated, different malts from the same part of Scotland share certain characteristics. The region of origin of a whisky can sometimes tell you something about the character of the whisky, before you've tasted it. Most young island whiskies, for example, tend to have a stronger bouquet than whiskies from the Lowlands.
Distilleries that are located on the mainland
can produce 'peat
monsters' too, as distilleries like Brora, Benriach and Edradour
have proven in the past. However, the phenolic aroma & taste
can be too much for some people - you either love it or hate it.
Note: the peaty style can grow on you. If you sample one of
those 'peat monsters' and don't like it, try again in a few years.
The list at the right offers an overview of the main MALT WHISKY REGIONS
These main malt whisky regions are fairly universally recognised - but I've also included the
various area's they contain. Opinions about the exact subdivision into areas are not quite
unanimous - but I've followed the division as identified by whisky writer Michael Jackson.
I should point out that this is just one of many different ways of classifying single malts.
Michael Jackson's list is just one of many possible divisions based on Scottish geography.
As I mentioned before, a classification based on geography has its merits - but not a lot...
Considering over 80% of all malts
Speyside malts usually do have plenty of nose - but please keep in mind that this
isn't necessarily a good thing. And there's at least as much variety in 'quality' as in
'personality' in Speysiders. All in all - I wonder if the subdivision of Speyside into
smaller areas is very useful. I've found huge differences between 'neighbouring'
malts and striking similarities between malt whiskies from different areas.
Some people see the MIDLANDS as a separate region.
Single malts produced in the Midlands (a.k.a. Southern
Highlands) like Tullibardine or Glenturret are really quite different from the whiskies produced to the North & West.
Most Northern Highland and Island malt whiskies like
Highland Park, Talisker and Ardbeg are more expressive.
That conveniently brings us to the 3d region on the list; the LOWLANDS
in the South
of Scotland. The region is actually the part of Scotland that is closest to England. But
then again, most Lowland distilleries are located close to the Northern border of the
region, roughly around the line between Glasgow and Edinburgh (or the line from
Dundee to Greenock). Hadrian's Wall forms the Southern border of the Lowlands.
These borders are arbitrary anyway; The Inverleven is a Lowland malt, while the
Inchmurrin distillery (located only a few miles to the North) is officially a Midland
(= southern Highland) malt. The same goes for Glengoyne and Littlemill. The only
active Lowland distillery that isn't found close to the Highlands border is Bladnoch!
Those merits are mostly historical. These days, whisky distillers can just as easily produce
a heavily peated 'Islay style' malt whisky within Speyside as they can on the island itself.
Every single malt whisky is still unique, but the 'terroirs' theory should be taken lightly...
More than half of all distilleries in Scotland are
located in the most central SPEYSIDE region.
Speyside is surrounded by the Highlands - a
much larger region. Nevertheless, the variety
in character and style in Speyside is huge.
A tricky feature of many Speyside whiskies
in blind tastings is the fact that there are no
simple 'giveaways' like the peat & smoke in
Islay malts or a typical Lowlandish lightness.
The HIGHLANDS cover a much larger area than Speyside,
but are a distant second when it comes to the number of
distilleries. Anything located North of the imaginary line
between the Firth of Clyde (West) & Firth of Tay (East)
is considered to be situated in the Highlands region.
In other words, everything North of the imaginary line between Glasgow and Edinburgh - with the exception
of the central Speyside area and Islay, of course...
Scotland has many different 'micro climates'. Because the 'Highlands' area is so large,
there's a very wide variety in terms of the conditions that shape the character of a
single malt. As a result, it's very hard to identify any specific characteristics of 'THE
Highland malt'. The broadest generalisation I'm willing to make is that an average
young Highland malt is more expressive than a young Lowlander.