Not long after I discovered single malts, I also discovered that these
whiskies all had their own unique character & style. Very interesting!
But what could be the cause? During the 1990s, most whisky writers
and PR people claimed that this was because of the 'TERROIRS' of
Scotland; the five or six main whisky regions on the map at the right.
In the first chapter I explained why I have been focussing my spirited affections
on malt 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
whisky distilleries in the Highlands alone. Nowadays, there are around
one hundred active malt whisky distilleries left in all of Sotland.
After sampling over 5,000 different
single malt Scotch whiskies, I’m now
able to say with some confidence that
the idea of Scotch terroirs is overrated.
In the past, people used to get excited
about sub-divididing the Speyside
area further into regions like 'Livet'
or 'Findhorn Valley'. I’ll explain why
I think that this factor is no longer
relevant in the Debunker Bunker.
(But that’s still “under construction”.)
In these modern time, the company that
owns a distillery plays a much bigger role
than local factors like Scotch micro-climates.
People have been making whiskey for hundreds of
years in other countries too, but until a decade ago
the only other country where they made FANTASTIC
malt whisky was Japan. (I’m on the fence on Ireland.)
For example, look at that bottle of Balvenie at the left...
As a beginner, you may not know the brand or distillery yet, but I hope you’ll agree
that the bottle is beautiful. Surely, the whisky inside it must be much ‘better’ than
a ‘standard’ malt like Glenfiddich? Well, they are owned by the same company...
It is not uncommon for people to get emotional when they are drinking whisky...
Many enthusiastic travel plans to Scotland have been
inspired by the whisky that was made there. (And many
plans were abandoned again in the harsh light of day.)
But if you are going to travel, Scotland is pretty great!
The scenery of the Highlands & islands is breathtaking,
so it’s a great place for trekking and bird watching.
The history of Scotland is fascinating too.
Two millennia ago the Romans got as far north as
the Antonine Wall (left), built it and, erm... left again.
More than a millennium later, in the year 1158 AD,
‘rex insularum’ Somerled ruled a vast sea empire
from a small island in a lake on the isle of Islay.
And then they started building stills...
The latest Scotch whisky boom started around the year 2000.
Even though dozens of other countries have developed respectable whiskey distilling traditions
of their own, the globalisation hadn’t gone into overdrive yet until the end of the 20th century.
This meant that the more ‘exotic’ whiskeys from Australia or Taiwan simply didn’t appear on
the shelves of retailers in most markets - including large markets like Europe and the USA.
This situation has changed a lot in the third millennium.
Back in the olden days, whisky lovers that didn’t happen
to live in a large city had to travel long distances to get
access to a reasonable selection of whiskeys
from different types, distilleries and countries.
Oh, how the times have a-changed...
In today’s brave new world we have webshops
and e-commerce - and many liquor stores have
expanded their shelf space for different whiskey
types and brands from a multitude of countries.
(Check out the chapter on shopping for tips.)
When it comes to Scotch malt whisky,
there really are four different “classes”
of brands - depending on provenance;
- Official Bottlings (OB’s)
- Independent Bottlings (IB’s)
- Bastard Malts (unknown distillery)
- Vatted Malts (a.k.a. blended malts)
The large whisky producers like Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Bacardi all
have importers and lobby clubs in most parts of the world, so you can
find their brands at many liquor stores. Small distilleries and independent
whisky bottlers often have to conquer local markets one at the time.
Especially when it comes to
blended whisky and the more
affordable vatted malts, many
brands are available in just
one or a handful of countries.
Another aspect of geography is the fact that the shelves of a liquorist in
Amsterdam will look very different from shelves in New York, Damascus
or Bangalore. That makes sense - tastes & laws vary between countries.
So, you won’t find a bottle of ‘McKullick’s Choice’ or ‘Glen Wanky’
in every country, but these days most well stocked liquorists usually
have at least some OB’s from a few Scotch malt whisky distilleries.
Available of other whiskey types and brands is much more varied.
Before I get back to the whisky regions of Scotland
I want to stress that, even within the same country,
the number of whiskey types, brands and varieties
that one is exposed to differs greatly.
Do you always do your whiskey shopping at the
same liquor store? Perhaps you should try a few
other ones as well. Have you ever bought whiskey
online? Why not give that a try some time? Or do
you need to travel? Then there’s travel retail (*).
The number of options a whisk(e)y lover has depends
partly on his or her geographical location and lifestyle.
Even if your options are relatively limited, you should
still be able to obtain and compare various bottles.
And comparing whiskies really is the fun part...
Sure, it would be fun to try a Glen Wanky from the 1940s.
But if the effort or expense of obtaining a bottle of the stuff takes away
some of the fun in other parts of your life, maybe it’s just not worth it...
Just focus on the whiskies and whiskeys you can get your hands on.
(*) Travel retail and tax free stores
take advantage of the fact that travelling
people are even more confused than
they usually are. The ‘Travel Exclusive’
bottlings offer the worst whisky at the
worst price. Just take the time to visit
a proper liquor store - or a webshop.
Regional styles and ‘house styles’ may not be as important as they were decades ago,
but the concept of whisky regions still provides a useful ‘handle’ on the whisky world.
And although the importance of ‘geographical’ factors like the usage of local barley
and micro-climates has diminished, 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.
Scholars divide it into 5 main malt whisky regions - Speyside | Highlands
Lowlands | Islay | Campbeltown. Each region can be subdivided further.
The Lowlands region, for example, is divided into four areas; Central, East,
West and Borders. That’s pretty pointless, because there are only three
active malt whisky distilleries remaining in the Lowlands. And some novices
believe that the isle of Islay is the only place where peated whisky is made.
In fact, peated single malts are also made on the mainland - and in Ireland.
At some point, the selection of whiskies and whiskeys at your local liquorist might
not be extensive enough any more to satisfy your growing curiosity about malt whisky.
However, for ‘absolute beginners’ any liquor store that offers, say, a dozen different
Scotch malt whiskies and at least two or three other types of whiskey should be OK.
So, as long as you understand that the value of Scotch whisky regions is
mostly folkloric and historic, it adds an extra dimension to the whisky world.
The Debunker Bunker and Advanced Beginner’s Guide both look closer at
some issues with Scotch whisky regions while the interactive whisky map
of Scotland shows the location of all active Scotch malt whisky distilleries.