However, this line doesn’t stretch past mainland
Scotland. Except for Islay, all of the islands are
grouped together into a single sub-region of the
Highlands. That puts the Isle of Arran (between
Campbeltown to the west and the Lowlands to
the east) in the Highlands as well.
My mind always stumbles over the fact that the
Speyside region is both the whisky region with the
largest production (well over 50% of all the Scotch
malt whiskies are produced there) and part of
ANOTHER region at the same time: the Highlands.
The Highlands cover the largest part of Scotland,
and include the important central Speyside region.
Anything that's located north of the (imaginary)
line between the Firth of Clyde in the west and
the Firth of Tay in the east (so, roughly the line
between Glasgow and Edinburgh) is considered
to be part of the Highlands.
Those silly Scots... doesn’t that mean that the
whisky region with the largest production would
actually be the Highlands - including Speyside?
But let’s not quibble about these things...
Instead, let’s quibble about the fact that only 80% of this regional
classification makes sense. The division in North, East, West and
South is perfectly logical, but the fifth sub-region is ‘the Islands’.
Those islands are spread across all of Scotland - from Orkney
in the far north to Arran in the south - next to the Lowlands.
The sub-division of the Highlands is pretty straightforward.
The area to the north of Speyside (a separate whisky region in its own right)
is called the Northern Highlands while the area to the east of Speyside is
called the Eastern Highlands. The Western Highlands can be found west of
Speyside while the Southern Highlands (a.k.a. Midlands) are located.. south.
That leaves the islands - which are spread all across Scotland’s coast line.
The idea of ‘Scotch whisky regions’ rests on the assumption that
distilleries from the same area may share certain characteristics.
The Highlands stretch for hundreds of miles, so there might be
more than a dozen different micro-climates in the Highlands.
One of the first regional profiles I (imagined I) could identify in the 1990s
was the ‘broad’ bouquet of a Northern Highland malt whisky. The nose
of a 'typical' Northern Highlander at the time was big, sweet and malty.
Dalmore, Glen Ord and Old Pulteney all had 12yo official bottlings in
their range during the 1990s. They had fragrant bouquets with plenty
of complexity, underscored by palates that were sweet and a tad dry.
Still, there's lots of variety in the Northern Highlands, especially these
days with malt whisky distillers using modern production techniques.
Some distilleries ‘finish’ (part of) the whisky in exotic casks while others
heavily peat (some of) their malted barley where they didn’t before.
That’s why it’s always good to know when a whisky was actually bottled.
(Please note that Michael Jackson considered some of these distilleries Speysiders...)
Fate hasn't been kind to the distilleries in this part of Scotland.
Over half of the distilleries in the area were closed in the last
few decades. These days; only (Old) Fettercairn, Glencadam,
Glen Garioch and (Royal) Lochnagar are still operational.
But it could have been worse; Glencadam was mothballed
for some time as well, but it has been reopened in 2003.
As for 'typical' traits of Eastern Highland malts: Glen Garioch
and Royal Lochnagar tend to be quite fruity these days, even
though Glen Garioch produced a smokier spirit before 1985.
Fettercairn and Lochside have a more malty and oily character.
The bottlings of Glencadam and Hillside / Glenesk that I've tried usually performed below par.
However, that's hardly a 'problem'. The Hillside / Glenesk distillery was closed in 1985, so there will be fewer
and fewer of those bottlings on the shelves of liquorists. As for Glencadam - we'll just have to wait and see....
Apart from some nice bottlings from Blair Athol and Aberfeldy, few
of the Midlands whiskies I've sampled so far managed to impress me.
Most Midlanders from the 1990s were just what you would expect;
a strange mixture of Highland and Lowland characteristics.
Edradour is a different story; the standard official bottlings from the 1990's were not that
special (and sometimes downright awful), but since Andrew Symington took control of the
distillery they released a long string of finished expressions - some of them exceptional.
We visited Edradour with a bunch of Malt Maniacs in 2003 when it still was the smallest
distillery in Scotland and whisky legend Iain Henderson had just joined their staff.
The younger official expressions from Deanston, Glenturret
and Tullibardine are usually not really my cup of tea.
As far as I was concerned during the late 1990's,
the Western Highlands produced only two
decent malt whiskies: Oban and Ben Nevis.
The late whisky writer Michael Jackson puts Dalwhinnie in the (central)
Speyside area - but the label on Dalwhinnie’s OB's says it's a Highland
malt from Inverness-shire. That puts it in the Western Highlands, doesn't it?
These days, Ben Nevis is my favourite Western Highland distillery.
Younger bottlings are rarely stellar, but the same goes for other releases
from the area. Older bottlings of Ben Nevis can be utterly stunning though...
Most of the bottlings I've tried from Glengoyne,
Glenlochy and Loch Lomond didn't exactly tickle
my fancy, although Glengoyne briefly punched
above its weight during the early noughties. .
My favorite island is Islay - but whisky writer Michael Jackson actually
considers the island to be a separate whisky region in its own right.
As for the islands that are actually part of the ‘Islands’ district of the
Highlands, my favourites are Skye in the north-west (home of Talisker)
and Orkney in the north-east (home of Highland Park and Scapa).
Malt whiskies from Mull, Jura and Arran generally lack the power
and intensity of those from the northern islands I mentioned earlier.
However, I’ve enjoyed some peated expressions from Isle of Jura
much more than their regular counterparts - which seemed ‘oilier’.
Meanwhile, the stocks at Arran have been maturing nicely as well. Arran was founded in 1995,
just like the Malt Madness website. Until +/- 2005 I’ve had to suffer through many insufficiently
matured bottlings before they had built up enough malt whisky stocks after their first decade.
These days there are plenty of recommendable bottles in Arran’s portfolio.
And that concludes the part about Highland whisky regions.
When it comes to the whisky regions as defined on Malt Madness
I've mostly followed the lead of whisky writer Michael Jackson, but
in 2004 (when the Malt Maniacs site was still part of Malt Madness)
we had a few heated 'Borderline Personalities' debates.
As a result of these sessions, the malt maniacs decided to deviate
from Michael Jackson’s regional classifications in a few cases.
After all, the basis for that system was laid in the late 1980s when
the Scotch whisky industry was still recovering from a crash.
Things have changed a lot since then...
The SWA introduced its own system with just 3 regions in 2009
but some 'whisky professionals' still argue about the details.
My advice: don’t get too distracted by ‘local’ issues...