The ‘traditional’ division into five whisky regions (and further
sub-regions) didn’t really hold up under scrutiny. So, when the
SWA (Scotch Whisky Association) introduced some new whisky
legislation in 2009 they also slipped in some (relatively) simple
rules about the borders of between the three whisky regions.
As more and more people became interested in Scotch malt
whisky during the late 1990s and early 2000s, more and more
of them were what I’d like to call ‘smart people’...
Whisky fanatic Steffen Bräuner from Denmark has published
a bunch of fantastic whisky maps on his site and Google Maps.
The screeshot at the left shows (among other things) the only
two remaining SWA whisky borders in Scotland. They are the
blue line separating the Highlands from the Lowlands and the
pink line separating Speyside from the (rest of the) Highlands...
I’m not the biggest SWA fan in the world, but I have to admit
that their new regional classification makes (a little) more
sense than the old ‘Michael Jackson’ system. At the same time,
it demotes Islay from a fully fledged whisky region in its own
right to just ‘part of the Highlands’ - just like Campbeltown.
Furthermore, it doesn’t recognise ‘Islands’ as a region.
That simply doesn’t work for me - the three whisky regions of the SWA are painted in such broad strokes
that it effectively undermines the entire point of recognising different Scotch whisky regions in the first place.
So, I’ll keep using the five ‘classic’ whisky regions on Malt Madness in the foreseeable future.
The main reasons for the popularity of the whole idea
of ‘whisky regions’ is probably because the first ‘big’
whisky writer Michael Jackson used it as a ‘handle’ to
introduce people to the Scotch whisky world at a time
when ‘terroirs’ were a big talking point in the wine world.
Also, Diageo used it to promote malt whisky in the 1990s.
It is true that in the 18th and 19th century there were
certain local differences in the whisky making traditions,
but most of those differences had disappeared by the
time the Scotch whisky industry had abandoned its illegal
roots and became respectable by the late 1900s.
If you’ve already been properly introduced to Scotch malt
whisky, the ‘traditional’ whisky regions of Scotland were
probably included in the introduction; Speyside, Highlands,
Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown. But how ‘traditional’
were those Scotch whisky regions to begin with?
When it comes to the production of Scotch malt whisky, local
factors are not quite as important as they are in (for example) the
wine world. The 'terroir' doesn’t have as much influence on the
malt whisky distilled at a particular distillery as in the past, when
ingredients were local and the casks actually aged at the distillery.
These days, many Scotch whisky distilleries obtain barley from
overseas while most Scotch distilleries now use central warehouses.
Some brand ambassadors paint pretty pictures of local Scottish farmers growing the barley for a neighbouring
distillery or the casks of ‘Whisky XXX’ maturing in a traditional dunnage warehouse behind the distillery. Just keep
in mind that this is true for fewer and fewer distilleries; most malt whisky now matures inside a few large central
warehouses that often look indistinguishable from other industrial storage facilities from the outside.
The page about the Speyside region provides more
details about the rich history of this central area of the
Highlands. Many Scotch whisky distillers set up their
operations in the area because of the abundance of
fresh, clean water from sources and streams.
The Speyside whisky region doesn’t cover the largest
area, but it’s still the most important Scotch whisky region.
For one thing, it is the home of the most malt whisky
distilleries in Scotland - even though most new distillery
projects seem to be in the Lowlands and on islands now.
The Highlands cover the largest part of Scotland,
and they include the central Speyside region.
Every distillery located north of the (imaginary)
line between the Firth of Clyde in the west and
the Firth of Tay in the east (i.e.between Glasgow
and Edinburgh) is located in the Highlands.
The Lowlands region is located in the Southernmost
part of Scotland - the part that’s closest to England.
But then again, most of the Lowland distilleries are
located near the Northern border of the region,
roughly near Glasgow and Edinburgh (or just below
the virtual line from Dundee to Greenock).
Most Islay whiskies are immediately recognisable because
of their trademark peaty character. The power of an Islay
whisky can be overwhelming for less experienced noses and
palates. There are a few notable exceptions though, including
some unpeated whiskies from Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila.
Campbeltown is probably the least known malt whisky region.
It is named after the only real town on the Kintyre peninsula and
there are only two active distilleries left in the area; Springbank
and Glen Scotia. (Well, three ‘distilleries’ if you count Glengyle.)
But things used to be very different...
There were dozens of malt whisky distilleries in and around
the town of Campbeltown at the start of the 20th century. At the
time, the city was famous as 'the capital of the whisky world'.
Furthermore, all Islands (except for Islay) are
part of the Highlands. This includes Orkney in
the far north to the isle of Arran in the south
(between Campbeltown and the Lowlands).
Especially if we include the islands, the area of
the Highlands stretches for hundreds of miles.
Access to water may not seem like a very big thing to
modern people, but it was an important issue in the 18th
century when drinking beer was safer than drinking water.
In fact, the map at the right doesn’t even cover
the entire Highlands; islands like Arran, Skye and
Orkney are ‘outlyers’. The distance between the
'island' distilleries Highland Park (on Orkney) and
Jura (on the Isle of Jura) is circa 250 miles, while
the Laphroaig distillery on Islay is located closer
to many distilleries in the other whisky regions like
Campbeltown, the Lowlands - or even Speyside.
During the late 1980s and 1990s, the only distilleries that
were making heavily peated Scotch malt whisky were on Islay.
However, around the year 2000 some mainland distilleries
picked up this old tradition again. Heavily peated whisky can
be produced anywhere and the whisky region where the
distillery happens to be located is mostly a secondary factor.
So-called ‘house styles’ are mostly a thing of the past.
Some people think that triple distillation is still a
typical ‘Lowland’ trait, but at the moment only the
Auchentoshan distillery still uses the technique.
Oh, how times have a-changed.
Virtually all Campbeltown distilleries were closed down in the
first decades of the 20th century. To add insult to injury, in 2009
the Scotch Whisky Association announced that it doesn’t even
recognise Campbeltown as a separate whisky region anymore.
It is now considered part of the Highlands.
With Islay and Campbeltown downgraded by the SWA, there now
are just three Scotch whisky regions left; Speyside, the Highlands
and the Lowlands. Or two - if you consider that Speyside is also
the most central part of the Highlands. Over 95% of all Scotch
malt whisky distilleries are Highland distilleries now...
But there are significant differences in the way that
whisk(e)y is distilled between, for example, Ireland
and Scotland. That is why, with a few exceptions,
most Irish and American whiskeys are not single
malts - the production process is simply different.
The Distillery Data section focuses on Scotch single
malt whisky and the five “traditional” whisky regions.
But even while Scotland is still one of the most
important whisky producing countries, it only makes
a fraction of the whisk(e)y produced world wide.
I hope to cover countries like Ireland, Japan and
the USA on the ‘world whisky’ page in the future.
After all is said and done, I think it’s safe to say
that the whisky regions and local factors are not
quite as important as they once may have been for
the production of Scotch malt whisky. Perhaps the
fashionability of French wine ‘terroirs’ in the 1980s
and 1990s just made some of the Scots jealous... .