Once you understand the different distillations of whisky, you can begin to explore the character of all the whisky regions that produce them – and there’s only one place to start.
Scotland is divided into five official sub regions (terroirs) for the purposes of labeling whisky. Each has different geological, geographical and climatic qualities that give distinctive character to their produce.
Consumers are not entirely in sympathy with the way the whisky regions are drawn however and so, for example, distinctions are often made between Highland malts and malts from the Western Isles even though officially this is one region, and the inclusion of some distilleries in the Speyside demarcation rather than the neighbouring Highland one (with which it was once united) is often contended.
Geographically the Highland and Lowland whisky regions between them account for most of the geographical area of Scotland, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they have the most distilleries – small areas like Speyside have a far higher density.
This island is deemed a region in its own right and currently has 8 distilleries. They are Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig. They share a strong smoky character that is derived from peating of the barley and directly from the water itself (many describe it as a “medicinal” taste). Being an Atlantic island it is also infused with hints of iodine, seaweed and sea-salt.
THE WESTERN ISLES
Officially part of one region with the Highlands, are all the other islands excluding Islay. The main distilleries are Arran, Jura, Tobermory (Isle of Mull), Highland Park and Scapa (Orkney) and Talisker (from Skye). On average, Island whiskies are intermediary between Highland and Islay in character but there is a lot of variation between them – Talisker for example is complex and peppery and contrasts strongly with the delicacy of Arran malts.
The Shetland Distillery Company was founded in 2013 and will become the world’s most northerly producer when its whisky comes on stream in about 5 years (a distinction currently held by Scapa).
On the mainland the main distilleries of the region are Aberfeldy, Balblair, Ben Nevis, Dalmore, Glen Ord, Glenmorangie, Oban, Glendronach, Old Pulteney, Tullibardine and Tomatin. Of these Glenmorangie is probably the best known but the others have no less character. Highland whiskies are full-bodied whiskies with plenty peat and smoke. The northerly ones generally have a heathery, spicy character whilst those further south are more fruity.
This is the strip of coast that runs eastward from Inverness and is named after the Spey river that runs through it. Half of Scotland’s distilleries are in the small area of Speyside.
Just a few of the distilleries are Aberlour, Balvenie, Cardhu, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenfarclas, Glenglassaugh, Glenfiddich, Speyburn, The Macallan, The Glenlivet, The Glenrothes, and Tomintoul. Some Speyside whisky – such as Glenlivet – has a reputation for being light smooth and grassy, whilst others – for example Macallan – is relatively rich and sweet.
This region is part of The Mull peninsular – that ribbon of land that reaches out almost to Northern Ireland. This small area was once much busier with distilleries than it is today – only 3 remain out of the 30 it once had. They are Glen Scotia, Glengyle, and Springbank. Their whiskies are peaty and briny (in the 1920s they were even described as “fishy”).
One of the larger scotch whisky regions – most lowland whisky is triple distilled, resulting in lighter body and taste. Some people prefer this delicacy whilst others demean it in favour of the heavy bodied character of the Highlands.
There are five distilleries currently in production – Auchentoshan, Bladnoch, Glenkinchie, Annandale and Ailsa Bay (from the Girvan Distillery) as well as 3 or 4 new ones that have yet to release their first offerings (at time of writing) – Daftmill, Eden Mill, Kingsbarns, and Borders (at Hawick). At least six other lowland single malts are still available (if you’re lucky enough to find one) even though they’re no longer being actively distilled – Rosebank, Kinclaith, St. Magdalene, Ladyburn, Inverleven, and Littlemill.
If you’re fortunate enough to encounter a whisky from a distillery long since closed – like Millburn, Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor (which were in Inverness), Rosebank and Ladyburn (from the Lowlands) you should be aware that these whiskies are much sought after, so appreciate them!
ENGLAND AND WALES
They’re not often thought of as whisky regions, but whisky was never limited to the so-called Gaelic fringe. When distillation of whisky first began in the Middle Ages it existed throughout the whole of the British Isles.
The last traditional distillery in Wales closed in 1894, largely because of the Temperance movement (the same movement soon to result in Prohibition in the United States), but Wales now has a new one – the Penderyn distillery in the Brecon Beacons which opened its doors in 2004.
The story in England followed a similar path. At the close of the 19th Century, England had whisky distilleries in London, Liverpool and Bristol but the last of them closed in 1903. There were then none until 2003 when a new one finally opened in Cornwall, followed soon after by another set up by brewer Adnams in Suffolk. The English Whisky Company’s “Chapter 14 Not Peated” received the 2014 award for best European whisky.
Irish whiskey was once the most popular spirit in the world, but entered a long period of decline from the late 19th century. Only after Ireland boomed economically in the 1980s and 1990s and began to heavily promote everything Irish to the rest of the World did the Irish whiskey industry receive new investment, along with new modern technology. It’s now enjoying a renaissance in consequence of it.
Nevertheless, although there are now dozens of Irish whiskey brand names – there are only really three distilleries that produce them all – Bushmills in the north of Ireland, Midleton in the Irish Republic who produce Jameson’s and Tullamore Dew, and Cooley who make Millars (blended), Greenore (single grain) and Connemara (single malt).
Before this recent upswing in production Irish whiskey tended to be dark sweet and often rough – but new production has changed this. It usually receives three distillations compared to the more common two in Scotland and, because of this, gains considerably in smoothness. Bushmills and Jameson are undoubtedly the oldest and best known names. Both come in a range of qualities and price points.
Originally poitin was made from malted barley like any other whisky – in both Ireland and Scotland – but because it evaded taxation and became illegal cheaper ingredients – cereals, grain, whey, sugar beet, molasses and potatoes – started to be used leading to a general deterioration in its quality. In recent decades the association with potatoes seems to have been remembered whilst the original recipes have been forgotten. 200 years ago poitin was carefully manufactured on a wide scale and even exported but it’s hard to know how much modern versions resemble it. (Incidentally, US moonshine, by contrast, is made from corn i.e. maize).
OTHER WHISKY REGIONS OF THE WORLD
Thirteen large distilleries owned by eight companies produce over 99% of the whiskey made in the U.S. Ten of them are in Kentucky, 2 in Tennessee and 1 in Indiana.
True malt whisky is manufactured in the US but not much. The huge majority of what is called “whiskey” over there is grain whisky. Even the much loved Bourbons are 51% maize, not barley. If it’s called “corn whiskey” it will be 80% maize or more. “American malt whisky” only has to be 51% malted barley. 51% is a consistent rule – “Rye whiskey” is a minimum of 51% rye.
Nevertheless, comparing like for like – a “malted whiskey” that is 51% malted barley is a truer whisky than most UK “blended whisky” in which malted barley can be as little as a third or less. More to the point though – distilling maize and rye whiskeys is where the Americans have invested generations of experience and expertise, and they do it very well – drinks like Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and Makers Mark are popular all over the world for good reason. A glass of Jack Daniels is easier to “knock back” than a glass of neat scotch – and that’s sometimes what you want.
The majority of bourbons are distilled in Kentucky, with a couple of well established distilleries over the border in Tennessee. Unlike scotch whisky regions the word “bourbon” is not restricted to a demarcated geographical area (other than being a trademark restricted to the US) – any alcohol prepared according to the bourbon method may be called bourbon no matter where (in the USA) it’s from. And the “bourbon method” prescribes very little other than that the mash has to be predominantly maize and the whiskey matured in new charred white oak barrels.
If American whisky is stored in second hand barrels it can’t be called bourbon and attracts a lower price. Because the barrels must always be new, the bourbon industry constantly has second hand ones for sale and these are being bought up by Scotch distilleries as a cheap substitute for traditional port, sherry and cognac ones. It probably does little for the character of modern scotches.
Kentucky’s products include Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, Rebel Yell, Old Forester, and Red Stag. Tennessee’s include Jack Daniels, George Dickel and Gentleman Jack. Tennessee bourbons are filtered through charcoal – known as the Lincoln county process.
Although some only dubiously qualify as “whisky” in British terms, there are still many top class bourbons little known to British audiences. Look for Woodford, Willet, Pappy Van Winkle, Longrow, Angels Envy, AH Hirsch, Noah’s Mill, Old Forester, Eagle Rare, Booker’s and Dry Fly.
Even in Scotland Rye was often used in place of barley but in the US at one time it was very common and the preferred type of whisky in many cocktails.
Rye whiskeys can have a taste that is too strong and spicy for some people, but their edge gives way to deep complex character with good aging. This need for long aging to produce top quality led to a decline in production, but they’ve recently made a comeback. Some names include Sazerac, Wild Turkey, Alberta Rye, Charbay, Knob Creek, Old Potrero, Templeton, Woodford and Whistle Pig.
Moonshine is illicitly manufactured and usually made entirely from “corn” i.e. maize. It’s interesting that the areas in which its still easy to find are much the same areas that were involved in the Whisky Rebellion against liquor taxes in the early 19th Century – Kentucky and North Carolina. It’s usually drunk young and subtly flavoured with fruit or some other creative ingredient.
Canada has a reputation for producing cheap but smooth whisky. A great deal of the whisky produced in Canada is grain whisky – but it’s produced not without finesse and consequently they’re often sought after both for value and for cocktail use (for example Seagrams). A few have hit the top end of the whisky market. These premium brands include Canadian Club, Glen Breton and Crown Royal.
India is very major consumer of whisky, and a large scale producer. However what is called “whisky” in India is usually made mostly, or entirely, from molasses rather than grain. In British terms this means its “Rum”.
There are exceptions however, one of which is Amrut – who make a passable single malt. The Amrut website describes it as “from the land of the Himalayas” but the distillery is near Bangalore – a thousand miles from the Himalayas – and many of the ingredients are imported so it cannot be counted amongst the worlds whisky regions. Its quality reflects the skill of its distillers rather than the character of a region.
Whisky became very popular in Asia throughout the 20th Century and there are now some formidable whisky regions in several Asian countries, notably Japan, Taiwan and Korea. These distilleries are generally set up in strict accordance with the Scotch definition of whisky and have shown themselves to be capable of producing top quality malts.
The 2014 world prize was awarded to Japan’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask. The distillery was founded in 1923 so this was a reward long in the making.
Some distillery names you may find are Fuji-Gotemba (near Mt.Fuji), Hakushu, Chichibu, Hanyu, Kagoshima, Karuizawa (Honshu island), Kawasaki, Miyagikyo, Nishinomiya, Shinshu, Shirakawa, White Oak, Yamazaki and Yoichi (dating from 1934).
The island only has one commercial distillery – Kavalans – and only began releasing whisky to the market in 2008, but in 2010 they won the Burns Night competition organised by the Times newspaper. They’ve continued to win countless awards ever since.
New whisky regions are appearing all the time and whisky must be one of the world’s fastest growing drinks. Almost all European countries now seem to have a distillery but with varying quality, although Mackmyra from Sweden is highly promising. Three Ships from South Africa is becoming well known and Tasmania could be a place to watch in the future.
THE FUTURE FOR SCOTCH
The industry in Scotland has seen a lot of corporate upheavals in recent decades with many distilleries snapped up by International companies with more of an eye for mass production and fast profits rather than traditional skills and character. In the opinion of some expert tasters this is a challenge to the continuing supremacy of scotch whisky against improving single malts from whisky regions elsewhere in the world. Nevertheless, of all the whisky regions only Scotland has an unbroken tradition, unparalleled experience and a perfect climate to continue making the world’s best whiskies. All foreign alcohols that call themselves “whisky” exist in imitation of scotch.