In our new Ask the Expert series, Paste readers chime in with some of their most pressing booze concerns, and we do our best to help you make sense of it all. Resident expert Jake Emen has spent years on the road traveling to distilleries across the country and around the world, and he’s here to help. Want your own question answered? Send a Tweet to him @ManTalkFood using #AskTheExpert.
Scotch is known for its regions, but what are they, and do they really differ at all from one another? You may have already done some difficult firsthand research on this yourself, discovering after much strenuous tasting that you prefer the smoky Scotch which hails from Islay, or the lighter and more nuanced drams you’ve tried from Speyside, for instance. Of course, let it be said that such descriptors over-simplify things a great deal. Let’s just dive in then and look at the regions.
The Scotch world is traditionally divvied up into five regions: Campbeltown, Highlands, Islay, Lowlands, and Speyside.
Campbeltown used to be a thriving hub of whisky distillation, but now there are only three active distilleries there, Springbank, Glen Scotia, and Glengyle, producers of Kilkerran. With only a handful of distilleries, it’s hard to present an archetype of Campbeltown whisky, and even within this small group, there are outliers. For instance, Springbank produces three different styles and brands of single malts, itself a rarity, with the eponymous Springbank uniquely distilled two and a half times, and its Hazelburn line triple distilled.
The Highland region is geographically the largest of the group, by far. On the whole, they tend to be well-rounded, with some veering towards fruitiness, and others towards a drier and lightly smoky side. Well known brands include Glenmorangie, Oban, Glendronach, Aberfeldy, Tomatin, Balblair, and dozens of others.
Islay is a small island packed to the brim with distilleries, with eight currently active and several new projects on the way. Again, the whisky here is known for its hefty usage of peat, although non-peated whisky is made on the island as well. The eight active producers are: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig.
The Lowland region has a scant trickle of distilleries active today, although a few more than Campbeltown. Generally, they’re said to be fairly light and mellow. There’s the triple distilled Auchentoshan, along with Glenkinchie and several others, such as Bladnoch, Annandale, and Ailsa Bay.
Speyside is truly the heart of Scotch whisky. The small region is actually carved out of the Highlands, and is focused on the river Spey. Half of the distilleries in Scotland can be found in this small area, including many of the most prominent, such as Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, and Macallan, not to mention Aberlour, Glenfarclas, Glen Grant, Tomintoul, and scores of others. Stylistically diverse, but overall said to be complex and elegant.
There’s also a sixth still unofficial region: Islands. The Islands represent all of the other Scottish islands off the main island of Great Britain, excluding the island of Islay, its own region. Try saying that five times fast. Distilleries to know here include Highland Park and Scapa on Orkney, Talisker on Syke, Arran on Arran, Jura on Jura, and an increasing number of others.
Jake Emen is a freelance spirits, food, and travel writer working diligently to explore the world’s finest offerings so he can teach you about them—how selfless of him. He currently resides outside of Washington, D.C. when he’s not on the road. Keep up with his latest adventures at his own site, ManTalkFood.com, or follow him on Twitter @ManTalkFood.