The malt whisky regions. Patrick Leclezio disputes the validity of some deeply held Scotch whisky dogma.
First published in Prestige Magazine (November 2015 edition).
In my last column I pondered the influence of stories – with their inherent ability to capture our attention – in the appeal and the success of single malt whisky. This phenomenon can be observed in the efforts of Scotch whisky to subtly propagate the romantic notion of terroir. We have been led to believe that single malts differ one from another partly because of the influence of the ground on which they stand – a premise that has specifically found voice in the classification of malts by geographic region, both officially and unofficially. The reasoning on which this is based is that whiskies from the same region, having been forged in similar environments, using similar ingredients, and stemming from the same traditions, share commonalities in style. The designation is considered of sufficient importance by the industry that it is typically printed on the label, second in prominence only to the name of whisky. In reality though the extent of its relevance to the average malt whisky drinker warrants some exploration.
There are five official Scotch whisky regions, as prescribed by the Scotch Whisky Association, the industry’s governing body: the Lowlands, Islay, Cambeltown, the Highlands, and Speyside – the latter being geographically within the Highlands, but of sufficient distinction and of such abundance as to justify its own separate identity. In this regions paradigm particular styles and flavours are ascribed to each region, some more persistently manifest than others.
Speyside: In very broad terms the better known malts from the region have become known for flavours evoking heather, flowers, fruits and spices. They’re sometimes lightly peated, but usually not. This is the cultural hub of Scotch whisky – and consequently the impression of a Speysider is one of elegance and refinement. The embodiment of its whisky, or rather this idea of a Speyside whisky, is Longmorn – the drinking of which invokes, for me at least, the strudel scene from Inglourious Basterds. Yes, it’s that delicious.
Highlands: The Highlands is so vast and so sparse that it’s difficult even theoretically to conceive of the evolution of a unified style. There’s salt and peat, think Talisker, a rich overflow from Speyside in whiskies like Glengoyne and Dalmore, and spices, heather and grass here and there. They can be light (Glenmorangie), waxy (Clynelish), rich (Macallan), smoky (Ardmore) or nutty (the recent Wolfburn). Even close neighbours can be poles apart, consider Highland Park and Scapa for instance The range is so broad, touching on just about everything on the Scotch palette, as to render the Highlands meaningless as a flavour denoting region.
Campbeltown: The whiskies here are known for being smoky, oily, and briny – they’re seafaring whiskies. The peninsula is the smallest of the regions, and whilst it once flourished only three active distilleries now feature, the most well-known of which is the outstanding Springbank – which produces three different brands of whisky. I’m relatively familiar with the Springbank range, the 10YO in particular – and whilst it’s often difficult to distinguish one type of peating from another, Springbank’s has a maritime fog quality to it, if I can put it that way, that you don’t find in others. Then again perhaps I’m just falling prey to the story…
Islay: This famous, dare I say legendary, west coast island builds the strongest case for classification by regions. It has forged its reputation on the influence of peat, specifically the local peat which is redolent of medicinal seaweed – giving rise to robust whiskies with phenolic, pungent, smoky flavours. This regional character is consistent(-ish) and unmistakable. Its most highly peated exponent, with a standard peating level of 55ppm – enough to register on the Richter scale – is Ardbeg. I particularly recommend the Uigeadail (if you can get it), a variant where this powerful peat component, whilst no less evident, has been beautifully balanced with some judicious sherry cask maturation, resulting in a magnificently layered, complex whisky that flits between hard flint and sweet velvet. Even here on Islay though there are reasons to question the model, with Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich producing unpeated (or lightly peated) contrarian whiskies.
Lowlands: These malts are generally light, soft and floral, and, with notes of cereal and zest. The fresh and sweet Glenkinchie, from Diageo’s Classic Malts collection, is arguably the most recognised.
This classification gives a certain poetic order to the malt universe but the supposed kinship is less than consistent. There is no pure terroir in whisky, as it would be understood in wine, except in the contribution of peat, and even there, as I’ve mentioned, it takes some distinguishing one from the other. Water is a ruse, its individuality is not even vaguely apparent. There are other direct factors – such as still shape and maturation – which play a far greater role in dictating flavour, and these are independent of region. Indirect factors, such as the traditional regional adherence to a style, still play a role but this has somewhat meandered, dissipated and migrated with time.
So then, whilst whisky regions are a quaint concept, they have limited merit and should be considered a loose guide (at best!) rather than a fixed rule. Individual whiskies can and do vary significantly within regions, even the most harmonised regions. It can be comforting to the novice to have a gateway into the initially baffling array of malt whisky choices, but I’d suggest that this one is largely a false comfort. Next time you see Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky on a bottle don’t assume that it necessarily bears resemblance to that other Highlands whisky that you like so much. Explore, experiment, and enjoy, by all means, but do so on the counsel of other reasoning. May the dram be with you.