Tag Archives: Speyside

A map to nowhere

The malt whisky regions.  Patrick Leclezio disputes the validity of some deeply held Scotch whisky dogma.

First published in Prestige Magazine (November 2015 edition).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.

As it appeared – p2.

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.

Out and about with whisky

The Speyside episode. Patrick Leclezio toasts the highlights from a tour to end all tours.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

I remember my first trip to Scotland like it was yesterday – partly because if fell over 11 September 2001 (I heard the news at a little pub on the banks of Loch Ness), but also, more cheerfully, because it introduced me to the world’s ultimate whisky destination. The area on either side of the Spey River in the Highlands of Scotland – a span located approximately between the cities of Aberdeen and Inverness – is undoubtedly the most special place in the whisky world. Scotch whisky divides its formidable universe into five official regions: the Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay, Campbeltown, and Speyside. The latter, the object of my current affections – colloquially known as Strathspey, is by a Scottish country mile the most prolific, being home to some 49 malt whisky distilleries. I was recently gifted the privilege of return visit, as part of a tour to celebrate Glen Grant Single Malt’s just-launched 50YO. It was a trip to remember. Here are a few highlights of the region for the whisky pilgrim. May the dram be with you.

The Craigellachie Hotel

Their website claims 750, their staff told us that it’s now over a thousand. That’s the number of whiskies they offer at their bar (The Quaich), and whatever the precise figure might be it’s a lot – something about shaking a stick comes to mind. The hotel, despite its renown, or maybe because of it, is completely unobtrusive – the generic “Hotel” lettering being the only signage advertising its presence. There’s a deep sense of rustic Scotland that resides here, from the copper light fittings at the front door, to the preponderance of wood: wooden bar, wooden chairs, tables, and shelves – all that was missing was a couple of casks. It’s an undeniably special place at which pause in a journey to enjoy a few drams. Ironically enough our barman was South African, more ironic still, he’s the son of one of the owners of Wild about Whisky, South Africa’s answer to the Craigellachie Hotel. It’s a small and strange world.

Loch Ness

The Monster might be a laughable concoction, but you’ve got to give it to those canny Scots – they’ve taken an ordinary, albeit picturesque, lake and transformed it into a tourist attraction of global repute. The upshot is that tour boats ply the waters regularly, transporting the gullible, the cynical and all paying customers in between over this “mystical” expanse of water. And so it was that I found myself lazily basking on a deck, sipping whisky with my fellow tour-mates in the soft Scottish sunlight, and watching castles, ruins, and other pleasant sights of little consequence as they drifted past. In short it’s a brilliant way to spend an afternoon – just for a lark. Here too, as almost everywhere else in Speyside, the connection to whisky is never far away; the loch’s waters owe their murkiness to dissolved peat, the same stuff that’s burnt to impart a distinct smoky flavour to certain whiskies.

Glen Grant

The stills, the mash tuns, the washbacks, and even the quaint stone buildings are much the same as at other distilleries in the area, but the spectacular gardens, set in a glen carved out by the Black Burn, ensure that the distillery lives in a league all of its own. We meandered through them at leisurely pace, stopping for a picnic under a pagoda, before eventually reaching the “Dram Hut”, a yonks old structure accommodating a whisky safe fixed into the rock – not some sort of decorative spirit safe mind you, an actual metal strongbox containing whisky (you can’t make up this stuff!) – where we were treated to a few drams of the Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 25YO. This whisky dates back to an earlier era, some of it being as old as 37 years, when the distillery still made a peated malt, so it seemed like quite a fitting drink to facilitate our pursuit of a deeper acquaintance with the place – and the more of it we drank, the more facilitated we felt.

Scottish cuisine

The Scots are not known for their food but it turns out that some of it is pretty damn good. Aberdeen Angus, the breed of cattle exalted in Argentina and other meat-loving locales, originates from nearby, and quality steaks of this fine beef are in ready supply all over Speyside. We did not desist in our appreciation. Likewise we filled our boots with local scallops, Scottish salmon – smoked over wood chips made from old whisky casks – and most notably, haggis, served in the traditional manner, with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), both mashed. The customary breakfasts in these parts – similar to the English version but with the addition of baked beans and black pudding – is also well worth trying. And to those apprehensive at the thought of haggis and black pudding let me say this – don’t think about it, just go for it, they’re both delicious.