Know Your Single Malt Regions

Let other poets raise a fracas
‘Bout vines, an’ wines, an’ drucken Bacchus,
An’ crabbit names an’ stories wrack us,
An’ grate our lug:
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us,
In glass or jug.

O thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro’ wimplin worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink,
In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp an’ wink,
To sing thy name!

-Robert Burns, “Scotch Drink”

Being born and raised in central Kentucky, and having moved to Scotland for my graduate studies, its no surprise that I’ve developed quite the appreciation for whisk(e)y over the years. Now back in Kentucky and living literally minutes away from the Bourbon Trail, a nice glass of bourbon (It’s somewhat cliché, but I’m a Woodford guy myself, although I thoroughly enjoy a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel or Basil Hayden’s, as well) is a staple in the nightcap repertoire. Unfortunately I think those of us in the U.S., and especially here in Kentucky, can become a little complacent in our choice of whisky, falling into a bourbon rut.

The reality is that, for many of us, bourbon is the safe drink. We’ve had it, we know it, we’re comfortable with it, and we’re comfortable picking it out at the store or ordering it at a restaurant. When we look the world of single malts our heads can start to spin. There are so many brands and regions and finishes. But this same variety that can be intimidating when we first enter the world of Scotch whisky is, to me, what makes Scotch so appealing. There is such a vast array of flavors that can provide for innumerable drinking experiences, and I firmly believe that taking just a little bit of time to learn how to navigate the larger world of whisky will not be time wasted. But where do we begin? I’d suggest we start by learning a bit about the various regions in which Scotch whisky is produced.

Like the wines of France, each of the five regions of Scotland (or four, if you don’t count Campbeltown, or six, if you like to separate the Islands from the Highlands, which I tend to do) have distinct characteristics that are prevalent in the whiskies produced there. I should note that the characteristics traditionally identified with each region can only serve as a starting point on our adventure. The distinctions between regions are by no means clear cut (even less so recently) and there are certainly exceptions in each. But a cursory knowledge of the typical attributes of each region is a great tool in the whisky selection process. This way, when you’re standing in the aisle at the local liquor/party store, instead of being befuddled by the sheer number of brand names and ages, you can look at the region and start to make an informed decision. Here we go:

Highlands: The Highlands is by far the largest whisky producing region of Scotland, at least in terms of actual land size. And because of that, the Highlands is the most difficult of the regions to characterize, unless of course you’re characterization is “wide variety.” That probably wouldn’t be too bad of an explanation, really. Personally, I tend to think of the Highlands as (just) the standard Scotch whisky. By that I mean, they’re the starting point, against which the other whiskies and regions are described. They tend to be medium to light-bodied traditional whiskies.

In a little while I’ll say that Lowland whiskies are light. What that really means is that their lighter than Highlands whiskies. Or when I say that Islay whiskies are tend to be smoky or peaty (or both), I really mean they’re smokier and/or peatier than Highland whiskies. And don’t take that to mean their in any way bland or boring. The highlands produces some excellent drams. And by no means are all of them the way I just described. Again, there are always exceptions, and this is especially the case for the Highlands, but if you come across a Highland whisky in the store, think excellent medium-bodied, traditional whisky.

Recommendations: Oban 14, Dalwhinnie (I’ve got a 15 yr open right now), Clynelish (I’ve got the Provenance over 10 year 1996 bottling).

Islands: As I mentioned earlier, the Islands are technically a subcategory of the highlands, but many, including myself, treat them independently. Island whiskies include those distilled on the Isles of Mull, Skye, Arran, Jura, and Orkney (but not Skye, which is a stand-alone region). Like the Highlands, the Island whiskies can vary significantly, but the majority of whiskies from this region are very much affected by their seaside location. While less so than Islay whiskies, the Islands tend to have a nice amount of peat and are smokier than Highland whiskies, and they tend to be a little salty.

Recommendations: Talisker is the staple Island whisky, but I’d also recommend Jura (especially Jura Superstition, though I had a bottle of 16 year old last year that was excellent!), Highland Park (Josh and Curtis finished my bottle), and Arran. Note that Arran is the youngest distillery in Scotland and is a very smooth and easy drinking whisky. Unlike other Island whiskies, it’s unpeated and fruity. Also, since its such a young distillery (I don’t think they sell anything over 14 years old), they make up for having young whiskies by exploring a lot of different finishes . . . and they’re good.

Lowlands: The Lowland region is known for producing very light-bodied and dry whiskies, and often have a florally/grassy hint to them. Being so light-bodied they are often a great entry point into the world of whisky, although they should be respected by all, as they produce some excellently nuanced aromas and palates.

Recommendation: There aren’t many single malts to choose from in the Lowlands, but Glenkinchie produces some great bottles (and right outside of Edinburgh, where I lived). I actually had a Glenkinchie 12 year old at a friend’s house last weekend; it was definitely light, but a great dram. I’ll note that the 12 year is part of the Classic Malts Selection and the packaging in some way referred to it as a Woman’s Malt, which, as we had just expressed our approval of the whisky, didn’t boost our self-esteem any.

Speyside: If you’re looking for an introduction to whisky, but don’t want to partake in a women’s malt, or want something with a bit more punch to it than the Lowlands provides, Speyside would be an excellent choice. Speyside was actually my introduction to the world of Scotch, when my wife, then fiancé, bought me a bottle of Balvenie 15 Single Barrel (A bottle that still sits on my shelf with half a dram left. I can’t bring myself to finish it!). The reality is Speyside produces whiskies that tend to be sweeter than the other regions, with fruity overtones, but that remain medium to full-bodied. This makes them ideal for beginners and perfect for the warm summer months. As an added bonus, Speyside contains the largest number of distilleries, so there is quite a bit to choose from.

Recommendations: the Balvenie (the whole line-up is great, including the 12 year Doublewood, which is finished in a sherry cask, and the 15 year single barrel), Macallan, Benromach, Glenrothes (a must try).

Campbeltown: Campbeltown lies in the southern portion of the islands, on the west coast of Scotland. Today there are very few distilleries in Campbeltown, and they remain quite distinctive in flavor. These whiskies are known for being full-bodied and salty (more so than the Island whiskies), and have a pretty strong presence of peat, though not as much as the Islay malts.

Recommendations: Glen Scotia or Sptingbank . . . sadly, although their used to be over thirty distilleries in Campbeltown, these are about all that’s made there anymore.

Islay: Oh the Isle of Islay (pronounce “eye-luh”). Oh how great though art. Islay is a relatively small island off the west coast of Scotland that just gets beaten with wind and rain throughout the year. Along with the natural peat found in the water sources for many of these whiskies, these distilleries often use peat fuel for their fires in their barley malting process, giving many (though not all) of these whiskies a very smoky and peaty taste.

As much as I love a Speyside malt in the summertime, I just as much love a strong glass of an Islay whisky in the winter. They’re often described as having a medicinal quality and I couldn’t agree more. They just kind of warm your heart. It’s on a cold wet winter night, in a dimly lit pub, over a glass or two of Islay whisky, that I imagine Burns wrote this verse to the poem above:

Food fills the wame, an’ keeps us leevin;
Tho’ life’s a gift no worth receivin,
When heavy-dragg’d wi’ pine an’ grievin;
But, oil’d by thee,
The wheels o’ life gae down-hill, scrievin,
Wi’ rattlin glee.

But know that Islay whiskies are not for the faint-hearted. Their bold, smoky, and even described as “seaweedy.” Give it a shot.

Recommendations: I could pretty much recommend them all. I love the Ardbeg 10, but if you’re bold you can try the Ardbeg Uigeadail, which is very peaty. Secondly, the Laphroaig Quarter Cask (aged in smaller barrels to speed up the aging process) is excellent! I’d also recommend a Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, or Lagavulin.

So there’s the first of probably a few single malt primers. What do you think? Do you disagree with any of my characterizations? Any recommendations you want to add? What are your experiences with single malts?

Slainte Mhath

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  1. An Introduction « Oreo ab Chao - August 18, 2012

    […] Know Your Single Malt Regions ( […]

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