Scotch Whisky Regions of Your Taster's Club Bottles
Whether you’re a Scotch connoisseur or you’re just dabbling in the spirit and exploring what’s out there, it’s nice to familiarize yourself with the different Scotch whisky regions. Each of these areas in Scotland and the distillers residing there offer their own unique spin on the drink, based on factors like production methods, climate, and local ingredients. Learn all about them here.
What is Scotch?
Scotch is a type of whisky made from grain, malt, or both, but mostly malted barley. To be considered true Scotch, the spirit must be distilled and aged in Scotland, in oak barrels for at least three years, yet most Scotch ages for 12-25 years or even up to 50 years. Scotch also must have an ABV (alcohol by volume) of at least 40%.
Like tequila, there is strong legal protection over Scotch to safeguard and uphold the high quality it has become renowned for. Scotch was first defined under UK law in 1933, governed by the Scotch Whisky Act in 1988, and updated Scotch Whisky Regulations in 2009.
These 2009 regulations are what governs the entire Scotch whisky industry today. 130+ Scotch producers employ tens of thousands of workers that export 42 bottles of Scotch every second to millions of enthusiasts in 175 countries worldwide, so it’s not surprising there is a lot of pride in the drink. They all benefit from these regulations covering production location, processing, bottling, labelling, packaging, and advertising.
Where Does Scotch Come From?
Scotland is the home of Scotch and six main Scotch whisky regions or subregions that bring their own unique approach to the spirit. You’ll find a variety of flavors and characteristics of Scotch in each region of:
- Lowland, and
Although only the first five areas are recognized by the Scotch Whisky Association, the Islands produce some quality spirits, too.
Scotch Whisky Regions and Subregions
Mainland Scotland’s small town of Campbeltown is located in the west on a deep bay of the Kintyre peninsula in Argyll. The only town to be its very own Scotch region, it’s known for dry, full-flavored Scotches rich in character that span a wide array of flavors. Think fruit, vanilla, brine, smoke, salt, vanilla and toffee.
Before an economic slump in the 1850s, Campbeltown was considered the whisky capital of the world and was home to over 30 distilleries. But now, because of improved transportation routes to the north and lower quality product in the name of mass production, it has just three: Glengyle, Springbank and Glen Scotia. Campbeltown doesn’t have its own distinct style, and peat usage and finishing malt in casks that held other liquids vary by distillery.
For example, Springbank uses an uncommon double and triple distillation process to create its signature style. The distillery’s 918 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky features malt made from Optic barley grown at Campbeltown’s High Cattadale Farm. The bright, light gold Scotch is somewhat hard to find with under 10,000 bottles produced. It’s aged 80% in bourbon casks and 20% in sherry casks, then bottled after nine years. On the nose, you’ll get a sweet honey, fresh cereal, vanilla, and brioche waft from the glass, along with a saline undertone somewhat like oyster shells and brine. It tastes rich, full-bodied, with candied lime zest, lemon meringue pie, nectarine, and grapefruit flavors and a long, smoky, sweet finish.
The flavor-diverse Highland region is the country’s largest Scotch producing area, producing about 25% of the country’s Scotch. It’s located just north of Glasgow to Thurso in the north and spans the country east to west (except Speyside, which is its own region). The Highland region offers a wide array of Scotches for every palate. Here, you’ll find everything from light and bright to salty and malted pours, in flavors from fruit cake and dried fruit to oak, malt, and smoke.
Since the Highland is so vast, its Scotch is equally diverse and comes in many flavors and characteristics, so there is no region-specific style. Instead, the area is split into four subregions - north, south, east and west - each with its own unique style.
Up north, you’ll find full-bodied single malts which are rich and sweet in character, like those from Glenmorangie, Dalmore, and Gordon & MacPhail. For example, the Gordon & MacPhail Old Pulteney 21 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky features maritime whisky’s subtle complexities. Aged in ex-bourbon casks that let the malt’s natural characteristics shine, this is a dry, delicate and herbaceous pour.
In the south, lighter, fruitier Scotch is made by distillers like Aberfeldy. Similar Scotch is found in the east, but with more body, like those produced by Glendronach. And if you’re looking for a full body with lots of peatiness, you’ll want to try a western Highland Scotch, like one from Oban. The saltwater from the ocean plays a large role in how these spirits turn out.
The rugged and windswept island of Islay, another Scotch-producing region, is one of the southernmost Inner Hebridean Islands off Scotland’s west coast and affectionately known as “whisky island”.
Scotch from this region is quite heavy and packs a very smoky, peaty, burnt, sweet, and oily, flavor with a bit of salt, seaweed, pepper and floral notes, among multiple layers of complexity. These flavors and characteristics come from the island’s maritime climate and coverage of peat exposed to sea spray and rain. Many people feel Islay has the most distinct flavor profile of all Scotch whisky regions.
Notable Islay distilleries include Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. In 2000, Murray McDavid took over the closed Bruichladdich distillery and today operates in the region’s Coleburn Distillery. Check out the Murray & McDavid Bowmore 15 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky. It’s golden-hay in color, with aromas of sea spray and peated smoke and bittersweet, earthy, medicinal, smoky flavors. The spirit has an oily, medium body and a light, mineral finish.
The Lowland Scotch region is the country’s second-largest and home to some of the oldest producers. It centers around the most southern parts of Scotland, including England’s border, and borders the Highlands up north covering most of the Central Belt and the South of Scotland including Edinburgh & The Lothians, Glasgow & The Clyde Valley, the Kingdom of Fife, Ayrshire, Dumfries & Galloway and the Scottish Borders. Because of easy transportation links to major centers like Edinburgh and Glasgow, this is the country’s most accessible Scotch region.
If you enjoy a gentle, light, smooth and soft malt, with little to no peat, Lowland Scotch is for you. The area is known for elegant, lighter-bodied spirits in flavors of ginger, cream, honeysuckle, grass, toast, toffee, and cinnamon that were at one point triple-distilled. In fact, some Lowland producers still make this triple-distilled commitment, which is more common in Ireland. Since the area is located inland, you’ll find a slight salinity to its Scotch, making it ideal for first-timers to malt whisky.
Of the handful of Lowland distilleries, Glenkinchie and Auchentoshan, an urban distiller in Glasgow’s suburbs, are the most popular. Try the Signatory Auchentoshan 18 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky. This golden straw Scotch smells sweet, floral, and fruity and tastes earthy, and grassy with a heathery sweetness combined with spicy white pepper and licorice, and fruit. It offers an elegant and balanced body and finishes long with well-balanced oak and cinnamon.
Rugged Speyside is in the northeast of Scotland surrounding the River Spey and is what you might imagine the quintessential Scotch-making terrain looking like. This area is actually a subregion to its neighbour, the Highlands, because of it being the world’s most densely populated Scotch region, with over 60 distilleries. There is so much rich history in this region, too, with many of them having settled there over a century ago to try to avoid taxes. Today, people love the community feel in Speyside, with tour guides and distillery workers ending their days with a drink together at the local pub, regardless of who they work for or what they do.
Speyside is famous for its fertile glens and wide variety of Scotches with different characteristics, particularly sweet single malts with little to no peat - making the area a great starting point for those new to whisky. Pear, apple, oak, vanilla, malt, honey, and nutmeg spice are common in the subregion’s Scotch, which is often aged in sherry casks.
Some of the most famous Speyside Scotches include Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and The Macallan, which comprise about a third of the world’s single malt market. Plus, since over 60% of the country’s single malt production comes from Speyside distilleries, you can see how key a subregion it is to the Scotch whisky business.
The Glenfarclas 25 Year Old Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky is a great Speyside pick. This complex, well-rounded and full-bodied award-winning Scotch is a deep golden hue with oak, sherry, and floral aromas and flavors of sherry, creamy barley, gingerbread, and nutty chocolate. It gives a long, complex finish with oak, smoke, and cocoa.
Though not an official Scotch Whisky Association region, Scotch produced on the islands of Scotland are very unique and diverse in taste. There are nearly 800 islands off the country’s coastline, with just a few inhabited. Orkney is home to two Scotch distilleries, Scapa and Highland Park, Abhainn Dearg is found on Lewis & Harris, Talisker is located on Skye, Tobermory is on Mull, and Jura and Arran are located on the islands they’re named for.
While you’ll find diversity in Scotch notes from the Islands region, peat and salinity show up in all of them because of the proximity to the sea and the peat found in the area. Smoke, oil, brine, pepper, and honey are also common.
From the Isle of Mull comes the Tobermory Distillery Ledaig 1996 Single Malt Scotch Whisky, which is a golden, light yellow color and aged for 19 years in ex-bourbon and ex-Oloroso sherry casks. It smells mildly of peat, with wood and buttery notes and gives a sweet, sea salt, smoky, spicy flavor with a smooth sherry and spicy, peaty finish.
The Gordon & MacPhail Scapa 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky comes from the Orkney Islands. It’s matured exclusively in ex-bourbon barrels and is meant as an aperitif drink, with its earthy, rather than smoky, sweet, fruity, and tropical character. Light straw in color, floral, citrusy, spicy, woody and dry in scent, this Scotch gives warm and peppery notes of cedar, pine, honey, tropical fruit, briny saltwater taffy and vanilla bean. It finishes off silky smooth and warm.
Talisker is the largest Island distillery in Scotland and located on the Isle of Skye. It makes this mature, complex, and nuanced 18 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky with lightly peated barley. The mash is double distilled and aged for at least 18 years in oak casks, resulting in a smoky, flavorful and full-bodied richness. This Scotch features the distillery’s signature salty, maritime smoke along with richer, fruit, citrus, and toffee flavors.
On the Isle of Arran, you’ll find the dark amber The Maltman Arran 18 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky, with its fresh, sweet aromas of caramel, toffee, oak, hay, apples, ginger, citrus, and pear. This Scotch offers the sweet taste of fruit like banana, cherry, blackberry, and raspberry along with musk, tea, spice, licorice, anise, bay, and black pepper with an earthy oakiness. The spirit’s body is smooth and powerful, and it delivers a long, dry, spicy and somewhat bitter finish.
Now that you’ve acquainted yourself with Scotland’s Scotch whisky regions and all they have to offer, why not try a few local gems for yourself? The country truly does have something for everyone. It’s so easy to experience all the flavors and nuances of Scotch with a membership to Taster’s Club. The best part? It only takes a minute to sign up below.