Traditionally there are 6 whisky regions within Scotland and although there has been some debate over their relevance today, we believe they are still a good way to start exploring Scotch whisky based on the general styles and flavours associated with each region.
There are 5 original Scotch whisky regions, Highland, Speyside, Lowland, Campbeltown and Islay which are legally protected by Scots law while the sixth region, "Island" is not formally recognised it is used unofficially to help categorise whiskies from distilleries on the Scottish islands.
By far the largest of the whisky producing regions, the Highlands offers the greatest variations of style and some of the best known distilleries are located here.
On the mainland, in the Western Highlands, there are only a few and the malts from these West Highland distilleries are much less peaty than those found in the Islay region, although you can often detect a slight smokiness. A common characteristic shared by West Highland whiskies is a sweet start and dryish finish.
The character of the far North Highland malts is greatly influenced by the local soil and the coastal location of the distilleries. They tend to be light-bodied with a spicy character and again a dryish finish, sometimes with a trace of saltiness.
Malt whiskies from the Central, Southern and Eastern Highlands are quite varied. They are generally fruity and sweet, but not as sweet as malts found in Speyside. They are lighter-bodied and like other Highland malts tend to have a dry finish.
Over half of all Scotland’s distilleries are located in Speyside.
Speyside malts are typically the sweetest of all Scotch Whisky malts and many of the most popular single malts are produced here.
The huge selection of Speyside malts offer a variety of strengths and can generally be broken down into two categories the heavy, rich, sherry-flavoured malts and the more complex, light, floral-flavoured malts.
Speyside malts are essentially sweet whiskies, although some can have a little peaty character with just a slight whiff of smoke.
This region lies south of an imaginary line that runs from Greenock on the west coast of Scotland to Dundee in the east.
Most of the Lowland malts end up in blends, but there are still a few single malts available.
They tend to be light in colour and have quite a dry finish but this dryness comes from the malt itself, not from peat, as malts from this region are normally produced with unpeated malt.
You may find a certain sweet fruitiness to the flavour and because they are mellower than whiskies from the neighbouring Highlands these whiskies make an excellent aperitif.
Campbeltown lies towards the end of the Mull of Kintyre peninsula on the west coast of Scotland.
Today there are only three distilleries producing whisky here, but in days gone by there were over thirty.
The Campbeltown single malts are very distinctive tending towards the full-bodied, renowned for their depth of flavour and also for their slightly salty finish with peat adding a hint of flavour similar to that found in an Islay malt.
There are eight distilleries on Islay (pronounced Eye-luh) which is a small, mainly flat island off the West Coast of Scotland and one of the Inner Hebrides.
Because of its location, the island is constantly lashed by the sea, wind and rain and these elements are partly responsible for the flavour of the whisky produced there.
Islay is made up largely of peat which is the other major influence on the flavour of whiskies from this region. Islay whiskies are the strongest flavoured of all Scotch whiskies and tend to be dry and peaty. They are renowned for their strong peaty smokiness, which comes from the peat fuel which is used for malting the barley.
The character of Islay malt whiskies is very smoky and medicinal, salty and seaweedy with a dry finish and sometimes quite a bite. Islay malts can be an acquired taste, but if you like big, smoky dry whiskies, these are the ones for you.
The Islands is not officially a whisky region but a sub-division of the Highlands Region and this is a geographical region rather than a characteristic one. It includes all of the whisky producing islands of Scotland, namely Mull, Skye, Orkney, Arran and Jura. The Isle of Islay is considered a region on its own.
Due to the location of the islands’ distilleries, their whiskies tend to have a coastal feel to them. They are slightly peatier in character than most Highland malts, but not to the extent of peatiness that you will find in Islay malts. The peatiness is generally softer and sweeter than their stronger cousins from Islay.