The Ultimate Guide to Single Malt Scotch Whisky

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The single-malt Scotch whisky regions are; Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands, Islands (including Islay), and Campbeltown, and each one produces subtly different flavours in the spirits they distil. Discover what makes whisky Scotland’s top export in this ultimate guide.

whisky

A guide to the Scotch whisky regions

Whisky has links to Scotland in a way that no other product has to any other country in the world, and tens of thousands of tourists flock to the five main single malt regions every year to sample the legendary liquid.

Think of Scotch whisky and you’re immediately transported into the dramatic peaks of the Highlands, or perhaps to the gentler hills and glens of the Lowlands.

The spirit has a history in Scotland dating back at least 500 years and it’s now permanently linked to Scottish culture as well as being fundamental to the nation’s economy.

Before reading further there are a few things you should know about the drink that we’re referring to as Scotch in this article. First and foremost, not every whisky can be called Scotch.

You’ve probably noticed there’s a subtle difference in the way the word is spelt when we refer to whisky produced in other countries. Ireland, the US and Japan all have thriving industries but unless it’s made in Scotland it has to be referred to as Whiskey (note the use of the letter e), not Whisky.

Only alcohol stored in oak casks in Scotland for at least three years can be referred to as Scotch whisky, and only Scotch produced in one single distillery can be called a single malt.

Uisge beatha (to use its Gaelic name, or ‘the water of life’ in English), is as Scottish as a tartan-wrapped haggis and no website about Scotland can hold its head up high without writing a dedication to the story behind this nations favourite tipple, or at least mentioning a few facts about the incredible industry that it spawned.

Although I’ll cover the basics of the main single malt regions and their distilleries there’s a huge amount of information about the subject on the internet, so if you’d like to know more you won’t go far wrong by checking out the Wikipedia guide to Scotch whisky.

If you’d like to learn about cooking with whisky read my Guide to the Best Dishes That Use Scotch Whisky.

Scotch distilleries by region

scotch whisky

Scotland is famous for its huge range of single malt whisky, with each distillery imbuing the liquid with its own unique character.

From the peaty and smoky flavours of the Islay distilleries to the light and sweet notes of Speyside, it can be said that no two distilleries ever produce whisky with the same taste.

It’s this variation in colour, flavour, smell and feel that gives people so much to get excited about and building a collection of rare single malts has to be the dream of every whisky enthusiast.

There are six distinct single malt whisky regions that produce their own very specific variations, although even within these regions there are a multitude of differences between the distilleries thanks to the use of different casks and production methods.

The single malt regions in question are; Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands, Islands (including Islay), and Campbeltown, and each one is worth a quick overview to understand what makes them unique.

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Scotch whisky regions map

Google Map of scotland

  1. Speyside (centre)
  2. Highlands (centre)
  3. Lowlands (centre)
  4. Campbeltown
  5. Islay

1. Speyside

glenfiddich whisky
  • Number of distilleries: Over 60.
  • Most famous Speyside whisky: Macallan, Dalwhinnie, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich.
  • Typical flavours: Apple, vanilla, oak, malt, dried fruit.

Speyside is located in the northeast of Scotland surrounding the River Spey, and while it’s one of the most famous of Scotland’s whisky-producing areas it’s actually classified as a sub-region of the Highlands.

In fact, Speyside is only recognised as a separate whisky producer due to the high density of distilleries in the area, being home to the highest concentration of distilleries in Scotland, with well over 60 at present.

Some of the largest distilleries producing Scotch are located in Speyside with three of them – Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Macallan – comprising more than one-third of the entire single-malt whisky market.

It’s fair to say that Speyside is by far the most important whisky-producing region for Scotland’s economy.

Speyside whisky is generally quite light in colour and taste, with very little peat smokiness but lots of vanilla, honey, apple and pear notes.

The area is traditionally divided into eight distinct sections; Rothes, Strathisla, Lossie, Liver, Fridhorn, Dufftown, Deveron and Speyside Central, and some of Scotch whisky’s most famous names originate in Speyside (Glenfiddich, Tomintoul, Aberlour and Glen Moray are all Speyside whisky’s).

Take a look at my Speyside whisky itinerary for some great ideas for your next journey around Speyside and the wonderful whisky’s that this part of Scotland produces.

My recommendation: Benromach 10-year-old. Sherried, rich and oaky on the nose, it gives way to cream, almonds and spice. Fantastic stuff!

2. The Highlands

The Scotch Whisky Experience
  • Number of distilleries: Over 25.
  • Most famous Highlands whisky: Dalmore and Glenmorangie.
  • Typical flavours: Fruit cake, malt, oak, heather, dried fruit, smoke.

The Highland whisky-producing region is by far the largest in physical size, covering almost the entire northern area of the country although only around 25% of Scotch whisky is made there.

Highland whisky tends to be a little smokier than Speyside but lighter than the whisky made on the Islands and it’s characterized by the floral smells and fruity flavours that symbolize the wild coastline and dense moorland that surrounds distilleries like Glenmorangie, Dalmore and Tullibardine.

Although the Highlands boasts a diverse range of distilleries reaching as far as Glengoyne near Glasgow in the south to Wolfburn near John O’ Groats in the north, Highland whiskies generally come under six distinct tasting notes.

Close your eyes while sipping a Highland dram and you’ll likely discover a combination of fruit cake, malt, oak, heather, dried fruit and smoke, with many variations also taking hints from sherry and bourbon casks. If nothing else, the range of Highland whiskies is certainly diverse.

There are quite a few differences between the different distilleries located throughout the Highlands although generally you’ll find that the north produces single malts that are sweet and rich while the south and east prefer to distil whisky that is light and fruity.

The West Highlands meanwhile take a lot of influences from the Islands so you’ll mostly find peaty flavours in their spirits, though not as pronounced as you’ll find on Islay.

The whiskies made in this region are exceptionally popular and if you include the sub-region of Speyside then over 85% of all the whisky made in Scotland comes from the Highlands.

My recommendation: Glenmorangie 10-year-old. Medium bodied with little smoke, this classic Scotch is easy to drink and very affordable.

3. The Lowlands

Scotch whisky and cigars
  • Number of distilleries: Under 5.
  • Most famous Lowlands whisky: Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie.
  • Typical flavours: Grass, honeysuckle, cream, toffee, cinnamon.

Lowland whisky was at one time famous for its distilling process which involved triple distilling the spirit to produce a wonderfully smooth and light drink.

Today, production in the Lowlands concentrates on distilling grain spirit for whisky blends and distillation of single malts has rapidly declined in the last couple of decades.

There are a few distilleries still in operation though and some like Glenkinchie near Edinburgh and Auchentoshan near Glasgow continue to use the old triple distilling techniques.

The Lowlands is the second biggest whisky region in terms of the physical area that it covers and even though there are only a few of the original distilleries still in production it’s a highly recommended region for connoisseurs looking for the subtlest flavours.

The Lowlands covers the entire south of Scotland including Edinburgh and Glasgow, from the county borders along the Clyde estuary across to the river Tay in the east and all the way down to the border with England.

The growth of blended whisky in the Lowlands was mainly driven by alcohol tax hikes at the beginning of the 20th-century which in turn lead to the closure of several distilleries, and the rapid advances in grain production meant the remaining distillers found it more profitable to make the cheaper grain spirit.

We can see this effect on the market today with distilleries such as Aisla Bay which produces an incredible 12 million litres of spirit per year, but only for use by other manufacturers in their blends.

Even so, if you can find a modern bottle of Lowland single malt whisky you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the quality of the spirit, with notes of grass, honeysuckle, toffee and cinnamon playing heavily on your taste buds.

My recommendation: Glenkinchie 12-year-old. Fruity, biscuity, and with flavours of apple and grass, this is a very easy-going Scotch that’s drinkable on any occasion.

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scotland mountains

4. Islay and The Islands

The Ultimate Guide to Single Malt Scotch Whisky 12
  • Number of distilleries: Islay – under 10, Islands – under 10.
  • Most famous Islands whisky: Highland Park, Talisker, Jura.
  • Most Famous Islay whisky: Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin.
  • Typical flavours: Seaweed, brine, carbolic soap, apple, smoke, peat.

Island whisky is characterised by strong, peaty, heavily smoked flavours from famous producers including Laphroaig, Jura and Arran.

These whiskies take their cues from the wild seas that whip around the rugged islands of the Inner Hebrides, although by far the biggest concentration of distilleries is located on the Isle of Islay.

Islay has an impressive eight distilleries in full production, which is incredible for an island that only has a total of 3,000 people living there.

The fine single malt whisky produced on this picturesque island is the stuff of legend, and between the distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Kilchoman, Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Bowmore and Ardbeg you’ll experience flavours ranging from spicy pepper, creamy fruit, syrupy apple through to medicinal carbolic.

Of the five main Scotch whisky regions, Islay probably tops the list of most whisky-lovers must-visit destinations, and with such quality drams on offer who can blame them?

Even though Islay is relatively small by landmass it’s currently home to some of the world’s favourite Scotch whisky distilleries and plans are afoot for more in the coming years. That’s great news considering the island is most likely the starting point for all whisky production in Scotland after it was introduced from Ireland in the 13th century.

Other islands in this whisky-producing region include Jura, Mull, Arran, Orkney and Skye, with The Arran Malt (18-year-old) previously voted the ‘Best Scotch Islands – non-Islay Single Malt’ at the World Whisky Awards.

Read my guides to the isles of Jura, Mull, Arran and Islay for the complete low-down on everything you need to know before you visit these west-coast islands.

While the heady smokiness of Islay whisky isn’t to everyone’s taste, if you want to take a journey into the land of Scotch whisky then you owe it to yourself to at least try a couple of Island drams whenever you get the chance.

My recommendation: Bowmore 18-year-old. This is my favourite whisky, full of saline smokiness with a sweet and syrupy aftertaste.

5. Campbeltown

scotch whisky
  • Number of distilleries: under 5.
  • Most famous Highlands whisky: Glengyle and Springbank.
  • Typical flavours: Brine, smoke, dried fruit, vanilla, toffee.

Campbeltown on the southern Kintyre peninsula was once heavily invested in single malt whisky production with 34 plants in operation at its peak in the 1850s, but sadly today there are only three left; Springbank, Glengyle and Glen Scotia.

Even so, the whisky produced in this remotest of the single malt regions is as fine a quality as you’ll find anywhere else and there are some wildly different flavours to experience.

Campbeltown is unusual in that although it’s part of the mainland it has notoriously poor transport links to the rest of Scotland due to its location at the foot of the Mull of Kintyre, which is the reason why this once-prolific whisky-producing region saw its sales drop as distillers fought to battle increasing transport costs.

Unfortunately, this downward spiral of cost-cutting led to distillers producing an inferior product compared to the rest of Scotland, and as corners were cut its popularity declined.

There are still some fine quality single-malts produced in Campbeltown though, and the Springbank distillery, in particular, is very popular amongst enthusiasts for the way they’re able to create different tasting malts by varying the levels of peat used in their double and triple distilling processes.

While you could be forgiven for thinking that the Longrow variant has been poured out of a bottle from the heavily-peated Isle of Islay, a dram of Hazelburn could leave you in no doubt that it’s come from one of the light and floral distilleries of Speyside.

But what’s not in doubt is that Springbank is highly regarded in whisky-drinking circles, and rightly so.

The ability of the Campbeltown distilleries to innovate and steadily improve upon the quality of their product should leave enthusiasts in no doubt that although diminished in size, whisky production in Campbeltown is here to stay.

My recommendation: Springbank Longrow 10-year-old. Flavours of peaty smoke, light oak, vanilla and orchard fruits characterise this lovely Campbeltown whisky.

The history of Scotch whisky

scotch whisky

While the very first origins of whisky production in Scotland are difficult to determine, it’s likely that the distillation process was brought across from Ireland by travelling monks who settled throughout the land in the middle ages.

The first known record of whisky-making that’s similar to our modern manufacturing technique is documented in the records of royal income and expenditure from 1494, when malt was requested to be used to make aquae vitae (the Latin phrase for water of life), or uisge beatha to use the native Gaelic term.

The quantity of malt specified in these historic records leads historians to believe that around 1,500 bottles of whisky would have been produced, which suggests that the distillation process was already well established in Scotland by the end of the 15th-century, by which time the main single malt regions were already gaining notoriety for the quality sprits they were producing.

Whisky distilling continued to thrive throughout Scotland due to the huge amount of grain the country was able to cultivate and thanks to the natural remoteness of the Highlands it was possible for Scottish distillers to build secret stills hidden far away from the prying eyes of government tax officials.

In fact, the size of the illegal Highland whisky industry meant that by the late 18th-century black market whisky was one of the biggest exports from the region, though government tax officials were always on the lookout to seize the distiller’s equipment.

The scale of these operations can be seen in the Scottish Government records from the time which state that in 1782 illegal whisky production accounted for over one thousand seized contraband stills from the Highlands, with government authorities claiming that this was only a small percentage of the illegal distilleries that were suspected to be hidden away deep in the mountains.

Scotch Whisky in barrel

To combat the loss in tax revenue, in 1823 the government eased up on the tax restrictions that had previously been placed on licensed distilleries and at the same time made punishments for illegal distilleries harsher.

This led to a new era of Scotch whisky and records show that after the tax restrictions were lifted in 1823 the amount of Scotch produced the following year almost doubled in quantity.

As the methods and techniques used to produce whisky improved so did the quality of the final product, and by the late 19th-century Scotch whisky was enjoying record export success across Europe and beyond.

With so many high-quality variations available from Scotland’s various whisky-producing regions, a new breed of connoisseur appeared with an appreciation for what had once been seen as the poor man’s alcoholic drink.

If you’d like a top tip about how you can experience age-old Scotch whisky manufacturing techniques in an authentic setting, head on over to the Dallas Dhu distillery in Forres, Morayshire.

Although the distillery no longer produces spirit it’s managed by Historic Environment Scotland who has restored it to the condition when it was in full production. It’s a great day out, and the cost of entry even includes a wee dram!

You can find out more about this distillery by reading my Guide to the Dallas Dhu Distillery.

Special offer for visiting Dallas Dhu distillery! Click this affiliate link to purchase a Historic Environment Scotland Explorer Pass from Viator. Your 5-day or 14-day pass allows free entry to more than 77 castles, cathedrals, distilleries and more throughout Scotland.

How is Scotch whisky made?

As we’ve already seen, for a whisky to be called a single malt it has to pass two criteria.

First it can only be made from malted barley, and second it has to be distilled in pot stills in one single distillery. While many distilleries today contract out the malting of the barley to third parties, there are still a few that choose to perform their own malting, although it’s a time-consuming task that’s very labour-intensive

The whisky is usually distilled twice (a few distillers prefer triple filtering depending on where they’re based) before it’s matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years, after which it’s bottled and sold to eagerly awaiting consumers. Let’s take a look at the whole procedure of making whisky in a little more detail.

Step 1. Malting the barley

barley

We all know that alcohol is made by fermenting sugar, especially when we look at how wine is made from the sugars of fruits, with sweet-tasting vineyard grapes used in much the same way that homemade wine is made from garden fruits.

But whisky is made from barley grain, so where does the sugar come from?

Well, barley has an extremely high starch content, and as you might remember from your school science class, starch is simply a whole load of sugar molecules stretched into long chains. So what we need to do is somehow release the sugar from the starch, and this is done in the process of malting.

The first stage is to steep the barley grain in water and then spread it out across a malting floor. As the grains start to germinate they begin to alter chemically to allow the sugar locked inside to be released.

The grains then have to be turned over at regular intervals so that they germinate equally, and as this is traditionally done slowly by hand most distilleries simply choose to outsource the process.

Germination of the grains takes around 5 days at which point they’re spread onto grids inside a hot kiln to dry out, and this part of the process plays a big part in how the finished single malt will taste.

The kilns are heated from below with fire, and as heat passes over the grains the steam rises and escapes through the pagoda roof of the kiln. If peat is added to the fire (as happens with most Islay whisky) the grains take on a characteristically smoky flavour.

Step 2. Fermentation

Dallas Dhu Distillery

The next stage in whisky production turns the grains into an alcohol liquid in a process called fermentation.

The grains are first milled into a coarse flour called grist which is mixed with hot water in a giant tub (the mash tun). The grist is mashed three times with water of increasing temperature, ranging from around 65 degrees on the first run, to 80 degrees on the second and almost boiling on the third.

The liquid from the mash is then syphoned off with the majority being used for distillation while a small portion is re-used for the next batch of grist. The remaining mash is then dehydrated and made into animal feed for resale to farms.

As the liquid from the mash tun cools down, yeast is added and we’re then left with a liquid called wort.

The wort is stored for around four days in wooden (and more recently stainless steel) containers called washbacks, where the fermentation of the alcohol is allowed to finish.

After two to four days the liquid has finished fermenting and is now in a stage called wash, which has an alcohol content of about 8%. At this point the liquid is ready to be distilled inside the gigantic copper still pots that we’ll see in the next step.

Step 3. Distillation

Dallas Dhu Distillery

As the wash is poured into the copper pot still it’s heated from both below and inside with hot steam which causes the alcohol inside the wash to evaporate, leaving behind the water.

As the evaporated alcohol continues to rise it enters a tapered tube in the still where it then passes through a condenser which turns it back into a liquid which then flows into a second pot still.

The first still, known as the wash still, produces an alcoholic liquid (called low wine) at 20 to 25% alcohol content, whereas the second still (the spirit still), further refines the alcohol content to around 70%.

The wash and spirit stills are usually made in different sizes to accommodate the different quantities of liquid they have inside them, and while the lower-alcohol wash still might hold up to 30,000 litres of liquid compared to spirit stills which typically contain 10,000 litres.

These huge copper stills are made almost entirely by hand, with each replacement being fashioned into an exact replica of its predecessor.

It’s said that any change to a still will change the taste of the finished product, a theory that gave rise to the myth that when a still is replaced the manufacturer even replicates the dents and scratches that the old still received over the years.

If you ever find yourself on a distillery tour be sure to take a good look at the still that’s in use as its shape is one of the contributing factors that gives the whisky its own unique taste.

While softer flavours such as Glenmorangie are produced from long and slim stills, intense flavours like Laphroaig and Lagavulin are the product of short, squat stills. But an even more crucial component in the taste of single malt is the next stage in the process – the casking.

Step 4. Filling the casks

Scotch Whisky in barrel

The clear alcoholic liquid from the spirit still can’t be called Scotch whisky yet, at least not until it’s spent a minimum of three years maturing in sturdy oak casks in a Scottish warehouse.

As the liquid from the spirit still is syphoned off it passes through a series of valves and tubes inside a sealed compartment known as the spirit safe. It’s from there that the spirit is cut into three extractions, with the first (or foreshot) considered the lowest quality spirit, the second (or middle cut) being the best and the third (called the feints) being returned to the spirit still.

As the middle cut is left to mature in the cask it will take on some of the flavour and colour that the cask has absorbed from its previous use, which is why you’ll see labels like ‘Sherry matured’ or ‘Bourbon matured’ on many bottles of single malt.

The casks themselves come mainly from the US Bourbon whiskey and Spanish Sherry industries, with Spanish Oloroso casks being particularly highly prized.

Step 5. Maturation in the cask

whisky barrel

The final stage in the process of turning barley grain into fine quality whisky is simply allowing the alcohol to sit in warehouses to let it absorb the rich oils and flavours that are inherent to the oak casks.

These casks are left to their own devices for three or more years, with top-quality whisky left for twenty-one years or longer.

You might be wondering why the finished whisky isn’t simply decanted into bottles after three years and then left to sit on a shelf to mature, but the reason is that as soon as the liquid is bottled it can no longer absorb the qualities of the cask, which means it has stopped maturing.

So a bottle of three-year matured whisky that has sat on a shelf for twenty-one years will always be known as a three-year-old whisky.

An interesting fact about this stage concerns the disappearance of several litres of alcohol from each cask during its life.

When the whisky is initially poured into the cask it has an alcohol content of around 65%, and as the oak cask breathes it allows some of this alcohol to evaporate.

In fact, for each year that the whisky sits in the cask the quantity of the fluid inside decreases by an average of 2%. Thankfully, as the whisky matures it takes on a mellower flavour that becomes more valuable to the consumer, so this loss of whisky (known as the angels share) doesn’t lead to a loss in revenue for the distillery.

The final stage in the process is for the whisky to be bottled and sold to retailers worldwide, at which point the likes of you and me can finally get our hands on it. It’s fair to say that genuine Scotch whisky is slow and difficult to make, but the taste is definitely worth the wait.

Facts and figures about Scotland’s Scotch whisky regions

Did you know?

  • Scotch whisky accounts for almost 20% of the entire UK exports of food and drink.
  • Exports of Scotch whisky earn the UK around £140 every second.
  • UK whisky manufacture supports over 40,000 jobs, with 10,000 employed directly by the Scotch whisky industry.
  • At any one time, there are more than 20 million whisky casks maturing in Scottish warehouses. That’s four casks for every man, woman and child living in the country!
  • There are currently (as of 2021) 128 different distilleries licensed to produce genuine Scotch whisky in the five main single malt regions. Distilleries that are not located in Scotland are not allowed to call their product Scotch.
  • A single malt might see several casks before it’s bottled. Single malt means it’s the product of a single distillery, not a single cask.

If you would like to become a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Scotland’s premier whisky membership club, click the banner below and follow the link.

Not only will you be given access to exclusive bottlings, regular magazines and special offers, but you’ll also be able to enjoy a dram at the society’s very own whisky connoisseurs club where you’ll be able to enjoy Scotland’s finest whiskies along with first-class Scottish cuisine.

Oh, and if you’re ever in Edinburgh don’t forget to check out the Scotch Whisky Experience on The Royal Mile, not far from Edinburgh Castle esplanade.

This fun and informative visitor attraction will tell you everything you need to know about whisky in all its glorious forms and you might even learn a few bits of factory-floor gossip from the attraction’s resident ghostly tour guides!

Take a look at my guide to the Scotch Whisky Experience to find out everything you need to know before you leave home.

Now that you know a wee bit more about Scottish whisky you might be interested to learn about Scottish beer. If you are, read my Guide to Scottish Beer and Beer Festivals.


Frequently Asked Questions

Where are the single-malt whisky regions of Scotland?

Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands, The Islands, The Isle of Islay, and Campbeltown.

What are the most popular whiskies from each Scotch-producing region?

Speyside: Macallan, Dalwhinnie, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich.
Highlands: Dalmore and Glenmorangie.
Lowlands: Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie
The Islands: Highland Park, Talisker, Jura.
Islay: Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin
Campbeltown: Glengyle and Springbank

How many whisky distilleries are there in Scotland?

There are currently (as of 2021) 128 different distilleries licensed to produce genuine Scotch whisky in the five main single malt whisky regions. Distilleries that are not located in Scotland are not allowed to call their product Scotch whisky.

How important is whisky to Scotland?

Scotch whisky accounts for almost 20% of the entire UK exports of food and drink and earns the UK around £140 every second. The industry supports over 40,000 jobs with 10,000 employed directly by whisky manufacturers.

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Don’t forget to bookmark Out About Scotland to discover the best places to visit in Scotland, learn what to do in each region and get suggestions for top tourist attractions to add to your Scottish sightseeing itinerary.

By Craig Neil

Scotland travel writer and specialist 360° photographer. Founder of the Out About Scotland travel website and Vartour virtual tours.