Last updated on March 12th, 2020
The definitive guide to the single malt Scotch whisky regions – including the history of whisky and how whisky is made
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 wild Highlands and Islands on the west coast, or perhaps to the gentler hills and glens on the borders.
This delicious spirit has a history in Scotland dating back at least 500 years, and it’s now permanently linked not only to Scottish culture but it’s also 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 that there’s a subtle difference in the way the word is spelt when we refer to whisky produced in other countries, and indeed Ireland, the US and Japan all have thriving whiskey 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 Rabbie Burns wrapped in a tartan cloth eating 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.
So join me on a journey into the very heart of Scotland, and maybe learn a little about the soul of the Scots nation itself.
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 the 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 some the attraction’s resident ghostly tour guides!
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.
The 5 main single malt Scotch whisky regions
Scotland is famous for its huge range of single malt whisky, with each distillery imbuing the liquid with its own unique and distinct 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 enthusiasts so much to get excited about, and building a collection of rare and unusual bottles has to be the dream of every whisky-lover worldwide.
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 Isaly), and Campbeltown, and each one is worth a quick explanation to understand what makes them unique.
Map of Scottish Whisky Regions
- Speyside (centre)
- Highlands (centre)
- Lowlands (centre)
1. The Speyside Scotch whisky region
- 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 number 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 – making over one-third of the entire single-malt market. And even more surprising for such a small region, more than 60% of Scotland’s entire single-malt production comes from there.
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 Scotch whisky region
- Number of distilleries: Over 25
- Most famous Highlands whisky: Dalmore and Glenmorangie
- Typical flavours: Fruit cake, malt, oak, heather, dried fruit, smoke
The Highland single malt whisky-producing region of Scotland is by far the largest in 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 is characterized by the floral smells and fruity flavours that symbolise 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 whisky 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 take a lot of influences from the Islands so you’ll find lots of peaty flavours – as you’d expect from the dramatic coastline that has had such an effect on the whisky produced on the nearby Isle of Islay.
The spirits 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 region
- 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, unfortunately, production in the Lowlands concentrates on distilling grain spirit for whisky blends, and production of single malts has rapidly declined in the last couple of decades.
There are a few single malt distilleries still in operation though, and some such as 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 of single-malt whisky.
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, so it’s easy to appreciate that it’s a vast area – and one that you’d imagine would produce more single-malt spirit than it does.
The growth of blended whisky was mainly driven by alcohol tax hikes at the beginning of the 20th-century which in turn lead to the closure of several Lowlands distilleries, and the rapid advances in grain production meant that many distilleries 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 cheaper 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 works well at any occasion.
4. The Islands and Islay Scotch whisky regions
- 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 around 3000 inhabitants.
The fine single malt whisky produced on this stunningly gorgeous little 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 through Islay is relatively small by land mass it’s currently home to some of the world’s favourite Scotch whisky distilleries, and plans are afoot for more to be installed in the coming years which is great to see considering that this little island is most likely the starting point for 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) recently voted the ‘Best Scotch Islands – non-Islay Single Malt’ at the World Whisky Awards 2018.
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. The Campbeltown Scotch whisky region
- 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 in Scotland 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 still left running; 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 production costs.
Unfortunately, this downward spiral of cost-cutting led to distillers producing a much inferior product compared to the rest of Scotland, and as corners were cut its popularity fell through the floor.
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 the Highlands.
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.
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