Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Campbeltown, Islay & (sometimes) Islands. For better or worse, these are the regions that comprise the present landscape that is Scotch whisky. There has been some measure of debate over the years as to the merits of this somewhat loose codification of the whisky regions in Scotland, and I’m here today to throw my two Canadian cents in.
When I began my Scotch whisky journey several years ago, I was faced with the daunting task of attempting to parse a dizzying array of single malt brands with wild and foreign names like “Bunnahabhain”, “Glen Garioch” and “Alt-a-Bhainne”. With the aid of websites like masterofmalt.com, and other sources of good whisky intelligence already covered in my 10 Excellent Scotch Whisky Resources, I was slowly but surely able to wrap my head around the majority of the 115 working single malt distilleries in Scotland (per scotchwhisky.com). An enormous part of organizing all of this fresh data in my head was breaking down the great mass of distilleries and brands in Scotland into smaller and more digestible regions, and attempting to create a more useful map in my head for future use. My immediate inclination, I found, was towards whiskies which I learned hailed from the Speyside region. I pursued Speyside whiskies thoroughly, and for the most part, was pleasantly surprised with what I stumbled across. Most distilleries situated around the River Spey: Glenfarclas, Aberlour, Balvenie & BenRiach to name a few, possessed a bent towards the richer, fruitier side of the whisky map, with a predilection towards the use of Sherry casks for maturation. As my palate evolved and my confidence grew, I came to know the joys of the drier, more austere whiskies of the vast Highland region, the often salt-tinged whiskies of the Islands, and the explosive, peat-laden behemoths of Islay.
The idea of arranging whisky distilleries into basic regions was championed in the late 1980’s by beer and whisky messiah Michael Jackson, whose writings on the two subjects became the cornerstone on which all serious modern beer and whisky writing and criticism are built. Jackson’s intention, according to maltmadness.com, was to use whisky regions, “… as a ‘handle’ to introduce people to the Scotch whisky world at a time when ‘terroirs’ were a big talking point in the wine world.” As an educational tool alone, codifying single malt whiskies into regions was a stroke of genius, so much so that the Scotch Whisky Association has designated five official regions for malt whisky production in Scotland (Islands being notably absent and lumped in with Highland).
Words like terroir tend to carry with them a great deal of wine-soaked baggage however, and a good number of Scotch brands have spent years churning out silly piles of marketing nonsense about hills, glens, burns, rocks, birds & ghosts influencing the character of their whisky. Conflating the idea that whiskies distilled and matured in one specific area tend to be produced in a relatively similar manner, with the idea of actual terrior (soil conditions in grape growing leading to actual measurable variations in minerality, acidity etc. in a finished wine) is certainly far from constructive in promoting genuine whisky education, and only serves to further confuse the issue and confound the consumer.
There has been considerable pushback in recent years, both from whisky enthusiasts and from a number of the newer distilleries on the scene, against the idea of using regions to identify Scotch whisky at all. One of the primary arguments against, is the fact that the stylistic interpretations associated with each region simply don’t hold water in the modern era. I’ll readily admit that with the glaring exception of Islay (one would have to be mad to overlook their distinction), the idea that all whiskies produced in the Highlands for example, are so intrinsically “Highland” as to set them apart entirely from the others is a bit of a fallacy. By legal definition all single malt Scotch whisky is nothing but malted barley, water, wood & time, and therefore jamming this spirit into subcategories is an imperfect practice at best. Dry, well-peated whiskies are undoubtably being produced in Speyside as we speak, while unpeated and heavily sherried whiskies are doubtless in the works on Islay. Luckily for the distillers however, these regional maps and blanket stylistic definitions are far from legally binding guidelines, and the freedom to experiment with wood-finishes, peat levels, styles of barley, strains of yeast and maturation conditions remains wide open, no matter which side of the imaginary region line their distillery happens to fall.
Does the modern whisky map need some tweaking? Probably yes. Should we throw the very idea of whisky regions out the window and simply lump the whole of Scotch whisky into one great towering pile? I fail to see the benefit. Perhaps I’m a touch OCD, but when dipping my toes into any new obsession I need guideposts; road markers to lead me down the path to a more complete understanding of the world I’m attempting to explore. Certainly no sane whisky-loving person wants to adopt anything like the stuffy and labyrinthine French AOC system, but it seems abundantly clear to me that maintaining some sort of organizational structure to keep the ever-growing number of Scotch whisky distilleries in some kind of reasonable order does a great deal of good, and decidedly little harm.