Scotland is home to over 140 malt and grain whisky distilleries spread across five distinct regions. Each region has its own unique history, flavours and famous distilleries. Here is an overview of the five whisky regions of Scotland.
The Highlands is Scotland’s largest whisky-producing area, covering anywhere from the north of Glasgow (the Clyde estuary to the River Tay) to Thurso in the north, not to mention the east and west regions excluding Speyside. Due to the large area, whisky in the Highlands is diverse and offers vastly different flavours, so it is hard to put a specific style on whisky from this region. It is easier to split the Highlands into four subregions: north, east, south and west. Each of these subregions has its own style.
In the north, you will find full-bodied single malts, sweet & rich in character; Glenmorangie & Dalmore being two of the more recognisable whiskies. Lighter, fruity whiskies are more commonly found in the east, such as Glendronach. Similar drams are in the South; these would typically have a touch less body, such as Aberfeldy. The Western Highlands offers the full body with a peaty punch, and the coast has a significant influence on those whiskies; Oban is one of the more prominent names.
Due to the size of the Highland area, these distilleries make up 25% of all whisky produced in Scotland. If you add the neighbouring region of Speyside into this, then the figure rises up to 85%.
Number of distilleries: Over 30
Typical features of Highland malts include:
- Wide range of styles and flavours due to the large size of the region
- Rich honey and spice notes from the use of peated malt
- Smoother, more rounded malts from longer fermentation times
Typical Highland flavours: Fruit Cake, Malt, Oak, Heather, Dried Fruit and Smoke
The region of Speyside is located in the northeast of Scotland, surrounding the River Spey; it’s a sub-region to the neighbouring Highlands because of the high density of distilleries in the area. It’s home to the highest number of distilleries in Scotland, with well over 50 at present.
Speyside is known for its wide range of whiskies, famously displaying different characters, from sweet single malts with either very little peat or no peat present at all. Because of this style, Speyside tends to be an excellent entry-level for those beginning their whisky adventure. They allow the user to discover their favourite tastes when it comes to drinking single malts.
Some of the world’s most famous whiskies are produced in Speyside, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Macallan; these three distilleries alone make up one-third of the entire single malt market. More than 60% of Scotland’s whole single malt production is from the active distilleries of Speyside; this shows how important this region is in terms of exports of Scotch and Scottish produce around the world.
Number of distilleries: Over 50
Typical features of Speyside malts include:
- Elegant and complex malts from small copper pot stills
- Medium-bodied with fruity flavours like apple, pear, citrus
- Sweet vanilla notes from the use of American oak or sherry oak casks
Typical Speyside flavours: Apple, Vanilla, Oak, Malt, Nutmeg and Dried Fruit
(Speyside’s Glenfiddich is the world’s best-selling single malt whisky.)
Lowlands is the second biggest whisky region in terms of its area, but it’s currently only home to fewer than five distilleries. The Lowlands region covers the south of Scotland up to the north of Glasgow and Edinburgh. It meets the border of the Highlands; the line follows the old county borders running from the Clyde estuary in the west to the River Tay in the east. Anything south of this is along the border with England and is classified as the ‘Lowlands’ in whisky terms.
Lowlands whiskies tend to be light and gentle with no peatiness; unlike other regions, they were once all triple distilled. Only Auchentoshan uses this technique now for all of its production. Due to the inland location of the distilleries, there is slight salinity within the whisky; because of this, Lowland whiskies are a great entry into malt whisky
Number of distilleries: 15
Typical features of Lowland malts include:
- Light, grassy flavours from triple distillation
- Malty sweetness and spicy finish
- Described as the 'lightest' of Scotch whiskies
Typical Lowland flavours: Grass, Honeysuckle, Cream, Toffee, Toast and Cinnamon
Campbeltown is part of mainland Scotland, but it’s found at the Mull of Kintyre’s foot and was once a thriving whisky hotspot with over 34 distilleries. However, it’s now home to just 3. Once at a high of 34, a 50% slump in the 1850s meant what followed was a catastrophic fall from grace. A mixture of improved transport links to the rival distilleries in the north and a decline in quality as distillers cut corners for mass production resulted in an inferior product.
Today, Campbeltown whisky is known for its dryness and sometimes pungent taste because of its location; the region sticks out of the mainland and is closer to neighbouring islands Arran and Islay than any other mainland producer.
The region is relatively small, yet the distilleries produce very different whiskies from one another; Springbank is robust and heavily smoky, whereas Glen Scotia now produces typically light and grassy whiskies.
Number of distilleries: 3
Typical features of Campbeltown malts include:
- Full-bodied, complex malts from prolonged maturation
- Notes of dried fruit, vanilla, toffee and spice
- Smoky and salty tang from coastal conditions
Typical Campbeltown flavours include: Brine, Smoke, Dried Fruit, Vanilla and Toffee
The Scottish Island of Islay (pronounced eye-luh) is located to the west of the mainland and is the smallest whisky region in terms of area coverage in Scotland. Even though it’s a relatively small island, Islay is currently home to 8 distilleries, 3 of which are world-famous: Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin.
The region is known for its peaty single malts, and it’s believed that whisky distillation reached Scotland from Ireland via Islay in the 13th century, hence the high number of past and present distilleries on the island.
Number of distilleries: 9
Typical features of Islay malts include:
- Strong peat smoke flavours resulting from abundant use of peat in the malting process
- Iodine or medicinal notes from the heavy peating combined with maritime climate
- Briny or saline flavours imparted by the sea air and water, adding hints of salt, seaweed and brine
Typical Islay flavours: Peaty, Seaweed, Brine, Carbolic Soap, Apple, Smoke and Kippers
Scotch produced on the islands surrounding the mainland of Scotland offers a very diverse and different taste; they’re not, however, recognised by the Scotch Whisky Association but are easily grouped for geographic reasons as one as they’re all islands.
There are nearly 800 islands off of Scotland’s coastline, with only a few being inhabited; it’s easy to see why the varying style differentiates from North to South. Of the inhabited islands, Orkney has two whisky distilleries, Scapa and Highland Park, Lewis & Harris is home to Abhainn Dearg, Talisker is located on Skye, Tobermory on Mull, with Jura and Arran located on their namesake islands. Although diverse in flavours, peat and salinity are found in all Islands whiskies; the latter is because of the sea’s proximity.
Talisker is currently the largest Islands distillery in Scotland, with a capacity of 2.6m litres; you’ll be sure to find a bottle of this in most bars around the world.
Number of distilleries: 10
Typical Island malts features include:
- Strong peat smoke and brine flavours from coastal locations
- Influenced by sea air and maritime climate
- Heavily peated malts like Laphroaig and Lagavulin
Typical Island flavours: Smoke, Brine, Oil, Black Pepper and Honey
So there you have it, our guide to Scotland's whisky-producing regions. If this article has piqued your interest around cask whisky ownership and you'd like to find out more, just complete the form below to get in touch with our Account Managers!