Scotch whisky is divided into two distinct categories: blended and single malt. It is the single malt Scotch whiskeys that made the country famous and where you'll find some of the best whisky in the world. Not all offer the bold smoky, peaty taste that scotch is known for and there are five (or six) regions within Scotland that produce different styles, each with unique characteristics.
As you dive into all that scotch has to offer, it's interesting to explore these regional differences. The pursuit can take you from the peatiest drams to the most elegant. Some offer hints of sea salt while others are soft and approachable for anyone who is just getting their first taste of the single malts. Wherever the journey takes you, it's sure to be fascinating!
How Single Malt Scotch Is Made
Single malt scotch goes beyond the requirements for the country's blended whiskeys. All scotch must be distilled in Scotland from water and malted barley fermented only with yeast. Single malts must also be produced at a single distillery, include no other grains (which are often found in blends), and run only through copper pot stills (no column stills allowed). The whisky must also spend at least three years in oak casks, though many are aged for far longer.
Though they're steeped in complexity and countless tastes, the actual process for making all single malt scotch is surprisingly simple. Each distillery and region may have their own unique approach, but there are universal practices. Chief among those is the method for preparing the barley:
- The germination process is started by soaking barley for a few days so the tough grain can convert carbohydrates into sugars during fermentation, which is required for distillation.
- The barley must then be dried to stop the germination. This may be done in a kiln or on a malting floor and peat harvested from bogs and moors is often introduced, imparting the whisky's distinct smokiness.
- The dried barley is milled into grist, a coarse grind that further aids fermentation.
- The yeast and water are added to the barley and the fermentation process begins.
Once fermented, the whisky really begins to take shape. Single malts are typically distilled twice in copper pot stills, though some (particularly in the Lowlands) will distill a third time.
The distillate is then aged in oak casks. Typically, these barrels once held bourbon or rye whiskeys, sherry, port, or Madeira wines, or (less often) brandy or rum. The scotch must be bottled at a minimum of 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 80 proof), though many are higher.
The Whisky Regions of Scotland
Most often used when referring to wine, the word terroir (pronounced tare WAHr) describes the effects of localized natural environmental factors on the final taste of a product. The phrase "sens de lieu" (French for "sense of place") is also used to describe the effect of climate, soil, terrain, and tradition that affect the resulting beverage.
This same concept plays into the general character differences in single malt Scotch whisky found in the various regions. Each region produces scotch with general taste profiles, though even within a specific area one single malt can be very distinct from another. In Scotland, there are five regions for single malt scotch, though a sixth is often added to distinguish the whisky produced on "The Islands" from those of The Highlands.
Single malt scotch from the Lowland area is a perfect introduction into the world of Scotch whisky. It encompasses the southern third of Scotland and the whisky is often likened to Irish whiskey.
These tend to be the smoothest, offering a light floral taste with a gentleness that's very approachable. Tradition plays a role in this area because most (not all) are triple distilled and they are generally unpeated. The majority of the whisky produced here is used for blended whisky, though a few single malt producers remain. For a taste of The Lowlands, look for whisky from Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie.
The Speyside region sits on the northeastern end of Scotland. It is the country's geographical center, surrounded by The Highlands, and encompassing much of the River Spey. It's a relatively small area, but it boasts the highest concentration of whisky distilleries in the country.
The single malts of Speyside are considered the most elegant of the lot. The whisky is surprisingly diverse for the area, though generally characterized with honey, hints of spice, and light smoke. You'll find whisky with light, grassy profiles and sweet, rich whisky finished in sherry cask. Some have a complex, very refined smokiness while others are completely devoid of peat.
If you enjoy the blended whisky of Johnnie Walker, you'll want to check out the single malts that also call Speyside home. Among these are big names like Aberlour, Balvenie, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Macallan.
The largest region for single malt scotch is The Highlands and this is where things really get complicated. Encompassing the majority of mainland Scotland, the area reaches from the northern sea to The Lowlands and from east to west, where it includes many of The Islands. With such vast territory, the whisky produced there is quite diverse as well.
Generally, Highland single malt whisky falls right in the middle of the spectrum of scotch: it is neither too smoky nor too delicate and is not overly rich nor light-bodied. If there's a happy medium within the world of scotch, it's found in The Highlands.
That said, there is no single character in these whiskeys and the entire area is often broken down into sub-regions. In the Northern Highlands, you'll find rich full-bodied whisky from the likes of Balblair, Dalmore, and Glenmorangie. The Central, Eastern, and Southern Highlands tend to produce fruitier, lighter drams like Aberfeldy and Glendronach. On the west side, you'll find increased diversity, from the gently peated Loch Lommond to Oban, one of the peatiest available.
Off the west and north coasts of Scotland are a series of islands (or isles) that are technically part of The Highlands. However, the whisky produced there is so distinct that it's often categorized into the sixth region simply known as The Islands. This includes the whisky-producing isles of Orkney (to the north), Lewis and Harris, Skye, Mull, Jura, and Arran. Islay is also an island, but a whisky category of its own.
Surrounded by salt water, the whisky produced on the islands tend to be bold and either briny or sweet, with a striking balance of salinity and peat smoke. They're quite fascinating to taste against the other single malts and the effects of climate are immediately apparent in many of these complex drams.
For a taste of the Islands and the diversity they offer, check out the very smoky offerings from Highland Park (Orkney) or Talisker (Skye). When you want something a little less peaty, Abhainn Dearg (Lewis and Harris), Arran (Arran), Isle of Jura (Jura), Scapa (Orkney), and Tobermory (Mull) are good choices.
On the western side of mainland Scotland lies Campbeltown, the smallest of the five scotch regions. The Kintyre peninsula was once filled with distilleries and produced the most whisky, though only three remain today. "Wet wool" is often used to describe these briny, smoky whiskeys and they're also noted for being dry with vanilla and toffee flavors.
The Springbank distillery produces the Springbank, Hazelburn, and Longbrow labels. Glengyle and Glen Scotia are very old distilleries with roots dating to the early 1800s. Both were shuttered for most of the 20th century but were reopened in the 2000s and now produce some very fine whisky.
The Isle of Islay is where you will find the peatiest, smokiest single malt scotch. The whisky from this island off the west coast is very distinct from all others and shows the marine characteristics more than any other, often described as oily, salty, and somewhat medicinal or iodine-like.
For a taste of Islay at its most iconic, pick up drams from Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, or Laphroaig. When you want something a little gentler, a whisky from Bowmore, Bruichladdich, and Bunnahabhain would be a better fit.