How well do you know your Scotch?
Scotch. What’s your favourite? It’s either a question you’ll leap to answer with great enthusiasm or one that will send chills into your core. Whisky for the uninitiated can seem overwhelming and impenetrable, especially given the number of distilleries, both working and defunct, and the number of different single malts they produce. That’s not even getting into the quagmire that is single grain and single cask whiskies.
But it’s good to know something, if only so you can find yourself a dram of the water of life you actually like. Once I realised not all whiskies were the same, and, more than that, that I preferred Lowland whiskies to Islay whiskies, it changed the way I thought about the drink. Once you’ve got a baseline, you can explore from there, and instead of seeming intimidating, a whole world of well-crafted drinking will open itself up to you. Here’s a guide to the different regions, their defining characteristics, and some key examples, so you know what to order next time you do late night drinks at the bar.
Let’s start with the behemoth that is Speyside. More than a third of all the whisky that’s made in Scotland is made here, in the area between Dufftown and Elgin. The country is grassland, fertile, and flowing with streams that supply the water to the distilleries, so one of the main flavours to look out for in Speyside whiskies is apple – clean, light, fruity. You can also expect vanilla tones, oak from the casks, malt, nutmeg, and dried fruit flavours. Those that tend towards the apple and grassy flavours are known as lunchtime whiskies – Glenlivet is one and Founders Reserve is one of the most accessible, a delicate and citrusy whisky, that won Silver Outstanding Medal at the 2015 International Wine and Spirits Competition (IWSC). Cragganmore 12 also tends towards the more citrus end, with an oat biscuit-y warmth undergirding it.
Cardhu and Balvenie are two others, both with heftier drams on their books. Try Cardhu Gold Reserve, a good aperitif whisky balancing dried fruit, dark chocolate, and toffee flavours, or Balvenie 12 year old Doublewood, aged in oak and then transferred to a sherry cask to give the spirit sweet fruit and Oloroso overtones.
Glenlivet Founder's Reserve
Cardhu Gold Reserve
Balvenie Doublewood 12
Talisker Skye is a bottle that often makes its way to the table after dinner – a smoky, salty whisky made on the Isle of Skye. The islands of Scotland, take in the Hebrides (but not Islay, which we’ll come back to) and Orkney, off the west and north coasts. They’re not an obviously coherent group, but the smoky brininess of Talisker is a good steer for what you can expect from an island whisky. The exposed, coastal location of these distilleries transfers to the spirit, and as well as smoke and brine, you can expect to taste oil, a kick of black pepper, and soothing honey.
If you want to branch out, try an Isle of Jura 10 year old single malt, an easy-drinking sweet, brine-y malt, made on the island opposite Islay, or Highland Park 12 year old, made on Mainland, Orkney, which has a delicious heather-honey sweetness, and just a whiff of smoke.
Highland Park 12
Islay whiskies get their own category entirely, because the eight distilleries on Scotland’s most westerly island make what could be called the definition of ‘peated’ whiskies. They’re seaweed-y and brine-y as you might expect from being so close to the Atlantic, but you can also expect disconcerting tones of carbolic alongside apples, smoke, and kippers. It might sound weird, or outright disgusting, but Islay whiskies like Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg are some of the most loved by whisky aficionados. They’re also hard drinking for the ingénu, so don’t let a sip of one of these put you off entirely.
Try a Lagavulin 16 year old as a starting point – it’s got the peat, smoke and iodine flavours that makes Islay whisky so distinctive, and a saltiness that makes it a great accompaniment to blue cheese.
Laphroaig 1815 Legacy Edition
Once the area around Campbeltown stretching in to the Mull of Kintyre was home to over 30 distilleries. Now there are just three, but they hold their own well enough to be given their own category. Again you can expect that coastal brine, but also dried fruit, vanilla, and toffee. And before that begins to sound too much like Christmas cake, you might also detect the scent of wet wool (some would say wet dog) in there too.
Glen Scotia Victoriana leans on the dark fruit and chocolate side and is an eminently (some would say too much so) drinkable whisky from this region.
Glen Scotia Victoriana
Speyside isn’t the end of Scotland’s whisky offering from its northern climes. There are over 20 distilleries around the rest of the Highlands with longstanding histories of whisky making. The richness of Glenmorangie sums up the richness and complexity of the region’s style. Expect fruit cake, malt, oak, heather, dried fruit, and on occasion a little bit of smoke. The further away from Speyside you get, the more individuality there is, and Clynelish is the most notable. It has a waxy feel to the spirit that once recognised you’ll be able to spot in blends.
Get started on Highland whiskies with a bottle of Glenmorangie 10 year old Original as the standard setter for Highland whisky – medium-bodied, warming and slightly spicy. Dalwhinnie 15 is also a great starting point – a smooth, fruity whisky, that’s widely considered a classic.
Glenmorangie The Original
You might not think of Glasgow and Edinburgh as being part of Scotland’s great whisky making tradition, but Auchentoshan is just outside the one and Glenkinchie the other. Add in Bladnoch in Dumfries and Galloway and you’ve got the Lowland cohort of distilleries. Again these tend to make lighter grassier whiskies, that are more floral – honeysuckle-esque like a garden in summertime, with cream and toffee, and cinnamon on toast. Drink Glenkinchie, sweet and soft to start, becoming more crisp and dry as it finishes, as an aperitif. Auchentoshan has a lot in common with Irish whiskies (no surprise given it was founded by Irish distillers) and is one of the last to distil the spirit three times. The result is a spirit with its harsher edges knocked off, making it very drinkable.
The classic bottle is Auchentoshan American Oak – light, vanilla-rich, and slightly fruity, a great Lowland whisky.
Auchentoshan American Oak
Bladnoch Bicentennial Release