Skip to main content

The whisky regions of Scotland: Each has its own history and flavor profile

Your cheat sheet to Scotch whisky regions

Whisky
Craig McKay/Unsplash

Scotch whisky beginners might take a sip of two or more drams from random distilleries and assume all of it tastes the same. This thought process couldn’t be further from the truth. But there are reasons why they can’t imagine that there are different types of Scotch whiskies. This is likely because they haven’t yet refined their palate to the various nuances of the spirit and because there’s a good chance the whiskies are from the same region. Thus likely making them taste similar.

If you didn’t know it already, there are more than 120 distilleries in Scotland, grouped into five different whisky regions (as well as one more that is often thrown in there) in Scotland. Each one has its flavors, styles, and history. They are the Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Islay, and Campbeltown. Some people also add in “The islands” because Scotch is produced on Jura, Arran, Orkney, the Isle of Skye, and other islands off the coast of Scotland. Those islands also fall under the Highlands region.

Scotch Dram
Josh Applegate/Unsplash

Highlands

The Highland region (which also encompasses the islands besides Islay in most cases) is by far the largest in terms of size as it makes up the whole top half of Scotland (save for Speyside). Home to more than twenty-five distilleries, it is one of the most diverse areas in terms of aroma and flavor. If you add in the islands, you’ll find flavors like ocean brine and smoke. Otherwise, the main flavors of the region are dried fruits, candied orange peels, heather, and honey. If you’re new to single malt Scotch whisky, it’s a great region to zero in on as it has an expression suited for any palate.

Regarding Highland whiskies, few distilleries are more well-known than Glenmorangie, The Dalmore, Aberfeldy, and GlenDronach. If we were going to suggest one expression for beginners and seasoned drinkers alike, it would be Glenmorangie The Original 10-Year-Old. Matured in a combination of first and second-filled ex-bourbon barrels, it’s known for its complex flavor profile featuring vanilla beans, candied orange peels, and sweet honey.

Whisky glass
Ethan Rougon/Unsplash

Lowlands

The Lowlands are located precisely where you’d assume, in the lowest area of Scotland, bordering England. While it has a large geographic area, only around five distilleries are located in the Lowlands. This gives the region a fairly specific flavor profile featuring notes of cinnamon sugar, sticky toffee, ginger, grass, and honey. Lowlands whiskies are known for their soft, light, easy-drinking, smooth palate.

Since the region has so few distilleries, you’ll want to head right for expressions from Glenkinchie, Auchentoshan, or Bladnoch. Auchentoshan is the most well-known distillery in the region. Suppose you’re going to purchase a bottle from this distillery, which is located within twenty minutes of Glasgow. In that case, we suggest Auchentoshan Three Wood, a single malt whisky aged in a combination of ex-bourbon, Spanish Oloroso sherry, and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. This results in a rich, soft whisky with notes of candied nuts, cinnamon, toffee, butterscotch, and rich oaky wood.

Glenlivet
Nurlan Isazade/Unsplash

Speyside

While a distant third place in terms of geography, Speyside is by far the most saturated with distilleries. The area located inside of the Highlands is home to more than fifty different distilleries. Home to some of the most well-known Scotch whisky brands in the world, the region is known for its notes of orchard fruits, sweet honey, vanilla, and spices. On top of that, myriad Speyside distilleries are aging and finishing whiskies in sherry casks.

With so many distilleries in the region, it’s difficult to pinpoint only a handful that drinkers need to try to begin their whisky journey. Some of the most well-known include The Macallan, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Aberlour, and The Balvenie. If you were only going to try one expression, we suggest Aberlour A’bunadh, a cask-strength single malt Scotch whisky aged completely in oloroso sherry casks. It’s known for its complex flavor profile of dried cherries, vanilla, caramel, and spices.

Whisky
Andres Haro Dominguez/unsplash

Campbeltown

When it comes to whisky regions, there is none more unique than Campbeltown. It gets its name because there were once more than thirty distilleries in and around the town. Today, there are only three: Glen Scotia, Springbank, and GlenGyle. The town/region is known for its flavor palate of salted caramel, ocean brine, smoke, and vanilla.

You don’t have a lot to choose from when it comes to Campbeltown, as we just mentioned. If you were only going to buy one expression, we suggest Springbank 10. Matured in a combination of ex-bourbon and sherry casks, it’s known for its nose of orchard fruits, dried fruits, and honey and a palate of toffee, candied orange peels, honey, and various spices.

Whisky pour
Dylan de Jonge/Umsplash

Islay

By far the smallest whisky region in Scotland, Islay is an island (home to only around 3,200 people and way more sheep) that features nine distilleries (after Ardnahoe opened a few years ago). While some distilleries are making un-peated single malts, it’s well-known for its briny, campfire smoke-filled peated whiskies. Other flavors include candied apples, caramel, and spices.

The island is home to Bruichladdich, Ardbeg, Coal Ila, Ardnahoe, Bunnahabhain, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bowmore, and Kilchoman. But if you’re only going to drink one expression from this island region, we suggest Lagavulin 16. The most well-known single malt whisky from Islay, it’s known for its nose of iodine, salted caramel, and campfire smoke and a palate of sea salt, toffee, vanilla, dried fruits, and robust peat smoke.

Christopher Osburn
Christopher Osburn is a food and drinks writer located in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. He's been writing professional
New Orleans in a glass: Stirring up a seductive Sazerac
Want the taste of the Big Easy? Add the Sazerac to your cocktail menu
Sazerac (with the red feather boa) is the official cocktail of New Orleans for summer drinks

One of America’s oldest known cocktails, the Sazerac cocktail is a New Orleans classic. One sip and you’ll quickly realize why this reddish-orange elixir has been going strong in the Big Easy and beyond since the 1800s. The Sazerac has a big, bold flavor that’s remarkably balanced, with a blend of sweetness, spice, and herbal notes, all wrapped up in one potent, whiskey-loving libation. Though difficult to master, it’s a fairly easy drink to make. It’s also a great cocktail to showcase your mixology skills, particularly while playing some fiery jazz in the background  (you can’t go wrong with Rebirth Brass Band.)
The classic Sazerac recipe

The Sazerac drink recipe is a fairly straightforward one, but if you want to have the authentic taste, make sure you are using the right bitters,
Ingredients:

Read more
Highland Park offers a new cask-strength whisky that promises complex flavors
This new whisky is best enjoyed neat or over ice
Whisky, whiskey, bourbon or cognac with ice cudes on black stone table and wood background

Highly regarded whisky brand Highland Park, famed for being the northernmost distillery in Scotland, is coming out with another desirable release in its cask-strength series. Highland Park Cask Strength No. 5 comes from the distillery, which has been operating in the beautiful and remote islands of Orkney, located 10 miles off the coast of the Scottish mainland, since 1798.

Thanks to its high proof, the release promises a rich, full-bodied drinking experience. This whisky has been aged in European oak casks, including those used for Pedro Ximénez sherry, a Spanish variety of dark dessert wine, bourbon casks and American oak casks.

Read more
The 17 best mocktail recipes to make in 2024
Want the sweet taste of a cocktail without the alcohol? Then mix up these mocktails
Kamas Arrow Cocktail Death and Co

Are you looking to take a little break from alcohol but still want the sweet taste of a cocktail on a warm summer day (no judgment)? Then mix up some mocktails so you can still indulge in some creative cocktail recipes — but without the liquor.

Sure, a mocktail won’t give you the buzz that a cocktail would, but these non-alcoholic drink recipes also won’t make you feel as bad if you have too many of them (both in terms of a hangover and on the scale, if you’re watching your weight). Below, you’ll find different mocktail recipes that range in flavor from sweet and a little spicy to fresh, like a spring garden. Bottoms up!
Berry Burlesque

Read more