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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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