Scotch: The Most Mystifying Whisky

January 26, 2011

Scotch is certainly the most mystifying whisky. Sourcing from five seeming arbitrary regions; Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Campbelltown, and Islay (truth is they are arbitrary; set by areas of taxation well over a century ago), its flavors cover the broadest character range of any single category of drink outside of wine.

The 900lb gorilla of the single malt world is Speyside with 46 producing distilleries and 39 unique single malt brands. Speyside is home to the world's top two single malt brands, Glenfiddich - #1 and The Glenlivet - #2, as well as two several of my personal favorites(more on these later). Speysides are classically a touch sweet with rich perfumed notes and light on the peat. This region is small and stylistically the most well defined.

Conversely, we have the Highlands with 30 producing distilleries making 45 unique malt brands. It covers almost half of Scotland and produces whiskies of a remarkable breadth of character. From the spicier west island malts to the heathery central malts to the rich, often malty, eastern whiskies, the Highlands have something for everyone.

To the west, exposed to to the relentless salt spray of the winter gales, sits Islay (pronounced eye-la), source of the most distinctive of the single malt family. The whiskies here are loaded with peat smoke and brine with a dry finish. The northern ones like Bruichladdich are more delicate and sweet falling off to the most smokey and powerful of all malts, Laphroaig, found in the south of Islay.

Campbeltown, though tiny, was once the major producer. In the 1920 there were 34 distilleries here. Today only 3 remain, but one of them, Springbank, was described by the Sunday Times as 'Premier Grand Cru Classe', after a 1983 tasting.

The final region, the Lowlands, has always produced lighter more delicate malts. Sadly 6 of the 9 producing distilleries here have closed in the past few decades. Of the 3 remaining, Auchentoshan the best known.

OK, I promised some personal favorites so here's a Fell's Favorite Malts list:

  • The Macallan, 15yo, 17yo & 18yo are all worth finding - Highlands
  • The Glenlivet, Nādurra is fruity, sweet and goes on forever - Speyside
  • Bruichladdich, Rocks is un-peated, from Victorian era stills, very delicate and balanced - Islay
  • Aberlour, a'bunadh is a cask strength malt, dark & very rich - Speyside - as Eric Jackson has often noted, "This cask strength stuff sure seems to evaporate fast."
  • Springbank, 18yo, exquisite after dinner fare, fruit and spice - Campbeltown
  • And, of course, anything from The Balvenie!… Doublewood, Carribean Cask, Sherry Oak 17, Single Barrel... and yes, once again, it's from Speyside!

The truth is whether with a splash, with a cube, or neat, there is only one proper way to learn you way through this marvelous maze of spectacular malt whiskies, drink up!!!

When you find one you love and use it as a launching point. Let the pros at Bluegrass steer you to the next great discovery and above all enjoy the journey.

Cheers!