May as well deal with the easy part first. Scotch is the term for whisky made in Scotland. So Scotch is from Scotland. But where in Scotland?
I have just finished teaching a Whisky Ambassador course. On that course, we teach that there are five regions producing Scotch. They are, in no particular order, Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Campbeltown and Islay.
Is that always how the whiskies of Scotland are divided up geographically? Absolutely not. Whisky Ambassador has chosen to batch together all of the whiskies on islands, other than Islay, into Highlands. This is also what the Scotch Whisky Association does.
Some authoritative sources separate Scotch whiskies into six regions by adding ‘Islands’ to the list (so separating them out from other whiskies located in the Highlands region) while Wikipedia notes that there were only four regions prior to 2014 which is when the Scotch Whisky association separated Speyside out as its own region (even though it sits within Highlands).
Does it make any difference? Well yes, and no.
First, we need to understand how a particular whisky’s region of origin is defined. Although the law requires that to be labelled as Scotch whisky, the whisky has to be matured for at least three years in Scotland (most is matured for much longer), it is the location where the whisky is distilled that counts as its region of origin.
Some regions have a particular style of whisky which they are renowned for producing which, due to various production practices, is not always reflected in the glass while for others, there are so many different styles produced that it is difficult, if not impossible, to describe a particular style to the location stated on the label.
So to look into this, let’s start with the location that perhaps has the most consistency of style; Islay.
Islay is an island almost in a direct line to the west of Glasgow and is immediately southwest of another Scotch producing island; Jura.
Islay is known for the peaty styles of the single malts produced there. It currently has nine distilleries though the ninth does not have any spirit which has been matured long enough to yet be called Scotch whisky.
There was a time when you would say of those distilleries that they all produce a peaty style of whisky except Bruichladdich but in 2001, Bruichladdich introduced Port Charlotte which is heavily peated (at about 40 ppm phenols) and then a year later, Octomore which is reputed to be the world’s most peated whisky.
With the fairly consistent thread of peatiness through most of Islay’s whiskies, you can be reasonably confident, though not 100% certain, that you will notice a slightly medicinal smoky tang when enjoying their whiskies.
There is less of a sense of stylistic certainty, but more of a sense of regionality than other regions (except Islay), with the whiskies of Speyside. As a general comment, and it is a very general comment, Speyside whiskies show a light, floral fruitiness accompanied by a sense of sweetness. However, this seems to be more true of those expressions matured in ex-Bourbon casks. It seems that once ex-Sherry casks play a notable role in the maturation regime, the somewhat more rich vanilla and dried fruit style comes to the fore making the use of Sherry casks more noticeable than the Speyside origin of the distillation.
It is interesting to note that many distilleries which distil in Speyside still choose to use the Highland moniker on their whiskies which they are perfectly entitled to do. A similar situation exists in the wine world where the wonderful sweet wines produced in Barsac in the southern part of Bordeaux in France are allowed to use the Sauternes commune as their geographical origin should they so choose. This is allowed because Barsac sits within Sauternes and Sauternes is better known by consumers and more serious wine students alike.
The same could not be said of Highlands Scotch. It would be challenging to suggest that a producer would choose to use Highlands as a more marketable geographical origin than Speyside given that so many famous producers of Scotch whisky hail from Speyside. Why, then, use Highlands on the label? Because they produce a style not typically associated with Speyside? For historical reasons? I guess you would have to ask them but it serves to support the notion that geographical origin beyond simply Scotland and, arguably, Islay offers relatively little in the way of a guide to style.
That leads us neatly on to Highlands which seems to have a better image than Lowlands whisky which one has to wonder if it might be related to romantic notions brought about by the novels of Sir Walter Scott and other historical figures who reinforce the romance and mystery, real or perceived, of this more northerly whisky producing area of Scotland.
With dry, fruity, floral, peaty and savoury expressions to be found from the wide range of distilleries producing in the Highlands, it, like the Lowlands, would be difficult to put a generic descriptor to but that should never stop the Scotch drinker from sampling the delights of both of these regions.
Batching the islands with Highlands might be convenient but it does result in a missed opportunity to reflect on the diversity of whiskies produced on the islands. Jura in Jura and Arran in Arran being easiest to remember which islands they are from due to the whiskies being an eponym of whence they came. Others would need more cranial strain to recall their geographical origins such as Tobermory from Mull and Talisker from Skye whilst some are equally challenging for the tongue such as Abhainn Dearg from Lewis. It would be wrong to mention the islands without a mention of their northerly outpost of Orkney where the two distilleries Highland Park and Scapa will appeal to the enthusiast for different but compelling reasons.
Then we come to Campbeltown which, having only three distilleries, could also be thought of as having a more homogeneous style than regions with a much larger number of distilleries but it makes more sense simply to try the products of each distillery and gather your own views, particularly as one of them, Springbank, (the other two distilleries being Glengyle and Glen Scotia) produces lightly peated (Springbank), unpeated Hazelburn and the more heavily peated Longrow.
So what can we conclude from all of this? I have a sneaking suspicion that on most occasions when those who enjoy single malt Scotch without a studious interest in it order their favourite dram, they do so without much thought to geographical origin beyond the fact that it hails from Scotland. If that were not the case, you would imagine they would walk into their preferred watering hole and simply ask for a single malt from Speyside or the Highlands. Lowlands or Campbeltown. I leave Islay off that list as I also suspect some single malt Scotch drinkers may occasionally allow themselves to drift from their favourite dram and allow some experimentation reasonably safe in the knowledge that if they simply asked for an Islay whisky, they would have a rough idea what they will be getting.
I could be wrong but if I am, it won’t be the first time or the last and I can always console myself with a single malt Scotch without concerning myself where it came from other than knowing it was within the borders of Scotland.