By Ray Pearson, Scotch Whisky Expert
Single malt Scotches are generally characterized by the area within Scotland from which they come. For instance, more fragrant, spicy and floral whiskies are distilled in The Lowlands or Speyside, with the more powerful, peaty and smoky whiskies coming from Campbeltown or Islay (“eye luh”).
On this trip, we will visit five whisky producing regions – Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, Campbeltown, and Islay. The tour begins in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, which is located in the Lowlands. A quick drive to the village of Pencaitland brings us to the Glenkinchie Distillery. Lowland whiskies reflect their geography – mild, sweet, and delicate, floral – very similar to the landscape, with its farms and gentle terrain. A broad swing to the southwest brings us to Bladnoch Distillery in Wigtown. Bladnoch is the most southerly of Scotland’s distilleries. The Lowlands part of our tour ends just outside Glasgow at Dalmuir, where the Auchentoshan Distillery can be seen from the busy A-9 highway.
The next leg of our tour takes us past Loch Lomond and Southwest, down the Mull of Kintyre peninsula to Campbeltown, home of Springbank. This quintessential whisky is renowned for its balance between the heavier, smokier whiskies of Islay and more crisp, fruity and spicy whiskies to the North. We now catch the Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry to Islay. Here, seven distilleries are currently active, most known for their bold, smoky and robust aromas and flavors. Some people even detect medicinal tones. Water sources for most of the distilleries on the island flow through peat aquifers, providing peat influences to the whisky, in addition to peat smoke (“reek”) that has been infused into the drying barley. Islay single malts include Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich (“broo ick laddie”), Bunnahabhain (“bunn a hav inn”), and Caol Isla (“kull eela”).
Back on the mainland, we are in the Highlands, the largest of Scotland’s whisky distilling regions. While on the west coast, we visit Oban Distillery, one of the very few distilleries to be located in an urban setting, right in downtown Oban! A short drive north to Fort William brings us to the Ben Nevis Distillery, at the base of Scotland’s tallest mountain of the same name. Driving northeast, we come to Dalwhinnie. At just over 1000 feet in elevation, Dalwhinnie is Scotland’s highest distillery above sea level and lies in a vast valley surrounded by rugged mountains.
East of Dalwhinnie is the fabled Speyside area of the Highlands. About 80% of the world’s best known and best selling single malts are from this area. Speyside is to Scotland what the Napa and Sonoma regions are to California’s wine industry – a concentration of producers in a relatively small area. Driving through Speyside is like driving through a Scottish geography lesson: it seems like each river has a distillery named after it! We pass distilleries sharing their names with the rivers Devron, Dullan, Fiddich, Livet, and, of course, the Spey itself. Highland and Speyside whiskies generally exhibit profiles of spiciness, honey, fruitiness.
As we make our way back to Edinburgh, our thoughts are of the next whisky tour. That one will be to the islands surrounding Scotland’s North and West Coasts, and home to some of the country’s most cherished single malts. Until next time …