It’s very difficult to mass categorize the wonderful spirits of Scotland’s myriad collection of distilleries but if one were forced two, the easiest buckets to put them in are based on smokiness. On one side, we have the heavily “peated,” smokey stylings of Scotch produced on the island of Islay. On the other, we have absolutely no smoke and no peat and the most popular area for that is a toss up between the Highland region and Speyside.
Islay, Old Norse for Yula’s isle, is the home to such popular distillers as Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. The distilleries are located on the coasts, with the most well known found on the southern end (including all those named). In all of Scotland, peat was the most plentiful source of fuel to roast the barley until the 60s, when better technology came around. Other areas converted to the newer technology. They are marked by a strong smokiness and peat character because they never converted to another fuel source, citing tradition.
Peatiness is a measurable characteristic and often calculated as parts per million (PPM) of phenol. Ardbeg is often considered the most peaty of all Scotch, including the Islays, and is a produce of Glenmorangie, which is a distillery better known for its own namesake Scotch distilled in the Highland region. The standard bottling of Ardbeg has a 50-60 ppm and they have a cask strength “Supernova” bottle (58.9% ABV) with a 100 ppm phenol count.
Speyside, which is regarded as the area around the river Spey, scotch distilleries number in the several dozen. On a recent trip to the region, we passed a sign (or two or three) for a distillery every few minutes. The area is packed full of distilleries because many once tapped the river as a source of water, one of the critical ingredients in the production of Scotch. The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, two of the best selling scotches (and The Macallan, one of the best known), hail from the region.
After the conversion to another fuel source in the 1960s, scotch dropped its peatiness and smokiness, which allowed other flavors to “get through.” If you read the tasting notes of various Highlands and Speysides, you’ll note a heavier emphasis on fruit notes and other complementary flavors like nutmeg and vanilla. Those flavors are often masked by smoke, which is why they are rarely used to describe Islays (or when used, are not emphasized).
Both styles are fantastic and the one you choose should depend on your mood. It also makes it easier to buy a gift for someone if you know which one they prefer. I am a fan of both “buckets” but sometimes people prefer one over the other (I know people who hate islays and those who think Speys are “boring”), so this can help you decide what to buy!
Image Credit: Islay map to Wikipedia, Speyside map to Moray Ways
I think you’ll find that none of the distilleries on the Spey uses water from the river as an ingredient but a number of them use it for cooling/condensing. The water for the distillation comes mainly from private springs and burns. The reason for the number of distilleries in the area is due to a number of factors including remoteness (for those that were once illicit stills), proximity to the Moray/Grampian barley fields and the consistency of the water draining off the Cairngorm mountains.
Thank you for the history of your fine Scotch (Whisky) I came to Canada in 1967 from Aberdeen, and there is nothing in the world to rival Whisky.
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I appreciate your map & explanation of the scotch regions above. I am wondering how I could find a good “scotch tour”? My husband only drinks single malt scotch & prefers Macallan. His dream is to take a tour of the scotch distilleries for his 50th birthday. The only tours I can find, though, include a lot of the better single malts, but not Macallan. Not sure why that is. Any assistance you could give me would be great.
Hmmm that is interesting, I’ve never looked into tours but when I do I’ll let you know.
I suspect it’s because Macallan doesn’t want to participate? They’re a pretty good draw as it is so I suspect they wouldn’t want to pay someone to send them customers. That’s just a guess though.
I don’t know when exactly you wrote this article, but the the current record holder for most peaty whisky is Bruichladdich. Their Octomore expressions are advertised as super heavily peated and the phenol reaches 157, 198 and even 257 ppm of phenol.
It was in 2010 and when I knew less about Scotch, Octomore was released in early 2000s so they existed back then.
In 2004 we visited the very nice shop and tasting opportunity at Macallan, partly because I began my relatively limited Scotch drinking experience with Macallan (it’s been a long time but I suspect it was the readily available–in Seattle–12-year “expression” and because, in 1972 or 1973 I’d purchased, knowing not much of of anything less about Scotch whisky than I know now, on a trip to Napa and Sonoma, a bottle of 1964 “vintage” marked Macallan from the since closed John Walker wine and spirits store in San Francisco. I still have that bottle, unopened, along with a 1966 Inglenook Cask Cabernet (a wedding present) and a 1969 Max Huebner Dedication Bottling Sonoma Pinot Noir from, I think, Mirrasou.
On that 2004 trip, just before the Macallan visit, my wife and I toured the Glenfarclas distillery because we’d come to adopt the 12-year Glenfarclas as our affordable single malt of choice, and it still is. Glenfarclas is one of the last of the independent distillers near the Spey and, my having clipped a coupon on the Glenfarclas website before our visit, we enjoyed a gratis treat, the 30-year Glenfarclas which had matured into a near liquer silkiness.
I love Speysides and can’t handle any Islays. One minute touch of peat and I almost gag. my guess is that Islay lovers must find Speysides quite weak ,like drinking water. Big difference between the two. May God bless the Islay lovers but I’ll stick with my Speys.