Produced in Scotland, Scotch whiskies are some of the best in the world and are categorised into the regions in which they are produced. A single-malt Scotch is one that is distilled at a single distillery from 100% malted barley, and many, like wine, are characteristic of their regions due to the distillation process and terroir.
The flat, southern Lowlands, though geographically large, are home to only three operating distilleries. The Scotch from this region is generally considered the most light bodied of the single malts with very malty, grassy characteristics. They typically have a dry finish from the malt itself, making them excellent aperitifs.
Scotches from Islay tend to be more of an acquired taste as they contain smoky and peaty flavours ascribed to the water used in production as well as the peating levels of the barley. Islay Scotches such Lagavulin and Laphroaig from the southeastern coast have been described as medicinal in flavour and so make for a hard way to start your Scotch journey, but they make for an interesting drink for the initiated.
The small region of Speyside, which gets its name from the river Spey that cuts through the area, holds disproportionately the largest number of distilleries in Scotland: 84 working distilleries including the best selling Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and The Macallan distilleries. Its popularity has to do with the fact that this region produces Scotland’s lighest and sweetest single malts that are easily accessible for the casual drinker but have the complexity to keep seasoned drinkers happy.
The northern Highlands is the largest, geographically, of all the Scotch-producing regions and is associated with whiskies consisting of deeper notes of peat and smoke. However, due to the size of the region, Highland whiskies often differ vastly in taste. The famous distilleries of Glenmorangie, Oban and Dalmore are all situated here.
The final Scotch producing region is Campbeltown, once the whisky capital of Scotland but now home to only three remaining distilleries. The Campbeltown whiskies are peaty with a hint of brine.
The first distillery in Speyside to be licensed after the 1823 Excise Act, Glenlivet was established in 1824 by George Smith on what was once a farm distillery called Upper Drummin. As the first legal distillery in the area, Glenlivet is known as “the single malt that started it all”. Operating almost continuously since its establishment, Glenlivet is now one of the biggest selling single malts in the world under the Pernod Ricard banner. Glenlivet distillery draws water from the nearby Josie’s Well and its stills have long narrow necks which help to produce a light spirit.
The Glenlivet 18 Years Old is perhaps the most celebrated and highly decorated of this distillery’s offerings, a malt whisky of honey-rich maturity and depth and winner of two gold medals in the International Wine and Spirit competition. This scotch has a very light and fresh touch of peatiness, and flowery and sweet on the palate with a long finish.
2. Highland Park
The Highland Park distillery is based in Kirkwall, Orkney making it the most northerly of the Scotch distilleries. Founded in 1798, this distillery is one of the few to malt its own barley, using locally cut peat from the banks of Hobbister Moor. This peat is fundamental to the flavour of Highland Park, giving it a distinctly luxuriant floral smokiness. The cool damp environment of the warehouses give the casks as natural an environment as possible for maturation. The sherry oak casks used in the maturation process contribute to the distinctive richness and complexity.
Highland Park 18 Year
With a nose of honey, heather and toffee and a complex mix of honey, smokey peatiness on the palate, the Highland Park 18 Years is a good year for both whisky beginners and enthusiasts. Drink with a few drops of water to increase warmth and length of the finish.
The Glenmorangie distillery, based in Ross-shire in the Highlands, boasts the tallest stills in Scotland (26ft) to produce an extremely light taste. The distillery was acquired by LVMH in 2004 and subsequently rebranded to position itself as a global luxury brand. Glenmorangie’s water is sourced from the Tarlogie Springs, and its barley sourced from farmers in the surrounding area. Glenmorangie has been the best selling single malt in Scotland for over 30 years.
Named Whisky of the Year 2013, the Ealanta is the fourth annual release from Glenmorangie’s Private Edition range. It is a 19 year-old Glenmorangie matured in virgin American white oak casks. The nose is vanilla with notes of toffee, butterscotch and some nuttiness. It is sweet on the palate with tastes of candied orange peel, marzipan and vanilla and the finish is very long with the oak derived spices of clove and ginger on the end.
Glenfiddich means “valley of the deer” in Gaelic, thus explaining the stag on the brand’s label. Founded in 1886, this quintessentially Speyside distillery found its footing after going through some tough times in the 1960s and 70s and has since gone on to become the world’s best selling single malt Scotch. Using water from the Robbie Dhu springs, Glenfiddich is matured in oak casks, bourbon barrels from America and sherry oak barrels from Spain, giving the whisky its distinctive taste.
Glenfiddich 21 Year
A consistently high performing year from Glenfiddich, the scotch has been aging in casks that once held Caribbean rum. It smells and tastes vaguely like Christmas, with an intense and vanilla sweet aroma with hints of fig and banana. On the palate it is warm and soft with tastes of lime, ginger and spices and finishes very long and dry.
5. The Maccallan
The Highland distillery of Maccallan is located in Craigellachie, Moray and is one of the world’s best selling single malts. Although Craigellachie is not technically located in a Speyside ward, it is still considered a Speyside single malt by whisky authorities. In 2012, The Macallan received the Guinness World Record for the most expensive whisky ever sold at auction; a 64 year old bottling went for $460,000 (2.8million RMB) at Sotheby’s. The Macallan whiskies come in an variety of bottlings as well as the 1824 range which are sold at duty-free shops.
The Maccallan 15 Year
The Macallan Fine Oak 15 is a good way to get into this brand. The nose is subtle with a hint of cinnamon and rose. The palate is full with a chocolatey undertone and a touch of orange and plenty of bourbon notes. The taste makes you think of winter by a fire. The finish is not long but some taste does linger with a hint of dried fruit and oak.
This Islay distillery was founded in 1816 and means “hollow by the mill” in Gaelic. Along with its neighbour distillery Laphroaig, Lagavulin is one of the more well known Islay single malts. An archetypal Islay scotch, the Lagavulins are smokey and peaty and make for a difficult drink for some to appreciate, but the richness and dryness of the Lagavulin makes for a truly interesting dram and those who do like it, love it.
Lagavulin 16 Year
The Lagavulin 16 Year is the standard age for this distillery. It scores consistently high at competitions and has one of the smokiest noses from Islay and reminiscent of creamy vanilla, sweet spices and a hint of iodine. The palate is very thick with powerful peat and oak and finishes long with hints of figs, dates and peat smoke.