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Officially, Scotland is divided into five whisky areas, with the Islands (less Islay) being a part of the Highlands. Even so, people often treat the Islands as a separate region. Either which way, and notwithstanding the idiosyncrasies of individual distilleries, it is possible, Protector, to speak loosely of the regional flavour profiles of single malt Scotch whisky.
Technically, Speyside lies within the Highland region, but it’s home to so many of Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries – approximately half – that it’s classified as a whisky region in its own right. This small area of land to the northwest of Aberdeen produces mellow, sweet, malty and particularly fruity whiskies.
The Highland region is geographically the largest Scotch whisky–producing region. The rugged landscape and changing climate are reflected in the character of its whiskies, which embrace wide variations. Too diverse to categorise, Highland whiskies can be dry and heathery to sweet and fruity; and start getting smoky in the west.
The region lies south of a line drawn from the Clyde estuary on the west coast to the Tay estuary on the east coast. Home to fewer distilleries than the likes of Speyside and the Highlands, its whiskies tend to be much softer and lighter in character. They often display very malty, grassy characteristics and more subtle delicate aromas than whiskies from other regions.
Widely regarded as Whisky Island, Islay is a relatively small island 70 miles to the west of Glasgow and inaccessible by road. There are eight active distilleries on Islay. The malt whiskies produced here have their own distinctive character and flavour, the majority of which are peaty, robust and refined in equal measure, and briny.
Campbeltown lies on Scotland’s Kintyre peninsula. Once a major producer of whisky, it was home to as many as 28 distilleries in its heyday and claimed the title Whisky Capital of the World. Today there are three distilleries in Campbeltown: Springbank, Glengyle and Glen Notia. Whiskies from here are generally full-bodied with a deep flavour and slight sea-salt tang to the finish.
All the islands other than Islay, notably Jura, the Orkney Isles, Mull, the Isle of Skye and the Isle of Arran. The characters of these whiskies vary considerably. The northernmost location for malt whisky distillation remains the Orkney Isles, where there are two distilleries, Scapa and Highland Park.
Owing to their relatively low distillery count, Japan and Ireland are not broken down into regions. Instead, character is understood as both national and individual.
The sheer level of attention given to every aspect of production, Japanese single malt whiskies are renowned for not being malty, for their balance and complexity, their weighty lightness, their absolute craftsmanship.
The predominance of Irish pot still style whiskies – consisting of mashbills made up of malted and un-malted barley, and always triple distilled – means that its whiskies are slightly oilier, more acidic, and very refined and elegant.
However, dear friend, when discussing regions or countries as representative of single styles, tread with care. For every pattern uncovered, so springs an anomaly. Explain, sure, but always with a pocketful of caveats, especially with respect to the Highlands, to Campbeltown, and to Japan and Ireland.