Where Malt Whisky is Made
There are discernable differences between whiskies made in one region and those made in another. Traditionally there were four distilling regions:
Lowlands typically have a dry finish, which makes them excellent aperitifs. The dryness comes from the malt itself, not from peat (Lowlands tend to use unpeated malt), and this also lends a certain sweet fruitiness to the flavour and mouthfeel. Their aromatic intensity is low, and tends to be grassy or herbal, with grainy and floral notes. It used to be said that they leant a brandy-like flavour to a blended whisky.
Speysides are essentially sweet whiskies. They have little peaty character (although some have a whiff of smoke) and their salient characteristic is estery – typically, this aroma is compared to pear-drops or solvent (nail varnish remover, particularly). They can be highly perfumed: scents of carnations, roses, violets, apples, bananas, cream soda and lemonade have all been discovered in Speyside malts. They take maturation in sherry-wood well and can be rich and full bodied, medium and light-bodied.
The Island of Islay (pronounced ‘Eye-la’) Islay Malts’ Characteristics Islay whiskies generally reverse the characteristics of Speysides, tending to be dry and peaty; behind the smoke, however, can be gentle mossy scents, and some spice. The southern Islay distilleries produce powerfully phenolic whiskies, with aromas redolent of tar, smoke, iodine and carbolic.
North Highland Malts
North-Highland malts tend to be light bodied, delicate whiskies with complex aromas and a dryish finish sometimes spicy, sometimes with a trace of salt. Some are faintly peaty (Highland Park, Scapa, Clynelish, Balblair); in others the smoke is more like Lapsang Suchong (Pulteney, Teaninich, Dalmore). They cannot take too much sherry-wood maturation (although, the sherry-finishing technique developed at Glenmorangie suits them well).
East Highland Malts
The malts from distilleries north of Aberdeen – Macduff (the product is named Glen Deveron in its proprietary bottlings), Knockdhu, Ardmore, Glendronach and Glengarrioch – are medium-bodied, malty, slightly sweet, smooth, slightly smoky and with a surprisingly dry finish. South of Aberdeen – Royal Lochnagar, Fettercairn, Glencadam – they become richer, more toffee-like, with citrus notes, but still a whiff of smoke and still the dry finish.
West Highland Malts
West Highland malts are much less peated than their southen cousins in Islay, although they all have at least a whiff of smoke and a mildly phenolic flavour. If there is a uniting factor it is the sweet start and the dryish, peppery finish.
Central Highland Malts’ Characteristics
The offerings from the Central Highlands are a mixed bag. Generally they are lighter-bodied and sweeter that their cousins to the east, but not as sweet as Speysides. Like Speysides, they are fragrant – blossom, violets, elderflowers, heather, mint, spice, pears: all these words appear in the tasting notes – but they tend to have a dry finish.