An Introduction to Highland Whisky
Despite our being a relatively small country, Scottish whisky is by far and away the most diverse spirit in the world owing to the stylistic differences of each of our five recognised “whisky regions,” the myriad of different cask types we employ for maturing the spirit in, the wildly varying sizes and shapes of stills utilised at every distillery and even factors like the distillery’s geographical location can affect how a whisky will taste and appear. In this first piece in what will be an ongoing series, we’re going to be casting our gaze over the largest and most diverse of the five regions: the Highlands!
The Highland Expanse
Geographically, the Highland region covers a gargantuan swathe of the Scottish mainland and (officially) includes all of the islands with the exception of the Isle of Islay. Effectively anything between the Firth of Clyde in the west and the Firth of Tay in the east (so, roughly between Glasgow and Edinburgh) is considered to be part of the Highlands. As a result, quantifying an overall style or motif for Highland whiskies becomes exceptionally difficult due to the expansive area which the region covers, so instead we have to break the region down into five sub-regions:
Southern Highlands (occasionally referred to as ‘Midlanders’)
Each of these sub-regions has enough of a core identity thematically that we can generally group the distilleries in the area together in such a way.
Which brings us to the first region we’ll be looking at in this guide:
In the northernmost reaches of the Highland region, the whiskies being produced there are renowned for being quite full bodied, sweet and malty, with a distinct nuttiness, and depending on their proximity to the coast can pick up the distinctive maritime brininess for which Old Pulteney is predominantly known, this does affect some other distilleries in this neck of the woods but none more so than the Wick-based stalwarts. Other notable quirks which can be found in more inland distilleries include a distinct waxy body to the spirit as exhibited by Clynelish (and their former/soon-to-be-rejuvenated sister site, Brora) and sometimes a dryer body as can be found in expressions from Balblair and Glen Ord.
However, the overarching theme of the northern Highlands remains the full bodied, magnificently sweet whiskies produced by the big names in the area such as Dalmore and Glenmorangie.
Though the number of distilleries in the eastern Highlands has dwindled over the last few decades, there are a handful of long-standing champions of the area’s style still producing high quality spirit, namely: GlenDronach, Glen Garioch (pronounced Glen Geery), Fettercairn and Royal Lochnagar. The spirit produced by these distilleries is renowned for being quite full bodied and very fruity, with occasional herbaceous hints and notes of exotic spices, quite often bearing a fairly oily character. Some of these distilleries can often be mistaken for being Speyside distilleries due to their geographical proximity to Speyside and the character of the whisky which they produce (e.g. GlenDronach), but due to falling firmly within the boundaries of the Highlands, these are still regarded as eastern Highland whiskies.
The western Highland distilleries are something of a mixed bag in terms of the character of their spirits, but generally these can be broken down into two overarching styles: Full and pungent, with subtle wafts of peat and smoke (albeit significantly less peat than would be found in the neighbouring Islay whiskies), often accompanied by notes of sherry and a hint of briny maritime tang as can be found in expressions from Oban and the recently opened Ardnamurchan; and then on the other hand we have those distilleries which are slightly more inland and bear less smoke/peat and a much more heavily sherried character with tantalising notes of woody spice as one would expect to find in an expression from Glengoyne, or with slightly less sherry and more fruit like the stunning expressions from another newcomer to the area, Nc’nean.
Southern Highlands (or ‘Midlands’)
Stylistically, the whiskies found in the southern Highlands have a lot more in common with those you would expect to find in the Lowlands; lighter bodied with a slight dryness, a very soft and sweet character permeates the spirit you’ll find produced by a large portion of the distilleries in this area, such as Aberfeldy, Deanston, Tullibardine and Edradour, though this can naturally vary depending on the cask types utilised in the maturation process. The southern Highland distilleries are an eclectic bunch, bearing an interesting combination of characteristics found in the output of both their more northerly and southerly neighbours. The area is also home to a pair of distilleries who hold very interesting accolades, the smallest distillery in Scotland in Edradour, and the oldest distillery in the country in Glenturret!
In the face of the inexorable march of time, it grows harder and harder to see the justification in the continued classification of the (non-Islay) islands of Scotland as a sub-region of the Highlands. In the last few years particularly this has become more and more of a contentious subject as whisky production on the islands is booming; with the founding of Isle of Raasay Distillery; the Isle of Skye’s newcomer, Torabhaig; the Isle of Arran Distillery’s new peated facility, Lagg Distillery; the ever-looming promise of whiskies to come from the Isle of Harris distillery; to name but a few recent developments before we even get started with the longtime stalwarts such as Jura, Highland Park, Scapa, Isle of Arran, Tobermory (and their peated releases as Ledaig) and of course Talisker.
Though the whiskies from each of these islands can be radically different, with some distilleries experimenting more with obscure cask types than others, what DOES unify them is the ubiquitous presence of briny coastal salinity, and more often than not a hint of peat!
There is a tremendous amount of variety in the whiskies produced throughout this giant region, but hopefully by classifying them in such a way we can help narrow down the styles to match your personal taste!