The Scotch whisky regions: relevant or redundant?
It is only over the last few decades that whisky marketers have really begun using the Scotch whisky regions to promote regional variations (in a similar way that wine producers have for many years).
The usefulness of regional classification, however, has always been questioned by some in the whisky industry. Especially as distilleries in Speyside and the Highlands now produce peated whiskies that would have typically been a simple way to identify an Islay whisky, for example.
When the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) originally named five Scotch whisky regions (which included the Islands as a sub-category of the Highlands), there were only a small handful of Island distilleries. However, with the opening of distilleries from Shetland to the Outer Hebrides and others, an Island region is arguably justifiable. But does it really matter? Geographically, yes. In terms of character, taste and sensory experience? Probably not.
The first use of whisky regions as a classification was to create a geographical distinction between whiskies made in the Highlands and those made in the Lowlands. The Highland line, (as covered in the Certificate in Scotch Whisky and the Diploma in Single Malt Whisky), was created after the 1784 Wash Act. The sole purpose of this was to create different legal arrangements for distillers in the Highlands and Lowlands, primarily for excise purposes.
It was hoped the Wash Act would increase legal distillation in the Highlands and reduce smuggling. Some of the new provisions in this Act – such as the permitted size of stills, strength of wash and speed of distillation – meant that whisky produced in the two regions was indeed dramatically different in style. At the time, it was generally agreed that Highland whisky was superior to Lowland whisky.
By the 1800s, however, three more whisky regions were becoming more widely recognised: Campbeltown, Islay and Glenlivet (which would later be named Speyside). Campbeltown and Islay were recognised simply due to the high concentration of licensed distilleries operating there (as covered in A History of Campbeltown & Islay).
With regards to Glenlivet, the area had a historical reputation due to smuggling but also because, arguably, it was home to the first whisky brand, Usher’s Old Vatted Glenlivet (as covered in A History of Glenlivet – the Place). Plus, with excellent transport routes as the railways were built, it became the dominant area for whisky making in that period.
Distilleries spread over 30 miles started to adopt the name Glenlivet for their whiskies. George Smith, owner of the first licensed distilleries in area (Drummin and Minmore), was supplier of the whiskies for the Old Vatted Glenlivet brand and was, understandably, not too happy about this! In 1858, he enlarged his operation and consolidated Drummin and Minmore to create ‘Glenlivet Distillery’. In 1871, he registered the name ‘Glenlivet Distillery’ at Stationer’s Hall in London. Loopholes in the law, however, meant that other distillers could still use the name Glenlivet but only as a prefix or a suffix.
By the 1890s, the boom time for distilling on Speyside, some 28 distilleries were using the Glenlivet prefix or suffix in their name such as Aberlour-Glenlivet, Macallan-Glenlivet, Balvenie-Glenlivet and so on.
This stood for almost 100 years. It was not until the 1980s that distillers, brand owners and whisky writers started to really look at the use of regional classifications for whisky as a way of helping consumers differentiate between various single malts. Unsurprisingly, this was around the same time as single malt was being positioned as a specific category of Scotch.
Classification by region simply became one more way of making single malts accessible. While some distilleries focused on the craftsmanship involved in producing single malt scotch, along with the variation of flavour characteristics unique to each distillery, other distillers looked to the regions as their inspiration.
The most notable example of this was the launch The Classic Malts collection in the late 1980s. This range tried to make single malt accessible and help to educate a curious public about their varied virtues through inviting consumers to “Embark on a journey of discovery”.
As with many issues in the industry, the usefulness of the Scotch whisky regions is hotly debated. While there are undoubtedly stylistic differences between the regions (often rooted in the fascinating history of each distilling area), we can put too much emphasis on these differences which can become, in turn, unhelpful and over simplistic.
Part of what makes the study of Scotch whisky so fascinating is that there are no big levers in flavour creation. Each individual Scotch is wonderfully unique due to a myriad of minute reasons. Its region is simply a relevant part of an excitingly rich back-story. Understanding the history and different struggles of each region will undoubtably help boost your appreciation of the varied environments in Scotland. However, as a tasting tool or benchmark of flavour, the regional classification has little relevance and is primarily looked on as a tourist boost for creating localised whisky trails.
Rather than ruminate over the values of certain regions, take heed of the famous Mackinlays motto: “There's no use talking...taste it!” So, whichever region your Scotch comes from, approach it with an open mind and have the desire to keep learning as you go.