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Whisky regions are very interesting because on the one hand they help to categorise an industry by whisky type, and an industry so diverse requires some level organisation to manage, whilst on the other hand they are almost irrelevant.
Most whisky shops will categorise their stock by region and the valuation of whisky at wholesale is done with the region, among other factors. Visit our shop to take a look at some examples.
Here is a brief description of the whisky regions.
Floral with honey and heather. The Highland region is made from an ‘imaginary’ line drawn from Greenock in the West of Scotland to Dundee on the East. However, the Speyside region is captured in a separate net within the Highland region. There are approximately 40 distilleries within the Highland region.
Lush with fruits of apple and pear and providing honey, nuts and spice. Usually included within the Highland region, Speyside is reputed for producing highly sought-after sweet whiskies. There 50 distilleries in Speyside all sharing similar water sources, predominately the River Spey.
Lighter bodied with more sweetness from grassy notes. South of the ‘imaginary’ line, for decades there was a decline in distilleries, in 1980 there were only 2 within the Lowlands. However, there has been a revival with likes of Daftmill, Borders Distillery, Annandale and Ailsa Bay. There are now 17 Lowland distilleries.
Salty with similarities to Islay’s peat and depth. In the Victorian age, there were 34 malt distilleries in Campbelltown but as recently as 1998 there was only 1 which was Springbank. Paul McCartney can now enjoy 3 distilleries on his annual visits.
Coastal, salty and that famous peated smoke. Due to the prevalence of peat on the Island, Islay has historically been associated with producing peaty whisky. There are 9 distilleries operational on Islay now and this is set to grow.
More coastal and salty flavour profile Includes distilleries from the Western Islands and Orkney such as Scapa, Highland Park, Arran and Jura among others. A very diverse region!
There are a number of reasons why whisky regions are irrelevant:
1. A key trait of the Islay region is the production of peaty and smoky whisky. However, not all distilleries on Islay produce peaty Whisky (i.e. Bunnahabhain is unpeated as standard), some of them will also produce non-peated runs. Any distillery in Scotland can produce peaty whisky and this is not a right reserved to distilleries on Islay. For example, some distilleries will produce runs of peated spirit such as Ben Nevis, Balvenie, Glenturret, the list is very long. Other distilleries, such as Ardmore distillery, were built to produce a smoky spirit for blending but are not located on Islay.
2. It has been argued the Highland whiskies have an advantage over Lowland whiskies purely because of the region name. In the customers' view, it has been suggested that selling Lowland whisky against Highland is an ‘upward battle’…this is just purely to do with the terminology in the customers head.
3. Most distilleries prize their water source such as those in Speyside that use the River Spey. It has been suggested that water sources and rivers would give a more accurate reflection of the flavours expected rather than the region. However, certain rivers pass through multiple regions and distilleries which share the same water source are split into two different regions. The overall impact of water on the final spirit quality is debatable with the still shape and production techniques manipulating the flavour regardless.
4. The Speyside/Highland category is so large that it dwarfs the other categories and makes it harder for individual and smaller Speyside distilleries to stand out. From personal experience, selling Speyside whisky can be hard despite the region being known for producing lots of good whiskies.
5. It is worth noting that there is slight confusion within categorisation, some parties include Speyside within the Highland categorisation as this was historically the case. However, Speyside as a region was signalled out as its own region due to the density of high-quality distilleries – of the 90 distilleries in the Highlands, 50 are in Speyside. Similarly, Islay and Island can sometimes be grouped together so distilleries on Orkney and the Outer Hebrides would be placed in the same category as that of Islay despite them being great distances from each other.
The benefits of categorisation by region are that it provides a structure or style that distilleries within that region can aspire or meet which can make blending easier, it can make valuations easier and it can help consumers explore flavours that they enjoy based on past experience, i.e. ‘I like this Speyside whisky so I’ll try that Speyside whisky’. Without categorization, you would have over 100 distilleries all possibly doing their own thing and with no discernible way to approach it.
Alternative forms of classification have been explored such as by typical aroma characteristics. Through this approach, whisky is categorised by malt characteristics, sweetness. The industry is split into about a dozen aroma characteristic groups.
Whisky glasses are a contentious aspect of the whisky industry because everyone has a favourite and admittedly I’ve never really had a particular preference. More and more often, I’ll visit festivals where aficionados have taken their own glasses and despite some appearing more cumbersome the aficionado will be undeterred!
The majority of whisky festivals provide the standard Glencairn glass which is practical and strong; It has a tulip shape which is good for getting aromas and the ball shape allows you to heat the glass up in your hand, it’s also very sturdy and it won’t spill when it falls over due to the shape of the glass. I have about a dozen of these in the house and it has now reached a point where I can no longer justify taking the glass home.
What I’ve seen become more popular is the micro Glencairn glasses. These cute little glasses are the same as standard Glencairn but smaller and so contain less whisky but they are hardier which is probably why I’ve seen them at more outdoor festivals.At the Fife whisky festival, I was given an unusual glass called the neat glass. At first, the neat glass was recognizable because it was hard to drink from but to nose whisky with, I thought it was terrific! I’ve been using it to do my tasting notes for my recent releases and it really opens up the dram to pick out specific notes. However, it is not something I would take to a whisky festival as I still find it hard to drink from and I would look like a dribbling idiot. Apparently, the shape of the glass diffuses the alcohol fumes so that the natural aromas are more detectable.
More common in tastings, where people are sitting down and where there is less of the rambunctious festival atmosphere are the delicate copita glasses. Copita glasses are elegant glasses with a stem and tulip bowl, similar to a small wine glass.
Fundamentally, a tulip shape bowl is highly desirable as this allows the liquid to be swirled about, making it ideal for nosing. Where a stem is not present the glass can benefit from being warmed in the hand which allows the aromas to be more detectable. If you're keen to start drinking from a new glass, we have some great Glencairn glasses available to buy in our shop.
In light of this, I thought I would share my tips on what to look out for and how to identify the best drams at a table!
Tip 1 - Has the bottled used colouring?
Every whisky festival I go to I’m aware our dark coloured stock goes first; people look beyond the cask styles, the maturation length and the distillery and narrow down their whiskies based solely on colour. I can understand this, darker whisky implies greater maturation which is desired and there is the expectation of those highly sought after fruity sherry flavours. However, I would caution against anyone selecting a whisky based on colour because of the use of caramel colouring, it is very common in the whisky industry and gives a likeness of richness and colour. The easy way to identify caramel colouring is to ask the person behind the stand and they’ll tell you, the majority of independent bottlers, including myself, don’t use colouring.
Tip 2 - Whisky doesn’t have to be over 10 or 15 years old to be ready.
A pet hate of mine is when a customer looks at some of my releases and states too young. This is for a 10-year-old single malt matured in a bourbon barrel. A better way to understand if a whisky is too young for your palate is to identify the maturation vessel such as the oak cask. A quick tip, generally speaking, the smaller the cask the faster the maturation. Please read my post on maturation to get more detail, below is a quick summary.
When a new spirit is placed into a cask the majority of flavour from the cask and colouring comes in the first 6-12 months. After this, the cask allows a sufficient level of oxidation (contact with the air) that allows for the removal of undesirable characters of the distillate or allows the oak flavours to mask the undesirable flavours. The removal of undesirable characters happens within a few years. As the years go by the alcohol level will gradually reduce as the liquid evaporates through the cask (Angel share). After 10 years there is no shareable research as to what happens to the whisky but the assumption is greater mouthfeel and balance, while the alcohol and volume reduce. The smaller the cask the greater the amount of evaporation and the more oak to spirit to contact which means aspects of maturation take place at a faster rate.
What can be taken from this is after only a few years whisky can be good and the smaller the cask the sooner it can be released. From small to large, you have Octaves, Quarter Casks, Barrels, Hogshead and Butts.
Tip 3 - Ask the person behind the stall what they would recommend based on your preferred whisky.
Don’t be shy asking for a recommendation as this is usually a good opportunity to get a bit of the story behind the cask and why it was released. Each one of our casks has been on a journey and I’ve tasted each of them and prepared them for this moment for you to taste so ask away!
Tip 4 - Don’t have peaty whisky first.
Just don’t do it, you’ll only be able to taste peaty whisky for the rest of the day so you’re limiting what you can try. If you're new to whisky, be aware that peat is not limited to Islay, many Speyside distilleries have peat releases and any distillery can do it. Also, not all Islay whiskies are peaty, our Secret Islay is from a distillery on Islay that doesn’t distil peaty whisky normally.
Tip 5 - Know your limits.
A whisky festival is a great chance to try and sample whisky. However, a number of releases at these events will be cask strength, all of our stock is cask strength. Cask strength can be anywhere, even below normal strengths of 46% as it’s just a term used to describe the strength of the whisky but in most cases, it is very much higher than standard strength whiskies. The best way to approach cask strength is to try it at its cask strength first and then water it down to your preferred level.
These are 5 tips from my experience at whisky festivals. If you see me at my stand feel free to say hello and ask if I have any of the behind the table stuff, as I always have something special behind the table!
Maturation is a key aspect of the production of Whisky. Companies spend millions of pounds on sourcing oak from the Ozark region in the US for wood that will be used for the production of specific casks and the location of good bodegas in Europe is highly sought-after industry knowledge. This is all due to statistics such as 80% of a whisky’s flavour comes from the cask. However, taken literally this is not the case.
Maturation is a step in the production of whisky that is required to improve the sensory qualities of whisky and an oak cask is a tool used to achieve good maturation.
New spirit from a still is clear like gin and when it is filled into the cask it will take all of its colourings from the cask, the amount of charring the cask has endured, the cutting into the wood and charring it; the deeper the char the more colour.
The new spirit will take the majority of the colour and flavour that it can from the oak alone within the first 6-12 months. It is good to imagine a cask as a big sugar-coating tub as wood contains lots of sugar which add sweetness amongst other flavours to the spirit. The amount of flavour donated to the spirit from the cask depends on the quality of the oak. This can be highly variable even if it’s from the same forest and the same treatment of the wood, such as how long was it seasoned in a kiln or outside in the open air, or the level of toasting/charring (charring the inside of the cask at varying temperatures caramelises oaks sugars to release different flavours from cola, custard and spice amongst many others).
An interesting suggestion from the field of research in maturation is that a Sherry cask matured whisky does not necessarily get it’s Sherry flavour from the Sherry that was filled into the cask previously but from the oak. Oak typically used to produce Sherry casks is from Europe and European wood has a greater level of tannins and fruitiness – where US oak is kilned, European Oak is left outside for seasoning so the tannins can be reduced.
During and after 12 months, the oak allows for sufficient oxidation to take place. This drives away many of the undesirable characters from the spirit such as sulphur. However, over-oxidation can create vinegar! Oxidation is a key aspect of maturation, like the browning of an apple. It allows the breakdown of flavours from the cask while esters (fruity flavours from the distillation) are enhanced/uncovered. The level of oxidation depends on the cask size, where it is located in the warehouse and the strength of the alcohol when it was filled into the cask.
There is little known about maturing spirit over 10 years with exception to it generally being a smoother spirit with particular emphasis on mouthfeel being improved.
The large changes in new spirit into whisky result from the loss of some of the undesirable flavours from the original distillate with a more limited contribution from the wood (Whisky, Technology Production and Marketing. 2nd Edition, 2014. I. Russel and G. Stewart).
Last year we released a few single grain casks of Whisky, a Girvan Grain and before that an Invergordon. In the future, we will continue to release single grain casks as matured grain is exceptionally tasty and good value.
It is a different product to Single Malt and probably has more in common with gin than single malt due to the way it is produced.
Scotland only has 7 grain distilleries compared to over 120 single malt distilleries, but grain distilleries are much larger – Diageo’s Cameron bridge has a capacity of 110,000,000 a year whereas Glenfiddich, with its 13 pot still produces 13,000,000.
Grain whisky is made from different ingredients to single malt whisky. Grain can be 85-90% grain and 10 + 15% malted barley. By grain, we are referring to maize, wheat and other cereal products that are much cheaper than barley and which are usually cooked first. Single malt whisky can only be produced using malted barley. The spirit which is used to produce gin is called Grain Neutral spirit and can be 100% grain but the production of grain whisky requires adherence to legislation laid out in the Scotch Whisky Act 1998. Grain neutral spirit does not have to adhere to this act and therefore cannot be used in whisky but grain whisky could be used as a high-quality Grain Neutral spirit for gin.
Grain whisky is produced to be around 95 per cent ABV, whereas single malt is closer to 69 per cent ABV. Where in Scotch we look for a high concentration of congeners (flavour compounds) in grain the target is low congeners and greater rectification; more strength and smoothness. The reason for this is that most of the single grain whisky is used for blending; to act as a base for malts.
Grain whisky is distilled using continuous distillation whereas single malt whisky is doubled distilled in batches. Grain Neutral spirit is also distilled using continuous distillation. Continuous distillation was invented by Robert Stein in at Kilbagie Distillery in response to the growing demand for gin in the early 19th Century. Aeneas Coffey, who visited the distillery, was an exciseman from Dublin and after making a few ‘amendments’ to the design he patented it… Robert Stein would later take his design to his cousin’s distillery at Cameronbridge owned by John Haig.
The ‘Coffey still’/Patent still is an incredible piece of kit which utilizes two columns to strip the alcohol from the Wash (this is the grain mixed with water after fermentation) and then rectify it to increase the alcohol level and purity. Once complete, the spirit that is to be made into whisky will be reduced from 95% to 63% and filled into casks to be matured for a minimum of 3 years like whisky.
If the spirit was to be used for gin it would be infused with botanicals and possibly re-distilled depending on the desire of the gin house but fundamentally the original distillation process is the same for gin and single grain whisky.