Before I ever begin a tasting session, I can probably write down the five questions I will surely be asked. 1. What is your favourite whisky? 2. Do very expensive whiskies taste good? 3. Is it ok to add ice/water? 4. What is Bourbon and 5. How many whisky regions are there. It is this last question that normally launches me off into a ramble lasting longer than it probably should.
The thing is, you can approach whisky in a number of ways, from the very detailed study of the science involved- it’s germination, fermentation, methanols, ethanols, phenols, fatty acids, and esters bumping into copper, catalysing and oxidising, esterifying to create the flavours and aromas we expect, to the far simpler approach of knowing what style you like and just enjoying it with friends. Of course, there is a huge chasm of information between one approach and the other and I for one tend to choose a path somehwere between the two in order to understand the science without it distracting me from the joy on the whisky itself.
But what of those just starting out on the journey of whisky discovery? What should they look out for? Where should the journey begin? Well, understanding what you like yourself is a huge help. Like spicy food? Probably going to like a spicy whisky. Like salty food, then it might be a coastal distillery you aim for. So how about these whisky regions we hear of? Surely those make it simple I hear you say. Well no actually, they only confuse in my opinion.
There are six whisky “regions” in Scotland. Highland, Speyside, Lowland, Island, Campbelltown and Islay. Supposedly, these areas each have their own distinct style and therefore give an indication of the whisky inside the bottle when the region it hails from is printed on the label. That, quite frankly, is the type of out-dated approach to whisky that won’t do it any good as the world of whisky (non-scotch) builds in quality and confidence causing us to cling to our tartan hems as the waters of progress start lapping at them. To understand why regions play little or no part in modern whisky, we have to understand how they came about in the first place. In the early 16th century, the whisky produced would have been distilled from a variety of grains, including barley, and these grain recipes would no doubt have differed from farm to village as any surplus of harvested grain was set aside for distillation. Whisky was in a healthy, if somewhat unregulated, state of production all across Scotland, but it wasn’t until the union of the English and Scottish parliaments in 1707 that we start seeing a big shift in attitude and production. A malt tax was introduced (as had already been the case in England) which upset Scottish producers and consumers no end and it’s continued increase saw riots in the streets and general bloody unrest know as the Malt Tax Riots. As taxation increase once more illicit distilling was just around the corner, forced out of the farms and homes and starting to spread (home-made spirit was exempt from tax).
As Londoners lay drunk in the streets on gin, parliament drew up the Gin Act to try and stem the “flow” of gin consumption and limit production and sale by imposing costly licenses and high duty for producers and retailers. Scotland was exempt (for now) of this act and as such, production of mixed grain spirit increased which would eventually make its way across the border to be made into gin. Although, it was probably a ban on distilling in the mid and late 1700′s (crop failure) that helped drive the illegal sale of whisky in Scotland, as the home distiller, still under the radar of the excise man and exempt from the legislation imposed on its commercial neighbours, started to supply the ever increasing demand for whisky.
The Highland Line (the first of the regions) divided Scotland in two, for the purpose of differing duty and regulations about spirit production. The tax was lowered for those above the line, but they were banned from exporting the spirit out of the region (yup, not even within their own country) but this did see a certain amount of quality control as Highland distillers could use a smaller still than their Lowland counterparts and could take their time in the production of the spirit. Those below the line however, were forced to produce a harsher spirit from still which could be worked quickly in order to increase outrun. This of course all fell nicely into the hands of the smugglers and illegal distillers who cashed in on trade opportunities around the UK. It wasn’t until the early 1800′s and the introduction of the small stills act that the Highland Line was abolished, the duty was reduced and smaller stills were permitted. This saw a fast growth in legal distilleries and an equilibrium of quality between the two now defunct regions. So, a historic line drawn for tax purposes which THEN changed how those above and below distilled their spirits still demands we choose our whisky style based on location. Glengoyne distillery, which happens to straddle the imaginary line distills in the Highlands, yet its warehouse lies on the opposite side of the road effectively in the Lowlands…a case of split personality?
For the purpose of this blog, I have only just scratched the surface. For more in-depth information about the history of whisky and how many of the traditions evolved I suggest picking up a copy of Charlie Maclean’s book – Malt Whisky, The Complete Guide in which Charlie really gets to grips with the historical side of whisky.
Speyside has one of the highest concentration of distilleries now in operation in Scotland. The land surrounding the river Spey is fertile and produces excellent quality barley from its deep alluvial soil from the banks of the Moray firth, good peat moorland, plenty of springs from the snow capped Cairgorms which also provided great hiding places for the number of illegal distillers of the time. Speyside has a vast array of styles but due to the fame of The Glenlivet distillery, many tried to emulate its light fruity flavour and smooth finish. Yet, just in the next glen we can find heavy full on rich style (Aberlour) and even a smokey whisky (Ardmore). The diversity of these distilleries simple means you can’t guarantee the style of the whisky in the bottle if it says “Speyside” on the label.
Campbelltown, a town on the Kintyre peninsula which hangs down off the west of Scotland, did at one point have over 25 distilleries, with many more in the surrounding countryside- and like Speyside benefitted from good peat, barley, spring water and troublesome geographical location. By all acounts, there didnt seem to be a particular “style” produced here, something between the Islay distileries and Highland. Today only three distilleries making 5 different whiskies remain Springbank (Hazelburn, Longrow), Glen Scotia and Kilkerran. There is something you can guarantee from this droop of land as a friend of mine who worked for the BBC told me the angle the peninsula lies off the coast is the maximum angle the naked male appendage can be if ever viewed on the BBC with the island of Arran adding somewhat of an additional piece of imagery for this purpose.
So what are we left with? The “islands” and “Islay“. Well, considering the islands are lumped together as all islands of Scotland (with the exception of Islay) no matter if they are tucked up in sheltered firths such as Arran, Lewis in the outer Hebridean or Highland Park on Orkney- far too vast an area to have a singular “style”. There are heavily peated styles, light and floral, rich and fruity….good luck.
Isaly, I am almost tempted to say is actually they only one you can be sure of style. Typically peated, fresh and maritime notes with the distinct nose of iodine from the heavily peated barley. But would that put you off Bunnahabhain? Seeing the words Islay on its label, if you didnt like smokey whisky might just do that. But Bunnahabhain, on the north east of the island, does not peat its barley and therefore is not a smokey whisky (although they now have Toitech).
So, these regions we seem to so dearly to maintain are nothing more than marketing provenance to a by-gone era. They do little to help us understand what is in the bottle and can simply confuse a reader in most cases. Thankfully, brands are beginning to realise that it is better to put better tasting notes and a bit more info to help out, yet its normally on the back label with a region proudly displayed on the front. Further to this, distilleries like Balvenie are constantly pushing the development of their style- with the likes of Single Cask, Peated Cask and full sherry cask all joining the list from the distillery normal releases and none of that trio are anything like the expected taste and smell of Balvenie, a risk perhaps which could upset the regular Balvenie drinker- but distilleries like Bavenie realise that the whisky drinker is changing, becoming younger, coming from new countries and from very different backgrounds. These individuals are key to the future growth of whisky and are choosing their tipple on flavour, not historic political or geographical boundaries.