Alcoholic Geography: Scotland

By Michael J. Lockhart

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Welcome to Alcoholic Geography, Playboy.com’s monthly attempt to educate you, our loyal readers, on the finer points of where your favorite poisons originate and the natural topography that inspires a distinct adventure for your seasoned tastes. From Skye and Speyside malts in Scotland to the vodkas of Russia, get ready to be the ultimate drink connoisseur.

The British Isles have long been a place where alcohol in many forms was decanted from cask, bottle and tap into the hearts and mouths of everyone from royalty on their thrones to the blue-collar workers who have savored their pints as the day’s reward as far back as the dark ages. Needless to say, Scotland has a special place in many a man’s heart as the purveyor of rich amber whisky, more commonly and affectionately known as Scotch.

Made from malted grains such as barley, wheat and rye, Scotch is most popularly consumed in the single-malt variety (such as Glenfiddich), though is also commonly offered as a blend of single malts from different distilleries, known as a blended whisky (Johnnie Walker is a notable example). Traditionally, Scotch is produced in massive copper pot stills; this process continues to be a hallmark of pride and also a legal classification for a single malt. The distinct flavor of scotch is strongly influenced by the landscape of the country, which encompasses everything from water source to grain quality, and the smokiness of the peat used.

We’ve taken the liberty of breaking down some of the larger regions and their topical influences, but this list is by no means exhaustive: history, the distillers and the Scottish Whiskey Association (SWA) largely disagree on the regions and often remove or reinstate areas at their leisure.

The Region: Officially not recognized by the SWA, the Islands region is usually lumped in with the Highlands but constitutes the Inner Hebrides Islands, including the famed Isles of Skye, Arran, Jura and Islay, the last two often classified as separate regions in their own right due to their respective histories as major producing regions.

Flavor: Due to the largely barren landscape, rough terrain and harsh weather, Island malt whiskies are very coastal, containing salty aromas with a very distinctive peaty smoke scent that is as strong as the powerful liquid inside. The sole whisky of Skye, Talisker, also contains notes of spicy black pepper which build upon the dark flavor already present.

*Notable Scotches: *Bowmore (Islay) Talisker (Skye) Jura (Jura)

The Region: The Scottish Highlands, home to giant peaks such as Ben Nevis and the great lochs of Ness and Lomond, stretch from the North Sea and Aberdeen to the port town of Oban and to the far North, where it’s fabled the Vikings first landed.

Flavors: The largest of the classified producing regions, the Highlands are a meeting ground for the flavors of both coasts and the well-known Speyside distilleries of its northeastern border. The Highland whiskies are smooth in taste and quite floral from the honey and heather produced in the region. Whiskies here are strongly influenced by the altitude of their distilleries, from Oban, at basically sea level, to Dalwhinnie, which is Scotland’s highest distillery.

*Notable Scotches: *Glenmorangie Oban

The Region: Known as the “golden triangle,” Speyside is home to at least half of Scotland’s Scotch distilleries. This northeastern valley is full of some of the labels best known labels outside Scotland, such as Aberlour, Glenrothes and of course the famous Glenfiddich. The name of the region comes from the River Spey, which is the primary source of mashing water that fuels the countless distilleries that rival the number of castles in sight.

Flavor: Despite the fact that almost all single malts in Speyside contain roughly the same ingredients and source materials, the historic distilleries in the region have prided themselves on molding the characteristic fresh, delicate and fruity aromas into unique aged varieties that often push this region’s offerings into global auction houses for bottles aged for 40 or more years.

*Notable Scotches: *Aberlour Glenfiddich Glenrothes Macallan Glenlivet

The Region: The last of the major Scotch-producing regions is the Lowlands, which share some similarities with the area known as Scotland’s central belt — home to the country’s largest city, Glasgow, and historic capital, Edinburgh. The most industrialized area of the country, the Lowlands are home to arguably the smallest number of distilleries. The separation between Highland and Lowland was actually a result of the whisky industry; the Wash Act of 1784 created the “Highland Line.”

Flavors: The flat rolling terrain of the Lowlands is first-rate pasture for the growing of malting grains, which makes the region ideal for the production of whisky. The lack of major sources of fresh water — either flowing rivers or marshland — contributes to the lighter color and fragrant soft body of the local Scotches, including the notable absence of smokiness due to the general lack of peat in the area.

*Notable Scotches: *Ailsa Bay Auchentoshan

For instructions on how to pronounce a number of tongue-twisting Scotches, check out our guide here.


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