Malt of the Moment
When the whisky regions were reimagined in the 1980’s, the largest by far was the Highlands in terms of geographical size and scope. Lacking the natural borders of Islay, the...
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When the whisky regions were reimagined in the 1980’s, the largest by far was the Highlands in terms of geographical size and scope. Lacking the natural borders of Islay, the distinctive light approachability of Speyside, or the fruitiness of the Lowlands, the Highlands represents Scotland’s most diverse and overlooked whisky region.
Dividing lines have been dawn before across Scotland if only to make things easier for the taxmen. Glengoyne distillery itself is dissected by such a line, with the distillery technically residing in the Highlands, but its warehouses across the road are in the Lowland region. Debates are still ongoing regarding the regions and their boundaries today. In simple terms once you pass through the Lowlands and look towards Perthshire and the rugged landscape that awaits, you’re about to set foot into the Highlands.
If you continue North until the mainland ends and the Atlantic Ocean lays ahead, you’ll forever be in the Highland region with the only exception being the concentrated cluster of distilleries in the North-east of Scotland known as Speyside. These are important enough to blenders warrant their own distinctive region and flavour profile, and represent an area of huge production. Other distinctions have been made historically on the basis of compass directions of north, east, south and west. The Northern Highlands is by nature the remotest and placed around coastal locations where what little clusters of population existed. Port towns allowed whisky to be transported if the railway had not reached their location. The main cluster exists around the town of Dornoch with Balblair, Clynelish, Dalmore, Dornoch, Glenmorangie, Invergordon, Teaninich and the lost Brora; all offering a unique diversity of whiskies.
The Central Highlands to the south, are more approachable and merge into the Lowlands. This was the original hotbed of distilling offering natural resources and ease of access to markets. Today it is represented by distilleries such as Aberfeldy, Blair Atholl, Deanston, Edradour, Glenturret, Strathearn and Tullbardine. Compared to their northern Highland brethren these are lighter more gentle whiskies making them more approachable and well suited to blending and various cask types.
Arguably the saddest area is those that make up the Eastern Highlands, which prior to 1983 contained several of Scotland’s most accomplished and evocative distilleries. This geographical are bore the brunt of several closures due to a combination of factors including accessibility, production efficiency, confined sites and the sheer cost of bringing certain distilleries into the modern era. Falling by the wayside were Banff, Glenury Royal, Glenugie, Lochside and North Port making some of these the rarest of whiskies, as they were rarely bottled as single malts. There is some confusion or tactical regional placement of distilleries today as some will claim to be Speyside but geographically may belong to the Highlands. Today this overlooked eastern region is represented by distilleries including Ardmore, Fettercairn, Glencadam, Glen Garioch, Glenglassaugh, Royal Brackla and Royal Lochnagar.
This just leaves the Western sub-region that offers a rugged, coastal landscape which today remains relatively inaccessible continues south until you reach Campbeltown, which is quite rightly deserving of its own regional status. The West is the least represented compromising of just 2 distilleries that distinctly represent their locations with the coastal Oban and the uncompromising Ben Nevis. Both are survivors, with Oban being prized by Diageo for its characteristics. Ben Nevis is situated at the foot of the UK’s largest mountain of the same name and on the outskirts of Fort William. A few minutes from the distillery is what remains Glenlochy that closed in the 1980’s and has been retained as residential accommodation. However, with the current whisky boom this area’s numbers have been swelled with the addition of Ardnamurchan distillery, situated on a remote peninsula overlooking Loch Sunart.
By its sheer size the Highland region is not a specific style of whisky, as it harbours the salty coastal influence of Old Pulteney, to the waxiness of Clynelish or the malty approachability of Deanston and much more besides. Whiskies from this region are more diverse and historically would have been rugged and uncompromising, with the influence of peat and smoke apparently from local fuel sources and a dry finish. Modern methods today mean that the majority of whiskies are unpeated as their stills are no longer direct fired and malt is delivered from central locations rather than floor malted locally. Some distilleries are now producing peated whiskies and seeking to reclaim their heritage, which makes the region ripe for fascinating discoveries. Peat from these coastal and inland areas displays a subtle difference in character than those experienced on Islay; being drier and more earthy than vegetative.
The Highlands are Scotland’s most captivating and iconic environment with this applying to its varied range of whiskies. For generations these were only enjoyed by locals, before enthusiasts sought them out and now they await your discovery.