“Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky”. – Scottish proverb.
If our unique climate is responsible for our country’s breath-taking, rugged beauty, it can also be thanked for making possible our most iconic product. Whisky. The water of life.
‘Usquabae (uisge beatha)’ – The Water of Life
“Wi tippeny we fear nae evil, Wi usquabae we’ll face the dei’l”
Rabbie Burns – Tam O’Shanter
Whisky is our national drink and has been lovingly crafted by true artists for many hundreds of years and today there are some 120, and counting, working distilleries throughout the land, defined by 5 distinct whisky regions, making Scotland home to the greatest concentration of distilleries anywhere in the world, with brands ancient and new, behemoth and boutique.
The practice began as a method of turning the rain-soaked barley into a spirit fit for consumption, using the fresh water from the land’s crystal-clear springs, streams and burns. The earliest record of its production dates back to 1494. To this very day whisky is made using the very same tradition of using pure spring water from the same sources that have been used for centuries. But for all the same methods have been used and following a legally defined process which allows whisky produced in Scotland, and only whisky produced in Scotland, to be called ‘Scotch’, no two whiskies are the same.
Elements such as the source of the water, the shape of the still and the wood of the cask used to mature the spirit, and many other factors, all contribute to each Scotch whisky being so wonderfully different and varied from distillery to distillery. No two whiskies are the same. Each distillery and, indeed, whisky has its own proud heritage, unique setting and method which has evolved and been refined over the centuries.
Scotland does not claim to have invented whisky, indeed there are claims that Ireland produced it first and, more recently, even that the likes of China and Russia were early adopters. What it without doubt, however, is that the gold standard is Scotch Whisky and more than 100 distilleries across Scotland’s five Whisky Regions follow the ancient methods to ensure that it remains so. But what makes Scotch, Scotch?
What Makes Scotch, Scotch?
First off, there are two basic types of Scotch whisky, from which all blends are made.
1, Single Malt Scotch whisky means a Scotch which is produced using only water and malted barley at a single distillery by batch distillation in pot stills.
2, Single Grain Scotch whisky means a Scotch which is produced at a single distillery, but, in addition to the above ingredients, may involve whole grains of either malted or unmalted cereals. Many cereals can be used and the ‘single’ in Single Grain refers to the use of only a single distillery.
There are, in addition to the ‘Singles’, blended Scotch whisky, of which there are three types:
1, Blended Malt Scotch whisky is a blend of two or more single malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries. Notable Blended Malts included Johnnie Walker Green Label and Monkey Shoulder.
2, Blended Grain Scotch is fundamentally the same but using two or more single grain Scotch whiskies.
3, Blended Scotch is a whisky produced by blending one or more single malts with one or more single grains. This constitutes about 90% of the whisky produced in Scotland, with famous blends being Bell’s, Chivas Regal, Whyte & Mackay, Dewar’s, J&B and The Famous Grouse.
Most importantly however, it is the legal process which distillers must follow in order to call their whisky ‘Scotch’. Scotch Whisky is defined under the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 as:
- Produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added)
- Wholly matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres (185 US gal, 154 imp gal)
- Retaining the colour, aroma and taste of the raw materials used in, and the method of, it’s production and maturation
- Containing no added substances, other than water and plain (E150A) caramel colouring
- Comprising a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40% (80 US proof)
It is by these regulations that every distillery in each of Scotland’s five Whisky Regions produces Single Malt Scotch whisky to ensure that the quality of our whisky remains unrivalled throughout the world.
Scotland’s Whisky Regions
Home to the greatest concentration of distilleries in the world, Scotland is divided into five distinct whisky regions. These are Islay, Speyside, Highland, Lowland and Campbeltown
Campbeltown is not a region by geographic or political definition, rather it is a small harbour town situated in Kintyre. In its heyday there were more than 30 legal distilleries (in 1644 whisky production was taxed and thus illicit distilling was commonplace. These taxes would remain in place until 1824 when King George IV’s penchant for The Glenlivet necessitated a change in the legislation) and Campbeltown was labelled the ‘whisky capital of the world’ but today there are just three working distilleries, making it Scotland’s smallest whisky producing region.
Many argue that it’s scale, or lack thereof, doesn’t warrant being defined as a region, however its single malts boast unique characteristics which have led to a devoted following.
The Campbeltown region consists of the Glen Scotia Distillery, the Glengyle/Kilkerran Distillery and the Springbank Distillery and its whiskies are characterised by a smoky palate, derived from peat, and a maritime flavour courtesy of the sea mists of the Mull of Kintyre.
Encompassing, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Fife and with miles of farmland and woodland, the Lowlands are a charming and accessible region, stretching from the Borders, Dumfries & Galloway, Ayrshire and Arran up to the Highland/Lowland divide. A mild climate and flat land make it perfect for growing barley and its whiskies are light and unpeated, known for their sweet, grassy notes, floral and citrusy hints and a gentle style which has seen them affectionately labelled the ‘Lowland Ladies’.
13 long standing distilleries are in operation today, with several new distilleries opened in recent years taking that number to 18, and rising, with the Auchentoshan (1800) being the oldest and Glenkinchie the most popular. 2019 is due to see the opening of the first working distilleries in Edinburgh in more than 100 years.
Pronounced ‘Eye-la’. Islay is a small island, just 25 miles long, off the west coast of Scotland. Characterised by rocky bays and sheltered inlets, there are eight active distilleries, including the renowned Bowmore, Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. This concentration of distilleries has seen the island be crowned Scotland’s ‘whisky land’.
Most of the distilleries started off as farm distilleries but were relocated to secluded glens and caves when excise duty was introduced in 1644. In truth, the excisemen didn’t dare set foot on the island for more than 150 years, such was the fearsome reputation of the islanders! Legend has it that it was monks who first brought the art of distilling to the island from Ireland. Islay is ideal for whisky production at is has an abundance of peat, spring water and barley.
Islay’s peat is what distinguishes its single malts from those of other regions. Burned in kilns to dry the malted barley, it has been formed over millions of years and is abundant with decaying mosses, heather and lichens very different to mainland peat. Hundreds of years of salty spray, the benefit of being an island, has penetrated the peat and seeped into the warehouses where the casks are matured. This is what gives Islay malts their pungent, powerful character and their renowned smokiness, with hints of sea air and seaweed.
Scotland’s largest geographical whisky region by some distance, the Highlands Regions stretches from Orkney in the north to the Isle of Arran in the south, and from east to west from Aberdeenshire to the Outer Hebrides.
This makes categorising its whiskies challenging, however they are, broadly speaking, noted to be robust and full-bodied, bit embracing individual characteristics which vary by distillery and location. Some Highland whiskies are smoky and peaty, others are immensely powerful whilst a few are surprisingly genteel.
Typically, the father north the distillery the more full-bodied and sweeter the whisky, with cereal notes. As we move south the whiskies tend to be drier, lighter and fruitier. Distilleries on the islands, for example the Highland Park of Orkney, use heathery peat which is thousands of years old to dry their barley and, consequently, produce a whisky with a sweet smokiness to it.
Appropriately for its size, the region is the second-most populous for distilleries, with no fewer than 47, including the likes of Dalwhinnie, Tomatin, Highland Park and Glenmorangie. It’s oldest and most popular distillery is Glenturret.
Home to almost half of all Scotland’s distilleries, Speyside is a region of beautiful scenery and lush landscapes. Although not part of the Highlands whisky region, it is located in the Highlands, starting east of Inverness and stretching to the Moray coastline and Cairngorms National Park.
The region is so named after the River Spey and most of its distilleries are located in the stunning glens which surround it.
Speyside has a plentiful supply of pure water and its beautiful inland setting allows it to produce whiskies which are an elegant contrast to the salty and heavily peated whiskies of other regions.
Its whiskies are distinctly sweeter and fruity, with notes ranging from ripe pears to sultanas, alongside hints or nuts and malt. Some possess a refined smokiness.
With 50 distilleries and counting in a geographically small regions, you are never far from one, from small-scale producers who handcraft whisky using traditional methods, to many of the most famous whiskies in the world, not least Macallan and The Glenlivet, the very whisky that instigated the industry as we know it.
Whether you like rustic and authentic or virtual experiences, you’ll find a distillery tour a memorable experience and for something a bit different but just as unforgettable, the Scotch Whisky Experience – basically a innovative and interactive whisky museum located in Edinburgh – is where you can enjoy a ride in a barrel through the whisky making process with a virtual tour, enjoy masterclasses, food and whisky pairing and marvel at the priceless collection of 3,384 bottles on display.
For true enthusiasts a Carlowrie Club ‘Water of Life Experience’, including an exclusive experience at the world’s preeminent authority on Single Malt Scotch Whisky is a must.
Available exclusively to Carlowrie Club guests and Members of our associates Alba | Ás-Dùnach, this 5 Night Experience features incredible VIP experiences at distilleries in all our Whisky Regions and includes a truly ‘money can’t buy’ opportunity to get a private, behind the scenes tour of the a facility where tens of thousands of casks of the world’s rarest and most prestigious single malt whiskies are maturing, led by one of the most influential people in the industry.
As well as this exclusive access you will get the privilege of sampling some of the finest drams in the be amongst the select few who buy from the Archives, the not-for-public-sale collection of the finest, rarest, most prestigious, sought after and no longer available whiskies in the world. Other exclusive privileges are included.
Find out about the Carlowrie Club Water of Life Experience