As the Society embraces whisky festival season with six Rare Release bottlings to celebrate each of Scotland’s whisky regions, we wanted to reflect on how we arrived at our current definitions, and what they actually mean. Iain Russell reports on the question of regions.
At first glance, the legal definitions are quite clear. The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 set out precise geographical boundaries for two ‘protected localities’ – Islay and Campbeltown – and three ‘protected regions’ – Highland, Lowland and Speyside. Only distilleries within each area can use the name on their labels.
Yet anomalies abound. Speyside resides within the boundaries of the Highland region and there are some Speyside brands, such as Macallan, which are labelled as Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky.
Campbeltown lies within the boundaries of the Lowlands and so Springbank could (but doesn’t) describe itself as a Lowlander – although it has been labelled in the past as a West Highland.
And while Islay is designated a locality in its own right, the other island distilleries are lumped together in the vast Highland Region – except for those on the Isle of Arran where one distillery (at Lochranza) is in the Highlands but the other (Lagg) is a Lowlander.
Confused? You won’t be, if you read on!
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
To understand the Scottish whisky regions, you need to understand their origins, and the purposes that they were intended to serve.
Firstly, there are the regions created for legal and taxation reasons that are defined in law. And (often related) there are those regions that evolved as the means to group and characterise the whiskies made there – heavily influenced by the example of the wine regions of France.
To begin at the beginning, a long, long time ago…
The Wash Act of 1784 was intended to reform the rather chaotic and inefficient regulation and collection of duties on British spirits. Aware that distillers in the Highlands of Scotland faced different challenges than elsewhere in the country, and generally used smaller stills, they were subject to different regulations than those in the Lowlands.
For the purposes of the original Act, the Highlands was defined very broadly and consisted of most of Scotland’s landmass north of the Central Belt. It was amended a number of times and the boundaries shifted (including, briefly, the introduction of an ‘Intermediate Zone’) before the Highland area was abolished in 1816 and regulations were applied equally.
However, the legal divisions had confirmed popular perceptions about the general characteristics of Highland and Lowland whiskies: that those made north of the Highland line (sometimes also referred to as ‘North Country’ whiskies) tended to be big and full-flavoured, distilled in small stills using malted barley, while those from the Lowlands were either made in pot stills, often from mixed grains and distilled three times, or (after the 1830s) in patent stills to produce a softer, blander, ‘silent’ spirit.
Whisky drinkers and the spirits trade also came to recognise and appreciate sub-regions in Scotland. The first of these had been Ferintosh. Distilleries on that small estate, just north of Inverness, were permitted to distil free of duty from 1689 until 1784, in return for a small annual payment by the estate’s owner. ‘Ferintosh’ became the most famous name in Scotch whisky, and its whiskies were shipped all over the country. The discontinuation of the ‘Ferintosh privilege’ in 1784 resulted in a sharp decline in the availability of its famous product, and inspired the famous lines from Robert Burns, in his poem Scotch Drink – ‘Thee Ferintosh! O sadly lost! Scotland lament frae coast to coast!’
DIFFERENT REGIONS, DISTINCTIVE STYLES
Other whisky regions emerged later. During the heydays of whisky smuggling, for example, Glenlivet became famous for the quality of the spirits distilled in the small stills employed in the glen and in the surrounding lands of Strathspey. The ‘Glenlivet’ whisky region was never clearly delineated, and referred as much to a local style of whisky as to a precise place. Originally sought after for drinking as a single malt, it came to specialise in a rich, ‘fat’ style which was popular with blenders seeking to add body and flavour to their blended Scotches.
There was a prolonged dispute over the right to use the Glenlivet name as a trademark in the late 19th century, and the name ‘Speyside’ became more commonly used to describe this whisky region.
Meanwhile, the island of Islay and the small town of Campbeltown in Kintyre had become well-known for distinctive styles of whisky. Campbeltown was once known as the whisky capital of the world, and was home at its peak to around 30 distilleries. Like Islay, it had a reputation for producing the country’s most powerful, peaty whiskies, which were highly prized in the making of big, smoky blends.
These, then, were the five most commonly known whisky regions of Scotland, and for much of the 20th century their names became a form of shorthand for different styles of single malt Scotch whisky. Today, they are defined in law.
During the 1980s, however, with the rediscovery of single malts as great whiskies in their own right, many journalists attempted to refine these regional ‘classifications’. The late, great Michael Jackson led the way, with his division of the Highlands into West, East, North and Midland regions; the division of Speyside into the sub-regions formed by the valleys of the Rivers Spey, Findhorn, Lossie, Livet and the Fiddich and Dullan; and the Western Islands. Even Inverness was suggested as a sub-region of the Highlands – it was, after all, home to more distilleries than the sadly-declining Campbeltown.
The mighty United Distillers (now Diageo) further popularised the notion of the whisky regions, while adding a little confusion, with the launch of the original Classic Malts collection in 1988. The Classic Malts were advertised as whiskies representing the six classic regions of Scotland. Diageo had no distillery in Campbeltown, however, and so that place was not represented. Instead, UD identified Highland (represented by Dalwhinnie), Speyside (Cragganmore), the Lowlands (Glenkinchie), Islay (Lagavulin), the Western Highlands (Oban), and the Islands (Talisker).
But of course, journalists and others are quite entitled to identify and characterise regions as they see fit. The Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009 merely classify the boundaries of five areas of Scotland – it does not require distilleries to use those names. And, as the SWA says in its guidance notes, ‘although only the five traditional localities and regions have been defined and protected in the Regulations, it is still permitted to use, in exactly the same way, another Scottish locality or regional name as long as the Scotch Whisky was entirely distilled in that place. For example, Single Malt Scotch Whiskies distilled in Orkney may be sold described as “Orkney Single Malt Scotch Whisky”…’
Nowadays, it can be difficult to define the style of whisky from a single distillery, never mind a region. There are Speysiders that are peaty, unpeated Islays, and a new wave of Lowland distilleries promising to deliver any number of styles of spirit rather than the soft, gentle ones dictated by convention.
The whisky regions of Scotland are just that – areas of the country where whisky is made. They’re fun to explore, whether in the glass or in person. And if you believe that there’s a region that hasn’t been defined already, then you are free to identify it for yourself.
Personally, I’m a big fan of the Easter Rossers…
This article first appeared in Unfiltered 56 in April 2021