Scotch is one of the most widely recognized spirits on the planet. The gold ambrosia is ubiquitous around the globe and has been celebrated and enjoyed by countless people for hundreds of years. This guide isn’t just a comprehensive guide to Scotch Whisky regions, it’s a celebration of its history, legacy, and cultural relevance both in Scotland and around the world.
We’ll be covering the names of the regions, fun historical facts about them, their most well-known distilleries, the style/flavor profile of their scotches, and we’ll highlight two shining examples of scotches that people can buy from each region: one ultra-premium for the swanky folks, and one moderately priced “people’s pick” example that us common plebs can afford. It’s no secret that the famed spirit has become a symbol of unabashed luxury, but it can and should be enjoyed by all who are curious about imbibing in the stuff.
Writing about Scotch can be a borderline incendiary topic to cover, so let us lay some ground rules. It’s important to note that people have strong opinions on Scotch. In fact, Scotch Whisky is so important that there’s actually a governing body to regulate what is and isn’t a Scotch Whisky: the Scotch Whisky Association. Because they are a legitimate governing body, we choose to align ourselves with the experts, so the definitions and categorizations in this comprehensive guide will fit within their parameters.
Now that we’ve covered our bases, let us get into the good stuff. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, “Scotch Whisky is a distilled spirit made in Scotland from cereals, water, and yeast. It must be distilled and matured in Scotland for at least three years and bottled at a minimum alcoholic strength of 40% abv.” Scotch Whisky is also spelled without the “e” as most other whiskeys made outside Scotland are spelled with the “e.” Once the Scotch is distilled, it will be classified into one of five categories.
The Five Types Of Scotch Whisky
Because Enjoying It One Way Isn't Enough
Single Malt: Per Scotch Whisky Association regulations, a single malt is a Scotch Whisky that is distilled at a single distillery from water and malted barley without the addition of any other cereals. They also have to be distilled in copper pot stills in the glorious nation of Scotland.
Blended Malt: A blended malt Scotch Whisky is a blend of single malt Scotch Whiskies at more than one distillery. These are among the most uncommon Scotches in the world.
Single Grain: A single grain scotch is distilled at a single distillery from water and malted barley. The key difference from a single malt is that single grains are distilled with or without whole grains of other malted or unmalted cereals.
Blended Grain: A blended grain Scotch Whisky is simply a blend of single grain whiskies at more than one distillery.
Blended: A blended Scotch Whisky, which represents the vast majority of Scotches on the market, is a blend of one or more single malt Scotch Whiskies with one or more single grain Scotch Whiskies.
The History Of Scotch In A Nutshell
A Distilled Primer For Scotland's Biggest Export
Scotch’s story stretches to the 15th century. The earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland occurred in 1494 in the tax records called the Exchequer Rolls. An entry in the Rolls mentions “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” Whether it was to balance out the monotony of celibacy, or just a happy accident, Friar John’s aqua vitae, the Latin term for “water of life,” became the first official record of Scotch Whisky. From there, Scotch Whisky garnered steady popularity, eventually getting taxed in 1644 by the Scottish Parliament, which of course, led to the rise of bootlegging.
Smuggling Scotch was the common way of moving the taxed spirit about the country for over 150 years until the Excise Act of 1823 passed, making the distillation of Scotch legal for a fee of ten pounds. From there, famed whisky giants like Tommy Dewar, Johnnie Walker, and James Chivas took Scotch out of its native land, leading it to become one of the most enjoyed spirits in the world by the twentieth century. As the years progressed, Scotch only became more popular, hitting another boom in WWII due in part to Winston Churchill’s penchant for the stuff. Fast forward to now, and Scotch has been enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people over the course of its more than 500-year-old life.
All right, we’ve covered the brief history and cultural significance of Scotch. Now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for: The Five Classic Regions of Scotch Whisky.
The Most Densely Populated Whisky Region In The World
Speyside is the most densely populated Whisky region in the world with more than 60 distilleries, and it’s named after the River Spey. The Speyside region is where the first Scotch Whisky boom took place after King George IV made a trip to Edinburgh and fell in love with the whisky from the Speyside district. Its most famous distilleries are The Macallan, Dalwhinnie, Glenlivet, and Glenfiddich. Speyside whiskies are peaty, fruity, and commonly matured in sherry casks. Expect to taste notes of apple, pear, honey, and vanilla.
Premium Pick: The Macallan Rare Cask Single Malt Scotch
Coming from one of the most famous distilleries in the world, The Macallan Rare Cask Single Malt Scotch smells of vanilla, apple, and citrus with hints of root ginger and warm spices. Taste-wise the spices come through strong with a rich texture. The finish balances a warm, oaky mix of citrus, chocolate, and vanilla.
People’s Pick: Glenfiddich 12-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Glenfiddich is the most popular distillery in the world for good reason. Its aroma is fresh and fruity with distinct notes of pear. Taste-wise, Glenfiddich 12 is smooth, balanced, and carries the fruity aroma to a sweet, mellow finish of butterscotch and oak.
Soft, Smooth, And Light In Character
The Lowland whisky region is one of the southernmost parts of Scotland, covering everywhere southeast of the Highland Boundary Fault. It has fewer than five distilleries, with its two most famous being Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie. In 1825, the Auchentoshan distillery broke new ground by instituting the practice of triple distilling all of their whiskies, which resulted in a smoother, silkier whisky that ended up defining the region’s style. It’s so light that it gave birth to the delicious term, “breakfast whisky.” Lowland whiskies are generally softer, smoother malts with hints of honeysuckle, cream, ginger, and toffee. These whiskies are commonly preferred for pre-dinner drinks and are often lighter in character.
Premium Pick: Rosebank Special Release 21-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Rosebank Special Release 21-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky features a mellow aroma that’s sweet, fruity, and floral. On the palate, expect soft notes of vanilla, cream, and a light acidity that brings with it a gentle mouthfeel. Its finish leaves the drinker with a slightly acidic, smooth, and floral taste.
People’s Pick: Auchentoshan 12-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
The Lowland’s trailblazing single malt smells of toasted almonds, toffee, and crème brûlée. Its palate is smooth with notes of tangerine and lime, and its finish is dry and gingery with a lingering nuttiness. Don’t let the value price point fool you, this one’s a keeper.
Varied And Full Of Flavor
Campbeltown is a small area named after the Campbeltown bay, and it has just three distilleries: Springbank, Glengyle, and Glen Scotia. Despite its small size, Campbeltown was thriving in the nineteenth-century whisky boom. Unfortunately, seventeen of its distilleries closed in the 1920s due to the unquenchable demand for scotch. Simply put, the distilleries couldn’t keep up. Campbeltown whiskies are varied and flavorful; expect robust bodies with hints of salt, smoke, fruit, vanilla, and toffee. Some even say that the Campbeltown whiskies have hints of wet wool (better than it sounds).
Premium Pick: Springbank 18-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Springbank 18-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky has a boisterous aroma of toasted bananas and honey. It has a full-bodied, spicy palate with citrus and pine notes that will leave you with a lingering finish of salt, chocolate, and caramel. It’s a luxurious example that proves this small region’s distilleries can still make an elite whisky.
People’s Pick: Glen Scotia 10-Year Peated Single Malt Scotch Whisky
The Glen Scotia 10-Year Peated Single Malt Scotch Whisky does its region proud. Its aroma is a mix of peaty, briny, and smokey notes, while its palate has a balanced taste of apple, cloves, lemon, and barley to even out the initial briny aroma. The finish is dry, gentle, peaty, and peppery.
Fiery, Spiced, And Peated
Islay is a tiny island consisting of fewer than eight distilleries. In fact, the island is so small that most of its inhabitants work in the distilleries. Notable distilleries from this wondrous region are Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin. Legend has it that Irish monks first introduced the art of distillation to Islay in the fourteenth century as the island was rife with peat, lochs, and rivers filled with pure soft water. While the island itself is small, Islay whiskies are known for being fiery and heavily peated.
Premium Pick: Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky sports a smoky aroma with bold notes of fennel and a light hint of cream. Its mouthfeel is salty while sporting notes of peanut brittle, smoked pineapple, and lime juice. The palate consists of a wonderful mix of aniseed, fudge, birch tar, and peat. Drinkers will be left with a savory and smoky lingering finish.
People’s Pick: Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Laphroaig 10-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky aroma opens with big, smoky, peaty notes. On the palate, Laphroaig leads with notes of Seaweed, while balancing the palate with hints of vanilla, oak, and peppery spices. Its finish is big and dry.
It Covers The Spectrum
The Highlands refers to the part of Scotland northwest of the Highland Boundary Fault. It has 47 distilleries with its two most prominent being Dalmore and Glenmorangie. The Highlands and the Lowlands’ main difference comes from the regions’ history of taxation, not their geography. The Royal family favored the Highlands’ whisky, which translated to the region developing a reputation for high-quality Scotch, while the Lowlands became known as producers of low-quality whisky. The Highlands boasts the biggest variety of flavor profiles, but overall, its Scotches tend to be on the spicier side with some mild sweetness.
Premium Pick: Glenmorangie ‘The Quarter Century’ 25-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Think of the Glenmorangie The Quarter Century 25-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky as a dessert for the soul. It has an aroma of Berry compote mixed with floral notes and stewed plums. Its palate is fruit-forward and creamy soft with a long, smooth, oaky finish that has just a hint of fruit.
People’s Pick: Glendronach Original 12-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Sticking with the dessert for your soul theme, Glendronach Original 12-Year-Old Single Malt’s aroma is a rich blend of raisin, cinnamon, and caramelized sugar. Its first taste is fruity, buttery, and jammy, but the notes of ginger and spices crescendo to a smoky finish with hints of toffee. Definitely a must-have for any collection.
NOTE ABOUT THE ISLAND REGION: There are many who would argue that the Island Region is its own separate region; however, the Scotch Whisky Association chooses to include them in the Highlands region. With that said, here are two picks from distilleries in the Island Region for those pining for a sixth category.
Premium Pick: Highland Park 30-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky
How else can one sum up a 30-year-old Scotch other than “phenomenal?” The Highland Park 30-Year-Old Single Malt sports an aroma of peat and smoke with spicy notes. It features a full-bodied and robust palate, with hints of toffee, roasted nuts, and dried fruit. Given the weight of this bold spirit, the finishing taste lingers for a while with spicy notes of fruit, peat, and oak.
People’s Pick: Talisker 10-Year Single Malt Scotch Whisky
We’re rounding out our list with the wonderful Talisker 10-Year Single Malt Scotch Whisky. It has a peaty, smoky aroma with a salty brininess to it. Like the Highland Park 30, it has a full-bodied taste with hints of dried fruit, malted barley, and smoke. Its finish will leave you with a warm, long-lasting peppery note.
The Complete Guide to Whiskey Styles
Now that you’ve learned the basic ins and outs of Scotch Whisky, you are now ready to explore the world of whiskey outside of Scotland. Check out our complete guide to whiskey styles to find out other countries’ unique and delicious takes on this delicious spirit.