The land of Scotch whisky, Scotland is one of the most ecologically diverse countries, a trait reflected in the many different single malt whiskies that are produced across the Scottish mainland.
Divided into five distinct regions, the Scottish mainland is made up of the Highlands, the Lowlands, the Speyside, Campbeltown and the Isle of Islay. These regions, based on their climate, natural resources and other conditions, produce single malts that are vastly different than each other.
Today, we look at two distinctly contrasting regions, one is the largest, yet the most sparsely populated with distilleries and is known for whisky makers that produce a rich, fruity, and full-bodied single malt. Whereas the other, one of the smallest and yet densely populated with distilleries, a renowned producer of ‘maritime’ single malts.
Yes, today we take up the Highland whisky Vs Islay whisky debate, uncovering the many differences between the two regions, and the single malts produced there.
The Dalmore Distillery, one of the most treasured Highland distilleries.
The largest, and yet somehow the most sparsely populated whisky making regions of Scotland, the Highlands cover nearly one-third of the entire country of Scotland. The Highlands were home to the highest number of distilleries before the Speyside was granted a separate identity as a Scotch whisky making region in 2009.
Owing to the enormity of the region, the Highlands have been traditionally divided further into four separate regions based on the cardinal directions; Northern Highlands, Eastern Highlands, Southern Highlands and Western Highlands.
Unlike the other parts of Scotland, the sheer vastness of this region makes Highland whiskies fairly unique and different from each other since the climate, conditions and natural resources too change from place to place.
A North Western Highland whisky such as Glenmorangie are very different from the Glengoyne, Southern Highland distillery. Whereas the South Western Highland distilleries such as Oban and Ben Nevis, boast a highly contrasting character when compared to Glengoyne, the Southernmost Highland distillery, or the Old Pulteney and Wolfburn, the two Northernmost distilleries on Scottish mainland.
Glengoyne, the Southernmost Highland distillery.
This makes it difficult to frame a precise understanding or description of Highland whisky, which isn’t the case with Speyside whisky or Islay whisky. Traditionally, Highland whisky has been known to be fuller, rich, smoky and sweeter than single malts from other regions of Scotland.
Laphroaig is one of the most illustrious Islay distilleries.
Geographically, the Isle of Islay is the smallest whisky producing region of Scotland, although it has historically been the birthplace of single malts that have had the greatest impact on the world of Scotch whisky.
Whisky has been distilled on Islay for centuries, and every distillery on the island has worked hard to protect and stay true to the unique Islay whisky identity that the world has come to recognize. Islay has been known to produce the highest quality of peat across Scotland, and it is within this peat that Islay whisky found the unique identity we speak of.
Often termed as ‘maritime single malts’, practically all of the nine fully functioning distilleries on the island are located near the coast. The coastal conditions add a pivotal element in the making of Islay whiskies as the water, peat, and the salty sea air, all play a huge role towards creating the quintessential Islay whisky.
A picture from Feis Ile 2018 at the Kilchoman Distillery, Islay’s newest distillery.
Islay whisky is considered to be widely divisive in the whisky world due to their flavours and aromas being very different from that of other Scotch single malts, say from the Speyside, or the Highlands. Heavily peated, iodine rich and packed with strong flavours, Islay whisky has often been termed ‘medicinal’ for its taste. While some whisky drinkers absolutely love the heavily peaty and rich Islay single malts such as Laphroaig, Bowmore, Lagavulin and Ardbeg; some express their affinity for unpeated Bruichladdich, and Bunnahabhain.
The oldest and the most successful Islay whisky makers such as Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bowmore, Ardbeg and Bunnahabhain continue to thrive as newer distilleries such as the Kilchoman are being established too.
How are Highland single malts different from Islay single malts?
The single malts from Highlands and the Isle of Islay could not be more different if they came from two different parts of the world. Yet somehow, these regions, part of the same country, produce single malts unlike each other in every manner of speaking.
While the touch of peat that many Highland whiskies may be cited as a similarity, there is no comparison with the full-blown peaty single malts of the Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin.
Infused with mouth-watering flavours and aromas of fruit, heather, malt and gentle oakiness, Highland whiskies are excellent for beginners and veterans of the whisky world alike. Packed with a diverse and heterogeneous distilleries producing their very own interpretations of the spirit, Highland whiskies have a far greater mass appeal than the stronger, much more butch whiskies of the Isle of Islay.
This does not necessarily mean or even imply that Islay whisky is inferior in any manner of speaking. Many of Islay distilleries have produced single malts that have gone on to become serial winners at whisky tasting competitions, and enjoy the loyalties of the likes of Prince Charles no less.
Islay whiskies such as Ardbeg, and Laphroaig are known to be a particular favourite of Prince Charles.
To put it in more simple terms, Highland whiskies could be more accurately referred to as a summer blockbuster film that rakes in enormous amounts of box office collections, whereas Islay whiskies could be an arthouse foreign film that sweeps it big at the Academy Awards and Golden Globes.
Is one necessarily better than the other? Not in a fair world.
In our opinion, both Highland single malts and Islay single malts are excellent kinds of Scotch whisky, and if you are new to the world of whisky, we recommend beginning your journey with Highland whisky, and progressing to the Isle of Islay. What is a whisky lovers; palette if held back by familiarity isn’t it?