The Scottish mainland is divided into five regions, officially recognized for their greatest ever contribution to the world, producing whisky. These five whisky making regions of Scotland are not just distinct geographically but also ascertain the flavour, aroma and the character of the whiskies.
The Highlands, the Lowlands, the Speyside, Isle of Islay and Campbeltown are the five whisky making regions of Scotland, of which, the Highlands and the Lowlands are the largest and second largest respectively.
Each region boasts of a different catalogue of flavours, aromas and texture such as the sweet, fruity and creamy single malts from the Speyside are vastly different than the ‘maritime’, medicinal and iodine rich single malts of the Islay single malts.
Today we discuss the characteristics of Highland whisky and Lowland whisky, and the chief distinctive factors between them, including their characteristics, geographical diversity and its effects on the whisky.
The Dalmore Distillery, one of the most successful Highland distilleries.
Vast, and extending to three sides of Scotland’s coast, the Highlands region is the largest whisky making region in the country. Before 2009, the Highlands even encompassed the Speyside region before it was granted an independent status as a separate whisky making region of Scotland.
In stark contrast of its geographical size, the Highlands have a far fewer number of distilleries as compared to the Speyside, which is one of the smallest regions yet has a greater number of distilleries within its territory.
Due to its size, the Highlands are further divided into four distinct regions namely Northern Highlands, Eastern Highlands, Southern Highlands and the Western Highlands. This makes it easier to understand and identify the flavours notes and characteristics of Highland whiskies.
Highland whiskies are broadly characterized as rich, sweet, full-bodied, and peaty although owing to the vastness of the region, the characteristics of the single malts differ significantly. As compared to regions such as the Speyside, which is a quite smaller region, meaning all Speyside distilleries share similar characteristics due to similar conditions.
The Royal Lochnagar, a Highland distillery that enjoys the privilege of royal patronage.
Northern Highland distilleries such as the Glenmorangie, Dalmore, and Clynelish have a richer, sweeter flavour to them, whereas the Southern Highland single malts such as Glengoyne, Aberfeldy, and Tullibardine are fruity, dry and lighter in taste. Eastern Highland whiskies such as the Ardmore, and Glendronach are strongly aromatic, fruity and full-bodied whereas Western Highland whiskies are renowned for their peaty, full-bodied characteristics such as Oban, and Ben Nevis.
A vintage picture of the Glenkinchie Distillery, one of the most famous Lowland distilleries in Scotland
The Lowlands region of Scotland was once immensely populated with distilleries although in recent years, the number of functional distilleries has dwindled to less than 10, of which only a handful remain noteworthy.
The second largest officially recognized whisky making region of Scotland, the Lowlands lie on the South of the country, sharing a border with England on the south and the Highlands region of Scotland in the north.
As opposed to the lusciously rich and abundant with natural resources Speyside region, or the Isle of Islay, enriched from the coastal conditions, the Lowlands region is less mountainous, rich in coal deposits, sedimentary rocks and a highly fertile, agriculturally productive region.
The Bladnoch Distillery
Due to different conditions, the use of unpeated malt, and a ‘triple distillation’ method used by many Lowland whiskies, especially Auchentoshan, Lowland single malts are known to be lighter, both in colour and taste, and have earned a reputation of being mellow drinks.
Also famed producers of grain whiskies that are equally smooth, Lowland whisky, both single malt and grain, is predominantly used in blended Scotch whisky due to its ability to not overwhelm other more flavourful single malts used in the blend.
Once bustling with distilleries, only seven distilleries continue to produce spirit in the Lowlands region of which Glenkinchie, Auchentoshan, Bladnoch and Ailsa Bay are the most well-known. A few distilleries are currently being constructed such as the Crabbie, Port of Leith and more and shall be up and running in a few years.
How are the Highland and Lowland single malts different?
While the more obvious geographical distinctions between the Highlands and the Lowlands remain, the differences between Highland whisky and Lowland whisky are much more subtle.
Highland whiskies, as discussed earlier, are much different from one another although some common similarities between them are that they are full-bodied, richly flavoured, sweet and peaty single malts. Whereas the Lowland whiskies are unpeated, dry and much lighter as compared to their Highland counterparts.
Many Highland whisky brands continue to be much popular, and highly sought after in the whisky world, although the Lowland whisky makers have not had much luck in modern times.
A thriving territory for distilleries once, the Lowland region has fallen into obscurity with changing times with only a few distilleries such as the Glenkinchie, the Bladnoch and Auchentoshan still functional.
In terms of quality, Highland whisky is much more sought after as compared to Lowland whisky, which is more often used in blended Scotch whisky. Glenkinchie is one of the biggest contributors for Johnnie Walker blends.
Thus on the basis of sheer quality, and individual reputation, Highland single malts trump Lowland single malts by a country mile.