Arguably the greatest Scottish export to have ever been produced, Scotch whisky has inspired all whisky lovers to take a keen interest into its geography; not for reasons political or geological, but to evaluate and gain a deeper understanding of single malts.
Scotland, the land of pilgrimage for Scotch lovers all over the world, is divided into five different single malt producing regions, namely – The Highlands, The Lowlands, the Speyside, Campbeltown and the Isle of Islay.
True whisky connoisseurs know their single malts like the back of their hands, not being swayed by marketing campaigns or a surge in popularity. Ask any single malt savant on the kind of single malt Scotch they prefer, and they will almost always describe it with the name of a region.
When someone says they are partial to Speyside single malts, or dislike a single malt from a particular region, what do they mean?
How are single malts from a particular region different than ones from another? Let us compare two different single malt producing regions of Scotland, the Speyside and the Highlands, understand how they are different and if one is truly superior to the other.
The Glenlivet Distillery, the first licensed distillery from the Speyside region and producers of one of the world’s bestselling single malt Scotch whiskies.
It was the astonishing number of Speyside distilleries that played a critical role for the region to earn a separate distinction for itself as ‘one of the whisky producing regions of Scotland.’
Situated in the North-East region of Scotland, the Speyside was a part of the Highlands region before it earned an autonomy for itself in 2009 under The Scotch Whisky Regulations. It is now the region with the most number of distilleries across the country with some of the most legendary and highly successful global single malt whiskies being produced in the region.
Nestled within the lush green countryside, abundant with freshwater sources in the form of glens and rivers. One of which is the River Spey from which the region derives its name, the Speyside is known to produce single malts that are desired for all over the world. The water from the River Spey is the common denominator that dictates similar characteristics among Speyside single malts. Fruity, sweet and light are the characteristics most commonly associated with Speyside single malts that are highly praised for their excellent and flavourful drinks.
The oldest continuously functioning distillery in Scotland, the Strathisla, established in 1786 is also located in the Speyside region
The Glenlivet, the first legal distillery from the Speyside was established by George Smith in 1822, followed by many new distilleries being established in the region.
Other major distilleries in the region are Glenfiddich, Glenburgie, Macallan, Balvenie, and Dufftown among many others, all contributing towards the Speyside’s glowing reputation in the world of Scotch whisky making.
The Highlands region as pictured near the Glenmorangie Distillery.
A vast expanse of the country of Scotland is classified as The Highlands region, although the concentration of the number of distilleries in the region is comparatively lower. This has led to a noticeable disparity when it comes to the characteristics of different Highland whiskies.
This is due to the distilleries from The Highlands region being considerably apart from each other unlike the Speyside distilleries which share similar characteristics due to identical weather, natural resources and other conditions involved in whisky making.
Being as vast as it is, the Highlands region is further divided into four different regions, Northern Highlands, Eastern Highlands, Southern Highlands and the Western Highlands. This makes it easier to classify and understand the different flavour profiles of all the diverse Highland single malts.
Some of the most renowned Highland distilleries are Glenmorangie, the Dalmore, the Old Pulteney, Glengoyne, Aberfeldy and the Blair Athol among others.
The Aberfeldy Distillery, one of the Highland’s illustrious distilleries.
While both Glenmorangie and Dalmore are well-known Northern Highland distilleries, the Aberfeldy is a Southern Highland distillery. The Glengoyne and Oban distilleries are located in the Western Highlands, whereas the Royal Lochnagar and Ardmore represent the Eastern Highlands region. Unlike the Speyside, there is not one common uniting factor among the Highland whiskies as they are generously different from one another in many aspects, and from all the other too.
How are Speyside and Highland single malts different?
The chief distinctions between the Speyside and the Highlands region are geographical of course, and although the Speyside was once considered a part of the Highlands region, it always retained its own unique traits.
Speyside single malts have been observed to be much more popular than single malts from other regions of Scotland. The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, the two critically prolific and bestselling single malt Scotch whiskies of the world belonging to the Speyside.
A closer look at The Glenlivet Distillery.
This reflects the Speyside’s commercial superiority over Highland single malts with a fairly voluminous dominion over the loyalties of single malt lovers all over the world.
Although in terms of critical reviews and performances at whisky tasting competitions between Speyside and Highland single malts, the competition is slightly more neck to neck.
Preferences being wildly subjective among whisky drinkers, some prefer the more appealing fruity and sweet Speyside drinks, while some drinkers prefer the nutty, peaty, and full-bodied Highland single malts.
In our opinion, the critical and commercial performances are co-dependent, and considering the sheer domination of Speyside single malts, it edges out the Highlands region in the battle of the whisky making regions of Scotland.