While most countries are divided into smaller states, Scotland is divided on the basis of whisky making regions, such is the crucial role played by the ‘spirit of the Gods’ in the country’s history.
The five officially recognized and protected Scotch whisky making regions of Scotland are the Highlands, the Lowlands, the Speyside, Campbeltown and the Isle of Islay.
Each region is home to some truly divine single malt producing distilleries that retain the characteristics of that particular region, reflecting the essence of the regions resources into the whisky.
Today we discuss the differences between two of Scotland’s smallest regions that are dotted with distilleries - the Speyside and the Isle of Islay, both regions polar opposites of each other and contributors towards making Scotch whisky one of the most popular drinks all over the world.
Are the incredible and strongly flavoured ‘maritime’ whiskies of the Islay much better, or do the light, grassy and fruity whiskies from the luscious Speyside have the upper hand? Lets find out..
Speyside Single Malts
The Glenlivet Distillery, the first licensed distillery from the Speyside region.
One of the newest, and the most densely populated region (by distilleries), the thriving Speyside region of Scotland was once a part of the Highlands. With abundant natural resources, an extremely helpful climate and a history of immensely successful distilleries, the Speyside is home to more than 50 distilleries in the erstwhile small territory.
Situated in the North-East of Scotland, single malts from the Speyside are lighter, and lean more towards sweet and fruity flavours and floral aromas. A lot of Speyside brands dominate the single malt sales all over the world, reinforcing the notion of Speyside whiskies being much more desirable than whiskies from other regions.
A countryside with abundant natural resources, a generous and perennial supply of freshwater from the numerous glens and the River Spey, which was also the inspiration behind the region being named so.
The Speyside is blessed with near perfect conditions for whisky making, and perhaps this was the reason for the region’s thriving illicit distillation operations before the Excise Act was passed allowing whisky to be distilled legally.
The Glenlivet was the first legal distillery in the Speyside when George Smith, creator of ‘the single malt that started it all’, obtained a license to distil whisky.
The Balvenie Distillery, Dufftown
Other brands that followed the path paved by The Glenlivet are Glenfiddich, Macallan, Glenburgie, Balvenie, and Dufftown; some of the few distilleries with an illustrious history in the region. The Speyside is also home to Scotland’s oldest functioning distillery, the Strathisla, built in 1786. It is owned by the Chivas Brothers, and supplies single malts that form the heart of Chivas Regal blends.
Islay Single Malts
The Lagavulin Distillery, one of Islay’s oldest and most successful distilleries.
The Islay region of Scotland is the second smallest, and the perhaps the most unique Scotch whisky producing regions with single malts that are wildly divisive among whisky aficionados throughout the world.
Due to certain and flavour notes traits that are seldom found in single malts from other regions, Islay whisky makers have banked on this unique identity to carve a niche for their drinks.
Owing to their proximity to the sea, Islay whisky is known to be a vastly different drink as compared to other single malts from across Scotland. This particular ‘flavour’ to Islay whiskies is often termed as ‘medicinal’ due to a salty, iodine-like character. It has been a divisive factor among whisky lovers for generations and continues to be so.
Another chief distinctive factor is the smoky flavour of the Islay single malts which can be attributed to the use of the highest quality peat, something Islay is renowned for. The water supply for the Islay based distilleries has also been said to contribute to their novelty.
An aerial shot of the Laphraoig distillery, historic rivals of the Lagavulin brand, and one of Islay’s most successful distilleries.
Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Bowmore, and Bunnahabhain are the most popular Islay whisky distillers on the island that is home to nine distilleries, the ninth and newest one opening its doors in 2019.
How are Speyside and Islay single malts different from each other?
The stark contrasts between the two regions, geographically and geologically, are some of the major causes of their individual qualities and distinctions between each other. These distinctions make the Speyside Vs Islay discussion just as interesting as it is tough to pick a clear winner.
While the Speyside single malts are seen as widely more successful and appealing both for seasoned whisky drinkers and beginners. Whereas Islay whisky, although immensely flavourful, and of the highest quality, has not found the similar success overseas due to their intensely smoky, and medicinal single malts.
Cutting Peat – the substance that imparts the heavy smoky character to the Islay whiskies. This is a picture of a Laphroaig employee cutting peat by hand, a tradition the company preserves to this day.
Of course this does not necessarily mean either of the regions produce Scotch that is inferior to the other, or is, for the lack of a more suitable word, better than each other. Commercially, Speyside whisky is more lucrative due to its viability as a mass-market product. On the other hand, Islay whiskies enjoy a fervent loyalty from their drinkers who vouch for their favourite drink.
Although when it comes to the Speyside Vs Islay debate, the critical and commercial success of the Speyside whisky brands would tilt the balance in their favour.
The Speyside is home to few of the world’s bestselling single malt Scotch whiskies, The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Macallan and Balvenie whereas Islay brands such Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardmore are not too far behind themselves.