No other country around the world is as devoted to the art of whisky making as Scotland, who have been diligently involved in the craft for centuries even carving up their mainland into five different regions.
These regions are recognized and divided solely on the basis of their whisky, and the characteristics that define them. The Highlands, the Lowlands, the Speyside, Isle of Islay and Campbeltown are the five regions that the Scottish mainland is divided into.
The characteristics of a Scotch whisky are determined by the region they were distilled in, and these characteristics also determine their demand. For example, the Speyside is home to the three largest selling single malt Scotch whiskies of the world, whereas the Islay region is home to the world’s most divisive and strongly flavoured single malts.
Similarly, all single malts, depending on which region they belong to, whether it’s the Highlands, the Lowlands or any other region, are different from each other. Today we discuss the differences between Speyside whisky and Lowlands whisky, and what sets them apart.
The Glenlivet Distillery was the first legal distillery from the Speyside.
The Speyside region of Scotland was granted autonomy as an independent whisky distilling region of Scotland only a few years ago, before which it used to form a part of the much bigger Highlands region.
It is significantly smaller than the Highlands and the Lowlands region although it is now the third largest region of Scotland officially recognized by the government. In terms of the number of distilleries, the Speyside is Scotland’s most prolific region outnumbering all other regions. Speyside whisky dominates single malt sales worldwide to the point that The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich and Macallan make up for nearly 60% of the single malt produced in Scotland. The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich are also the worldwide leaders in terms of bestselling single malt Scotch whisky.
The Speyside is situated in the North-East region of Scottish mainland. Blessed with an abundance of natural resources, this lush green countryside takes its name from the River Spey, which is also the chief source of freshwater for numerous distilleries in the region.
Described as a pleasant and widely appealing drink, Speyside whisky is known to be light, sweet, fruity, and overall rich in flavour which make them an ideal drink for beginners in the world of Scotch whisky. For whisky veterans, the Speyside behemoths are creating some of the finest and unique expressions such as the double cask matured Aberlour single malts, who also produce the small-batch cask strength A’bunadh.
The Aberlour Distillery is located close to the River Spey. Pictured is the Penny Bridge, built over the River Spey by Aberlour founder James Fleming.
The Balvenie which is another excellent single malt, and the Strathisla, established in 1786 is Scotland’s oldest continuously functioning distillery that distils impeccable single malts for the Chivas Brothers’ blends.
A scarecrow stands guard in the fields that produce the grain for the Glenkinchie Distillery.
The second largest, and the most sparsely populated region in terms of distilleries, the Lowlands were once known to be a trailblazing region for whisky distillation. In stark contrast of the Speyside’s rise to prominence in the world of whisky making, the Lowlands have fallen into relative obscurity in recent years.
The Southernmost territory in Scotland, the Lowlands are bordered by the Highlands on the North, and on the South by England with the East and the West covered in coastline. Unlike the Speyside region, the Lowlands are not mountainous, but have highly fertile agricultural lands which assist Lowland distilleries’ production of grain whisky.
Lowland single malts were often termed ‘the Lowland Ladies’ due to their light, unpeated and floral characteristics, and as fortunes took a downward spiral for many Lowland distilleries, many began to exclusively focus on distilling the far less cost-incurring grain whisky. Employed in blended Scotch, grain whisky is preferred for its ability to lend a smoothness, without overpowering the flavourful single malts used in the blend.
The Bladnoch River, chief source of water for the Bladnoch Distillery which is named after the river.
Auchentoshan, Bladnoch, and Glenkinchie are some of the distilleries that are still distilling single malts and are prosperous, with newer distilleries such as Ailsa Bay, the largest malt distillery in the region choosing to supply their whisky for blends instead.
How are the Speyside and Lowland whiskies different?
Distinctions between the Speyside and Lowlands regions are polar, and so is their current stature in the world of whisky-making. While the Speyside is basking in the glory of its success, the Lowland distilleries are awaiting a return to prominence on the backs of some newer distilleries that are under construction.
A major contributor of single malts for Chivas Regal blends, the Strathisla Distillery is a historic Speyside institution.
The Speyside is also geographically more fortunate than the Lowlands which has contributed massively towards the success of the 50 odd distilleries in the region. Not more than 7 distilleries currently remain functional in the Lowlands, reflecting the bleak condition of whisky making in the region.
A fragment of nostalgia from the times when the Lowlands were buzzing with activity in the world of whisky making. Pictured is the Glenkinchie Distillery, now owned by Diageo LLC.
Current fortunes and misfortunes notwithstanding, the Speyside has traditionally always been a far superior whisky producing region, with their mass appealing single malts having contributed immensely to its rise.
The sweet, fruity and creamy single malts from the Speyside are much different from the light, grassy and gentle whiskies of the Lowlands in every manner. Both critically and commercially far more accomplished, Speyside single malts are the clear victors here.