“I love scotch. Scotch, scotch, scotch. Here it goes down, down into my belly. Mhm, mhm, mhm.” Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) so eloquently puts it. If you’re a avid scotch drinker then you share Mr. Burgundy’s ode to scotch and I am quite sure you’ve said it yourself. It does feel good to drink. It’s a mustache growing, chest hair making, and deep voice creating glass of awesomeness. Scotch is one that many say they like to enjoy but few can really handle. When I say few can really handle it, I mean few can actually understand, truly appreciate, and enjoy the uniqueness that is Scotland’s drinking water (not really). As pretentious as that sounds there is some truth to that. If the Scotts knew you were adding coke, soda water or anything other than a single drop of water to their fine creations they’d send Ron Swanson over to smash a canoe over your head. For those of you that know Ron Swanson you’d know that after smashing the canoe over thine noggin he’d then pour you a glass of Lagavulin and show you how to enjoy it, properly. It doesn’t take a genius to decipher that Scotch comes from Scotland and for those just now realizing this, surprise! Scotch whisky is to Scotland is like wine is to France, it has been made by master distillers the same way for generations upon generations; and man do they know what they are doing. Unlike American, Canadian and other whiskys around the world that can use multiple different grains to make different styles of whisky, scotch is limited to only barley. Scotch has made for some legends of whisky, master distillers that provide some of the best craftsmanship in the world. I have never had the privilege to walk in and tour one of the cellars of these legendary distilleries such as Macallan, Lagavulin, Glenfiddich or Glenmorangie. And these four distilleries are just a fraction of a fraction of hundreds of different distilleries throughout Scotland, each of which provides a unique perspective, experience, and story into their scotch.
In its earliest years, Scotch was called usige beatha or “water of life” according to the Scotch Whisky Association, which is understandable because nothing makes you feel more alive than feeling the burn of good scotch going down your throat. Scotch, and whisky in general, was pioneered by Monks who used their knowledge and skills of distilling to create elixirs and spirits, such as scotch, for medicinal uses. In this case the medicinal use was to stimulate the growth of chest hair, hence the phrase “that’ll put some hair on your chest”… Joking, but only slightly. But seriously, that would be hilarious though, right? If that was the case, every adolescent boy would be sucking down scotch like they do with their mixed fruity cocktails or beers if they were anything like me as a teen. Scotch will not actually put hair on your chest, but it will give you the ability to breath fire, so drink it for that.
Anyway, as I have so ingeniously expressed earlier, scotch comes from Scotland, but more specifically it comes from five major regions in Scotland. These five regions that produce this lovely brown life water are: The Highlands, The Lowlands, Speyside, Islay, and Campbeltown. It actually used to be only four regions, but recently Speyside has been home to an ever-growing population of distilleries and global popularity; so the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) saw fit to grant them recognition of the region of Scotch producers. Each one of these regions produces a unique style of scotch. That being said, the uniqueness really comes down to the distilling skill and ability of the individual masters of each distillery, but that’s another story.
Firstly, let’s talk about the largest region of Scotch-land, The Highlands, it takes up nearly the entire northern region of Scotland and has a few sub-regions within it the largest one being The Islands. The Highlands area produces some of the most recognized scotches out there. Even if you have only had scotch once, chances are it came from the Highlands. Popular producers of the Highlands are Glenmorangie, Oban, Highland Park, Talisker and Macallan. However, Macallan has a unique story about where it’s from, we’ll get into that later. These distillers all produce different and yet amazing products, but the common word that binds them together is caramel. Why caramel? Well for me that’s one of my favorite stand-out tasters I get from Highland Scotches, you can also get notes of vanilla, oak, and some nutmeg.
The Lowlands is actually the second largest regions of Scotland and it is home to just a few distilleries, ironically enough. Some of these distilleries are Ailsa Bay, Bladnoch, Daftmill, Annandale, Auchentoshan, Kingsbarns, Glenkinchie, and Glasgow. Daftmill, Kingsbarns, and Glasgow are the newest to the Lowland area, distributing their first year releases only within the last few years. These scotches find themselves on the softer end of the scotch scale. They are more on the dry side and are lacking in peat (low in the smokiness department) and are commonly referred to as “the Lowland Ladies” because of their softer texture. They are typically known to be triple-distilled which will naturally soften the bite and enhance the caramel and vanilla notes.
Speyside is the third largest and the youngest of the Scotch regions and one of my favorites. With producers like The Macallan, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Balvenie, and many, many more. For being just the third largest region it houses the largest number of distilleries. Once considered part of the Highland region, some of the scotches that are produced in Speyside still hold on to being a scotch of the Highlands, the most famous of these is The Macallan. The Macallan has “Highland Single Malt Scotch Whiskey” in large print on all of their bottles despite being produced in the Speyside region of Scotch-land. Macallan finds itself in a historical bubble where it’s allowed to be still considered a Highland scotch because it used to be a part of that region, despite it technically being in Speyside. These scotches are very reminiscent of Highland scotches when it comes to taste and profile being that area once used to be apart of the Highlands. Notable caramel notes with hints of vanilla and nutmeg with a mild peatiness.
Islay and Campbeltown are both arguably about the same size but produce very different styles of Scotch. Campbeltown used to be one of the major producers of scotch in Scotland, it used to have over 28 distilleries but recently is now just down to a lonely three: Glen Scotia, Glengyle and Springbank. Campbeltown makes a variety of different styles of scotch that range from soft to heavy peat. They tend to be more peaty than those of Speyside and Lowlands, but some can be very similar in profile to those of the Highlands.
Now my absolute favorite region of Scotland, the Isle of Islay (pronounced EYE – la). It’s an island that sits just west of Scotland and houses Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg and five other distilleries. Why is this one of my favorites? Because of the uniqueness of the scotches it produces. It is home to the peatiest scotches in the world, well in all of Scotland technically speaking. You want scotch that may actually grow hair on your chest or give you fire breath? Islay scotches may be your best bet. Peat is the main characteristic of these scotches, which causes the smokey taste and aroma that is unique to scotch. Peat is a moss-like substance they use to dry the malted barley by burning it for up to 30 hours. To give you an idea of how peaty Islay makes their scotchs, Highland scotches contain an average of 30 ppm of phenol, where as some Islay scotches, such as Octomore, stretch over 100 ppm producing the world’s peatiest scotch. Being an island plays a big part in adding unique flavors such as seaweed, salt and hints of iodine into the scotches. This is because of the naturally oceanic air that surrounds the island.
The cool and yet scary part about scotch is that the information above barely begins to scratch the surface of all that is scotch. It’s dauntingly fantastic stuff. Scotch is something to truly be appreciated, especially with all the artistry and mastery that goes into it. And now my mouth is watering just thinking about it. Now, I’m off to grow some chest hair! Cheers!