Scotland is home to more than 100 distilleries producing whisky that ranges in flavour from oily and peppery to delicate and floral. They are all made using the same underlying processes of fermentation, distillation and maturation. So how can they taste so different? Where they are made is a big clue. Like fine wines, whiskies vary according to region.
We think it’s the most beautiful part of Scotland. It’s certainly the most conducive to producing whisky. Our founder, George Smith, was the first licensed distiller to make whisky in Speyside in 1824, and now more than half of Scotland’s distilleries are based here. And who wouldn’t want to be? Speyside is all rolling hills and pine forest, with distilleries clustering loosely along the salmon-rich, crystal-clear waters of the River Spey.
Whiskies here tend to be rich, fruity and floral, but there are some that are light, sweet and youthful, and others that are well sherried and thick.
Over the decades, single malts at The Glenlivet and most other Speyside whiskies have slowly evolved from being more robust and peaty to being sweeter and lighter. That’s how all our tastes have changed.
Scotland’s biggest region, stretching from the north-west of Glasgow up to the northern islands, features towering peaks, gentle glens, lochs and coastal scenery. The large number of distilleries here produce a variety of styles, but overall the whiskies tend to be more robust, spicy and intense than Speyside varieties.
The big flavours in Highland whiskies are a matter of tradition. Distilleries in other parts of Scotland, notably the Lowlands region, had access to plenty of barley and so developed big, tall stills that could produce large volumes of spirit. But in the Highlands, barley was scarce so distilleries here only had need for smaller stills. Smaller stills allow oilier, heavier alcohols to move into the neck of the still and condense. These make the resulting whisky richer and more obviously flavoured.
Whiskies from areas within the Highlands region share further characteristics. Northern Highland whiskies are often full, rich and cereal sweet, while those from the south are usually slightly lighter, more dry and fruity. Eastern Highland whiskies are full, dry and very fruity, while the full and pungent whiskies from the west tend to be reminiscent of Islay varieties with their peat and smoke. A diverse bunch, indeed.
Unlike in Speyside, there are only a few distilleries still working in the Scottish Lowlands region. Known more for its farming, the land here is wide and fertile, with vast fields ideal for cultivation bordered by low hills and patches of trees.
Most Scottish distilleries, including The Glenlivet, double distil their whiskies. But in the Lowlands, whisky is traditionally triple distilled. This makes Lowland whiskies close in style to Irish whiskeys. The tall stills and lack of peat make for a lighter, more floral spirit. As they are usually quite mellow, they make a good aperitif.
Say the word “Islay” to most whisky aficionados and you’ll hear “peat” in response. This small island in the Inner Hebrides is flat and consists mainly of peat, which the distilleries use as fuel for malting barley. This adds a strong smoky, peaty flavour to the whisky, very different from most Speyside whiskies. The island is also lashed by sea winds and rain and this has an impact on its whisky, too, in salty, seaweedy flavours. Islay whiskies are known for being the strongest flavoured of all Scotch whiskies. It’s good to remember, though, that only half of the distilleries on Islay make peated whisky. Indeed many of the locals drink unpeated or very lightly peated whisky. In the north of the island you’ll find plenty of fruit and refinement – in the whisky and the locals.
A scant few distilleries still operate in Campbeltown, which lies near the end of the Mull of Kintyre peninsula on the west coast. The whiskies here are very distinctive from Speyside and other regional Scotches.
The whiskies are full-bodied, with a depth of flavour and a slightly salty finish from the sea air making its way through the casks. The lack of trees on the Mull of Kintyre means they rely on peat, so smoky, vegetal flavours are also conspicuous.
Even with all these varieties across Scotland, there’s still only one place you can find the one that started it all: Glenlivet, Speyside. Home of The Glenlivet.