highland whisky

The Scottish Highlands; home to a rich culture and history, spectacular landscapes and this region is inextricably linked to whisky! Today, the Highlands are the least populated area in Western-Europa and only 5% of the total Scottish population live in the Highlands.

The excise duties on spirits from 1787 imposed various tax laws in the Highlands and in the Lowlands of Scotland. In the north, distillers were taxed according to their production volume (as is still the case today), while the Lowland distillers were taxed according to the size of their stills. For the lowlanders it was all about quantity, but in the Highlands the stills worked a lot slower; the result was a fruity whiskey of better quality. The only problem was that Highland whiskeys weren’t allowed to be sold under the Highland Line.

Since there are so many styles of whiskies being produced in the Highlands, I’ve divided the region in North Highlands, Central Highlands and West and East Highland in order to give you an insight in every region’s specific whisky style.

North Highlands

The North Highlands is home to some of the remotest mainland distilleries in Britain. They are often fulsome malt, rich in personality with a distinctive coastal infusion. Many have become popular with enthusiasts recently, particularly Clynelish, with its elegant waxy character and its peaty predecessor, Brora, beloved of all collectors. Furthermore, whisky produced by Clynelish Distillery is a base spirit for the blend Johnnie Walker Gold Label.

Balblair and Old Pulteny are well-balanced, fruit-driven whiskies with high coastal freshness, the latter slightly salty. The region’s two most famous names are Dalmore, full-bodied and muscular, and Glenmorangie, one of the UK’s best-selling malts, which is produced in the tallest stills in Scotland. The Singleton of Glen Old is the bestseller in Taiwan, the world’s leading malt-whisky market, and is, like Clynelish, waxy and floral. The lesser known Teaninich and Tomatin, both large-scale distilleries designed to create consistent product for blending, produce typically robust Highland-style malts. In recent years modernizations in equipment, ingredients and methodology have led to a slight taming of this ‘Highland’ character, although many of these northern distilleries remain distinctive and individualistic.

Central Highlands

The central Highland distilleries occupy regional tract of mainly mountainous country between Stirling and Royal Deeside. Of all the Highland-sub-regions, this disparate group of distilleries best reveals the ‘modern’ interpretation of the Highland character: medium- to full-bodied malts, often fruity, with sweet-malty notes, sometimes lightly waxy, generally sturdy.

With an abundance of local peat and pure water and ease of access to the barley grown on the east coast, many of the Central Highlands distilleries lie along well-worn tourist routes into the romantic mountains and glens of the Trossachs (made popular by Sir Walter Scott), or stretch vertebrae-like, close to the A9, the main road to Inverness and the north. As a result, they are among the most-visited distilleries in Scotland.

Best known of his novels, poems and plays, Sir Walter Scott, was also a whisky aficionado who kept ‘plenty of right good and young‘ Highland whiskies in his cellars.

Portrait of Sir Walter Scott
Portrait of Sir Walter Scott.

West & East Highlands

In whisky terms, the East Highlands is defined by a handful of distilleries with some of the true greats of Scottish distilling. All varying in style but often robust, occasionally exuberantly fruity of gently peated. Sadly, some of the East Highlands’ great distilleries are long closed. Fine malts including mustardy and waxy Banff and fruity Glenuige are old-style examples that failed to survive during 1980s. Only Ardmore remains as an example of the older, often peaty, style.

The West Highland region is the warmest and wettest regions and the maritime influence on its whiskies is abundantly apparent. The West Highland whisky production suffered due to the isolation and location of its distilleries. As production became dictated by road and rail throughout the last century, distilleries that relied most on seaports felt the strain of increasing expenses. Two World Wars, America’s Great Depression and Prohibition cost the region its main market and isolation from inland transport routes caused most distilleries, especially those in Campbeltown, to close.

The first indication of distillation in Campbeltown goes back to 1591, not surprising given the close proximity of Islay. Campbeltown’s Glebe Street was around 1885, the richest street in the United Kingdom and the town was a very popular destination for the rich. At that time, 850 tonnes of barley were supplied every week, which is more than what Glenfiddich needs for a weeks production today. At least 34 legal distilleries opened their doors in Campbeltown between 1815 and 1879, by 1934 they were all closed, except for 3. Springbank, founded in 1828, is one of these three remaining distilleries in Campbeltown. The other distilleries are Glengyle and Glen Scotia.

The region remains associated with an older style of whisky in which the predominant flavors are coastal influences, waxiness, fruitiness and light smokiness.

Springbank Distillery, Campbeltown



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