Scotch Whisky Regions? Really?!

by Curt

The whisky regions of Scotland. A subject bound to raise the hackles of whisky geeks. For those less inclined to delve down into the real nitty gritty of the whisky world, the regions become a simple way to target what they think will be the bottles that suit their palate. Unfortunately, the producers are not so inclined to cooperate. And there’s a good reason why. But let’s save that that for the end of this rambling little monologue, what say? Read on, folks…

This tasting was focused on an issue that is kinda ‘near and dear’ to my heart: the value of regions in defining flavour profiles. On its surface, the concept seems rather ludicrous. It wasn’t always this way, however. There was a time when those regional boundaries (both real and imagined) literally did define some sort of loose-fitting flavour camps. The question for tonight was whether or not our attendees found value in these designations. And whether or not they would at the end of our time together. But let’s come back to that in a moment. (Yes, I’m teasing a bit here. Bear with me.)

Single malt lovers are a rather singular breed. Their passion knows no bounds. And when they fall in love, they fall in love for keeps. Most people find it all begins something like the big bang theory. The great cosmic event, that is, not the TV show. There’s one defining eureka! moment and suddenly an ever-expanding universe of wonder awaits. It grows continually and when you get deep enough into it, you realize that there’s almost an element of time travel involved. Worm holes anyone? Bending the space-time continuum? Suddenly, contemporary malts won’t cut it. Nor will the prospect of upcoming releases. That becomes the point where we start digging into the past. Historic bottlings, closed distilleries, long lost histories. Come to think of it, maybe it’s more of a black hole than a worm hole. Once it takes hold and pulls you past the event horizon, there is simply no going back.

But before you ever reach that place, there’s a journey of discovery. It begins with trial and error. And internet searches. And books. And chats with your friendly neighbours at Kensington Wine Market. Those early days of discovery are magic: finding the glassware that works best, the distilleries we love most, the expressions that live up to (or exceed) all the hype they generate, and the regions that birth the whiskies we so adore.

It’s this latter that becomes so contentious the further you go on this journey. On its surface, it’s a relatively simple concept. Each region produces malts of a certain style. And historically, there was a precedent that supported this too. The idea was largely conceived and reinforced by early blenders. They knew what sort of component malts they needed to marry together in order to build the taste profiles they strove for. And as with most of us, compartmentalizing their commodities into easily categorized entities helped them streamline the process. The Lowlands produced malts that were typically triple distilled and light in terms of body and flavour. The Highlands produced whiskies that were believed to be more robust, occasionally lightly smoky and often rich in berry and apple notes. Islay malts were all peat and smoke. Campbeltown? Oily and earthy. And Speyside? Well…here were your lighter, floral and fruity drams, rich in orchard fruit and berries. But times have changed, mates.

For this tasting, we built a flight of single malts that served to decimate the idea of regional flavour divisions. You could make a case that the regions we recognize still have value – and I did to a degree – but as to the value being relative to flavour camps? Bah!

Everything was poured blindly. Well, not poured blindly (that would just make a mess), but tasted blindly. I shared some personal thoughts on the regions, some notes on what the perceived styles should be from each (admittedly very generalized), and a bit of history for insight and context. All the while, the lads and lasses nosed and sipped their drams, making up their own minds as to what they thought they might be drinking.
Then we unmasked the malts one at a time, letting everyone take their best guess at what we were drinking, based on the parameters we’d discussed. They did well. Very well. If it had been a straight game, that is. But I was bottom-dealing and intentionally trying to shake things up, remember?

I can’t lie…there was hardly a correct answer in the house all night.

But that was the point. This line-up was meant to skew all preconceptions and get the room talking. We drank unpeated Islay malts, heavily peated Highland drams, triple-distilled Speysiders, Oily and spicy Lowlanders, and light and delicate Campbeltown whiskies. I promise…it wasn’t a sadistic thing. It really was meant to show that these preconceived notions simply don’t’ work anymore. The brands are slowly blurring those boundaries. They have to. It’s for the long-term security of the drink we all love.
On to the whiskies…

First up: Bruichladdich Classic Laddie. A young unpeated Islay malt, built on a variety of cask types and averaging about 9 years of age. This one is all cereal, clean lactic notes, a faint fruitiness and maybe, just maybe a hint of peat (likely only from barrel influence, not actually peated malt). There were a lot of appreciative nods for this one.

Next: Port Askaig 15 y.o. Port Askaig is not a distillery. It’s a coastal port village on the east coast of Islay where the ferries put in. Owned by Elixir Distillers, the Port Askaig brand is used for single malts sourced from one of two local Islay distilleries. In the case of this 15 year old, it is a heavily sherried Bunnahabhain. Deep fruit leather notes meet just a faint whiff of smoke, all integrated through melted chocolate and some soft nutty tones. Lovely dram with broad appeal, and far from what most people expect when you say ‘Islay whisky’.

Our third dram? Auchentoshan Bartenders Malt. Not your grandmother’s Auchentoshan. This one, while still triple distilled, is a hearty and huge spice bomb. It was built to stand up to other ingredients in the bartenders’ arsenal, and it definitely has the backbone to do so. According to the brand themselves, the Bartenders Malt was composed of malts spanning five decades. Errr…if you say so. Takes pretty young to me. And last I checked, the brands were not dumping 50 year old whisky into $70 bottles. Moving on…

Benromach Triple Distilled was our fourth of the night. A neat one from Speyside’s throwback distillery. Benromach’s mission statement since their acquisition by Gordon & MacPhail has been to produce a single malt that hearkens back to what they feel is a fair representation of 1950s style Speyside whisky. I’ve only had a couple Speysiders from that bygone era, but I’d say G&M have succeeded with most expressions so far. Definitely in the vein, anyway. This one is a bit of an outlier though. Its gentle fruit blend lifted this one to the top of the heap tonight. Our clear winner as number one favorite.

Hazelburn 10 y.o. was next. Springbank’s ‘unpeated’ and triple distilled darling. The distillery has a capacity to knock out three quarters of a million litres of pure spirit a year, but instead stick to an anemic distilling regime that ensures quality time and time again. In fact, 2018 saw production levels held below 200,000 litres. Hazelburnm being one of three malts produced at the distillery, constitutes only about 10% of that. Light and pretty, yet still oily and traditional. A lovely dram, this, and one of the top two of the night.
Berry Bros Ardmore 8 y.o. KWM Cask: A cool opportunity to showcase one of our bespoke store bottlings. This young and sprightly Ardmore is a winner in every sense. Price, flavour, presentation. Its earthy, leathery peat tones run quite contrary to what most of the mainland is producing at the moment. We’ve been lucky enough to have loads of neat indie Ardmore expressions come into the shop over the last year or two, but this one is a stand-out. And I honestly can’t recall seeing a malt of this calibre (and scorching strength!) come in at a price point like this in a long, long time.

Edradour Ballechin Cuvee 8 y.o. was our seventh dram of the eve. This one is a staff favorite at KWM. Its old school charm (right into Springbank territory!) sets it apart as a bit of a dinosaur compared to the streamlined nature of many contemporary malts. Smoky and rich, deep and enticing.

And finally…Jura Prophecy: our heavyweight for the night. The isle of Jura, famed for being the haunt where Orwell wrote his dystopian masterpiece 1984, sits just off the coast of Islay. You’d have to expect the terroir to be similar, right? Maybe. Either way, this one is classified as a Highland whisky. Oily and buttery, with a thick thread of caramel running through the peat and smoke. There is also a slight medicinal edge here that is only partially tempered by the fruity notes. Big whisky this, and had some fans in the room.

So, let’s circle back to the beginning. Why are the producers blurring those lines? Simple. Because they’ve wised up. The industry has fallen victim to some pretty horrendous boom and bust cycles. Some distilleries have been lost forever simply because they produced a malt that was unfashionable at the time, or was surplus to blending requirements. But…if your distillery has barrels in the warehouse that house peated and unpeated malt…bourbon cask matured and sherry cask matured…light and heavy spirit…gentle and bombastic spirit…well, then…you’ve hedged your bets rather well, haven’t you? Next time you’re looking for a smoke bomb, maybe check out some mainland options. And if you’re one of those folks who are gun shy of the big smoke monsters from Islay, take a shot at some Laddie or Bunna. Come talk to us in the shop. We’ll find you something that suits. And probably not at all what you came looking for.

I can’t lie. I’m pretty proud of this tasting. It was a bit cheeky, of course, but then again, most events I host are. More importantly, however, it was constructed to elicit conversation and hopefully open some minds to what is out there when we’re willing to step a little further outside of our comfort zone. The malts we tried were all ones that I stand behind, and the reception to each was great. There was a load of positivity coming from those in attendance, and the ultimate gauge? Hey…we’re a store. Sales are king. And we sold loads of these releases tonight.

Thanks to all who came out and listened to me ramble for an hour or two. I had a blast with this one.

Now…what sort of preconceptions can we shatter next time? Hmmmm.

- Curt

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