Single malt scotch whisky is arguably the most famous style of whisky in the world. Within Scotland, different regions of the county are known for their own styles. This is a brief explanation of what single malt is and an overview of the regional styles and famous producers of each region in Scotland.
Made from barley, yeast and water, distilled in a pot still, and the product of just one distillery, these are the whiskies that made Scotland famous. The process for making single malt scotch is deceptively simple. Take barley and soak it for a few days to start its germination (changing the carbohydrates to the sugars needed for distillation), halt the germination in a kiln (usually involving some peat smoke which gives single malt scotches their distinctive smokiness), mill it into grist (a coarse grind), add hot water and yeast and allow to ferment. After fermentation, the spirit is distilled once to about 20-40% abv, and then run through a second still which results in a spirit of 60-70% abv (some producers distill a third time). Then, age it in oak casks (used American bourbon barrels and Spanish sherry butts are the favored woods) for a minimum of three years and you have the right to call it a single malt scotch.
Why then is there all the variation in flavors and styles of single malt scotches? The French have a term, terroir, that translates loosely as a “sense of place,” and in the world of single malt scotch, each region has a unique sense of place which contributes greatly to the flavor and style of the regions malts. Combine differences in stills, water, weather and peating and no two single malts taste the same; even close neighbors have significant differences.
Regions of Scotland
There are five (some argue six) regions of Scotland for the purposes of single malts.
Lowland whiskies are generally regarded as the most light bodied of the Single Malts. Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie are two examples.
Islay whiskies are generally described heavily peated, oily and even iodine-like and medicinal. Islay is an island off the coast of Scotland proper, and a number of marine characteristics can carry into the whiskies produced here. Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavullin are all Islay whiskies.
The Islands comprise all of the whisky producing islands in Scotland minus Islay, and are generally considered part of the Highland district. However, with unique offerings from Talisker, Jura and Arran, some argue that it deserves consideration as its own region.
Campbeltown is home to Springbank, makers of Springbank, Hazelburn and Longrow and Glen Scotia. Springbank is the iconic Campbeltown whisky, usually found at 10 years of age although other bottlings exist.