To mark the return of our Scotch whisky regions campaign we asked you what burning questions you had and you didn’t disappoint. A host of responses have come in and we’re going to do our best to answer them below.

We also have a brand new guide section on the Scotch whisky regions (that’s Speyside, Islay, Campbeltown, the Highlands, and the Lowlands) which should answer any other questions you may have. Don’t forget you can win a trip to one of the regions by entering our latest competition, details of which are here.

Now let’s get stuck into some questions!

What do you want to learn about the Scotch Whisky Regions? Your questions answered.

Scotch whisky regions

Why do we have Scotch whisky regions?

“Why were the regions created in the first place and when was that?”

In our guides section you’ll find a short history of the Scotch whisky regions which answers this question more comprehensively, but here’s the CliffNotes.

The first regional division came from the Wash Act 1784, a body of legislation which taxed distilleries but established a ‘Highland line’ which created the Highlands and the Lowlands. The two had distinct production methods, with small-scale and often illicit distilleries in the Highlands distilling malted barley in pot stills, while the Lowlands was defined by big legitimate producers creating whisky from a mix of grains, notably malted barley, unmalted barley, and wheat, eventually using continuous stills. 

Into the 19th century, the industry moved to flavour blends of malt and grain whisky and as it boomed blenders began to categorise the whiskies they imported not by distillery as much as by region and quality. Broad terms became shorthands for flavour groupings, so Islay = smoky, Campbeltown = oily and robust, for example. With the expansion of the Great North railway in the late 19th century, and the soaring reputation of the Glenlivet distillery, came a wealth of distilleries by the Spey which increasingly was categorised by another region: Speyside. 

In 1909 came the first real formalisation thanks to the report of the Royal Commission on Whiskey (sic) and Other Potable Spirits, a survey of Scottish and Irish distilleries that listed the Highlands, Lowlands, Islay, Campbeltown, and Speyside as distinct regions. As single malts became more of a fixture towards the end of the 20th century, understanding them by region became a useful way for consumers to approach whisky.

Then in 2009, The Scotch Whisky Regulations moved to underline Scotch whisky’s European Union geographical indication (GI) and protect its identity and reputation worldwide by creating a firm legal framework that defined the big five regions we know today. 

Win a trip to Bunnahabhain Feis Ile 2024

Bunnahabhain is on Islay, but doesn’t make peated whisky

“Why do they have different flavours? Is it the water? The grains?”

This might be a tad confusing, but the Scotch whisky regions don’t reveal any certainties about flavour. Every distillery has its own unique character. While there are generalisations we can make, there are always exceptions to the rule.

Take Islay. Typically whisky here is smoky because peat is used to dry the barley in the kilning process. But Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich both make unpeated whisky. So there’s no one singular Islay flavour, even though the region’s geography and culture have led to a general theme. The Scotch whisky regulations do not subject the distilleries to any region-specific laws, distilleries are free to make the whisky they want as long as they follow the wider basic rules that protect Scotch. 

There was a time when regions revealed more about the flavour of a whisky. The geography and climate of a region would influence the ingredients available for whisky production, such as the quality of water, the type of peat used in the malting process, and what strains of barley were grown locally. The climate can also affect maturation. In the early days of whisky production, writers and producers would often talk about water, air quality, peat, and barley as being the cornerstones of whisky production. 

But today we credit factors like age, cask type, grain, distillery character, fermentation approach, production process (still shape, worm tub vs. shell and tube condensers etc.), and bottling specifics (ABV, filtration…) more. The provenance of a Scotch whisky region isn’t as meaningful as it once was. Scotch whisky regions are, at best, an indicator of flavour. How a whisky is made, not where it’s made has a greater impact on flavour than provenance in your average whisky. 

Terroir in whisky, Waterford Distillery

Terroir is a big topic in modern whisky

“If we assume the current geographical classification is valid, would this mean that terroir is a determinant factor in whisky making? This means all elements from barley to bottle are respected. Then we’d be more inclined to a French wine appellation rather than a new world wine. Let the experts show us the way…”

Terroir is an interesting area of debate in whisky in general and one that goes beyond the Scotch whisky regions. Some, like Andrew Jefford, express scepticism that whisky can have terroir in the same way as wine. But increasingly the argument is moving towards an acceptance that it exists, with the likes of Mark Reynier (formerly of Bruichladdich and now the owner of Waterford Distillery in Ireland) aiming to prove that. Waterford even funded a peer-reviewed paper into terroir in whisky

Mark Reynier defines terroir as: “the 3D connection between bedrock, subsoil, soil, microclimate, topography, elevation, orientation to the sun, drainage”.  We have attended tastings where he attests to the nuances found in new make spirit Waterford is making, with sandy soil producing more fruity flavours, clay soil more malty, and limestone-influenced soil bringing more spice. Gas chromatography analysis backs up sensory experimentation too, we’re told.

More research will follow to help us understand to what extent whisky displays terroir. As far as a whole Scotch whisky region displaying terroir, that is another matter. As we’ve outlined already, they were originally formed more as political boundaries rather than as markers of provenance, and there are distilleries in each region that don’t reflect the more general style made in that area. 

Islay peat may exhibit a regional character, but then not every Islay whisky is made with peat from Islay. Most barley in whisky is bought on the open market from mass producers who malt and peat to spec. It doesn’t necessarily have to come from Scotland or even Britain. There’s also a great deal of scepticism over location. Some distilleries say their island location gives their whisky a coastal, maritime flavour, but the whiskies are matured in a centralised warehouse on the mainland. 

Whisky makers that prioritise provenance are out there, however. Just recently we attended a Bruichladdich tasting of a whisky made with Islay-grown barley. And there is definitely something about where a whisky is made that has an impact. You’ll talk to some Scotch whisky producers who will tell you that if you kept everything else the same but moved the distillery’s location a mile down the road, the whisky would be different. And they can’t really explain why. 

Take it from Dave Broom, or rather from an excerpt of his World Atlas of Whisky (2010):

“The more you talk to distillers and ask them how their character is created, the more they talk about fermentation times and reflux and oxidation and still shapes and copper conversion… and then they shrug and say “to be honest, we don’t know”. In other words, there is something that happens at each distillery which helps to set it apart… while you can set up a still to make grassy fruity or peaty whisky, you can never dictate the specific flavours the distillery will produce. That’s akin to the type of terroir you encounter in Burgundy….” 

He adds this: “The one element of terroir which is always overlooked is the human element. There is a cultural terroir at work here – the sounding distiller’s approach by dictated by their own personal preferences, by the smells they inhale every day, by their use (consciously or unconsciously) or elements within their landscape. These whiskies taste this way because of the people who first crafted them”. 

Overall, though, it’s fair to say that a whisky that displays terroir and provenance will do so more because of the choices made by the individual producer, rather than being determined by the Scotch whisky region it belongs to. 

Scotch whisky regions

Do we need the Scotch whisky regions to classify these whiskies?

“I want to know when we’ll be able to abandon this outdated system and go forward to a more modern approach to classifying whisky flavours.”

Another really interesting and important question. Using flavour or production process as a means to classify whisky has been mooted before and not without merit. After all, what good is it to teach someone that Speyside whiskies are light and fruity only for them to stumble onto the muscular, meaty whisky of Mortlach and become confused? 

For one, the reason why the categorisation of Scotch whisky by region was reaffirmed by the Scotch Whisky Association was part of a wider establishment of a regulatory framework which aims to protect the integrity and reputation of Scotch whisky on a global scale. People do love to criticise the SWA for not being forward-thinking enough when it comes to things like the cask types whisky can be aged in. But you’d have to say, for the most part, its approach has worked. It’s tempting to tear down the walls built around Scotch, but that can be a slippery slope. 

We also have to consider that while moving beyond regional provenance is not an issue for us big whisky fans, if you’re new to whisky, that isn’t quite so easy. The world of whisky has never been this broad and diverse. There is whisky being made in Taiwan, New Zealand, Scandinavia… That’s before you even get to Scotland and its circa 150 distilleries. Most of them bottle their whiskies with absolutely zero indication as to what style or flavour it is on the label. Just a distillery name and a region. 

To a new whisky lover, that many distilleries would be overwhelming. However, the regional map provides a framework and digestible tool to navigate. The history of regions being communicated to consumers was a vitally important one in helping people understand that not all whiskies are made the same, with whisky writers like Michael Jackson, R.J.S McDowall, and Philip Morrice all defining them in some of the most formative examples of whisky books written as demand for single malts increased in the late ’80s and 1990s. The regions are still so much a part of the Scotch whisky world that new whisky lovers need to understand what they are before they can consider the limitations. 

They also are useful for those who don’t care about whisky. Why would we care about them? Well, because a) everyone loves whisky, they just haven’t found the right one yet, let’s not scare them off and b) they may well buy whisky as a present for a loved one and that’s a pretty big part of our industry. If somebody’s wife hates smoky whisky, they probably don’t want to hear what makes Bunnahabhain a fascinating outlier. They just want to know what to avoid and where to look next. She likes sherry bombs? Try Speyside. 

Flavour is the ultimate key to understanding whisky in many ways, but it is flawed because it’s inherently subjective. Regionality, flavour, production process… The key to navigating whisky is the same as it is for any subject: the more you know, the better. Understanding the Scotch whisky regions means knowing their limitations, but we’re probably not ready as an industry to throw them away just yet. Why close a door when we can simply open another?

Torabhaig Allt Gleann

Torabhaig Distillery, on the beautiful island of Skye

“In general I want to know what and where more Highlands distilleries are. It’s quite a large region and I feel it’s underrepresented in my collection.”

So the Highlands is the biggest Scotch whisky region by area and it is vast. It’s not easy to get your head around. Our guide to the Highlands here will help you understand why, but in this article let’s focus on bolstering that collection of yours.

First, we have a whole page full of Scotch whisky from the Highlands and the Islands. Everything you see on those pages falls under the designation Highlands outlined by the Scotch Whisky Association. In terms of exploring the region, there are two ways we can do this: by geography, and by flavour. We’ve done the former with our website, grouping distilleries on islands like Syke, Arran, Mull, Orkney, and more together because the region is so huge, this allows us to break it down and make it more digestible. 

Step one then is this: traverse the islands. Ever had the delicious nectar that Arran produces? Did you know that Talisker is no longer alone on Skye but is joined by Torabhaig? You know Highland Park, but what about Orkney’s Scapa Distillery? Your Highlands collection will become more delicious and diverse with a little island influence.

Step two: group by flavour. The Highlands has so many distilleries an easier way to break things down could be to use flavour as your marker. These are obviously generalisations, but we can broadly put Dalmore, GlenDronach, Glengoyne, and Edradour into the camp of sherry bombs. Aberfeldy, Glencadam, Glenmorangie, and Tomatin are the lighter, sweet and fruity-style single malts. Clynelish and Deanston are the complex and waxy malts. Island whiskies Talisker, Highland Park, and Ledaig join anCnoc and Oban in the coastal and/or smoky camp. 

It’s also worth digging through our Highland page for names you might not immediately recognise, probably because the distillery was historically and may even continue to be used predominantly to provide spirit for blends. Blair Athol remains criminally underrated, for example. Also, keep an eye out for promising newcomers like Nc’nean and Ardnamurchan. Every young distillery is a potential great in the making…

Glen Scotia

The beautiful Campbeltown

“Does Campbeltown count or not?

Yes, it does. The Scotch Whisky Association classifies it as one of the five official regions.

“Why are there so few Campbeltown distilleries that are open and selling Scotch?”

Campbeltown is currently the smallest of the Scotch whisky regions, with just three distilleries at present. Some more are in the process of being built, however. 

But it was once the epicentre of whisky production in Scotland, with 30 active distilleries during its height in the 19th century. A myriad of factors led to the downturn: the impact of the First World War and Prohibition, the favouring of sweeter, lighter malts from blenders, distilleries trying to cash in on the good times and prioritising volume over quality…

There’s more info on our guide to Campbeltown as a region, but the good news is that while there are so few Campbeltown distilleries that are open and selling Scotch, the ones that do are excellent and there are more on the way. 

“Why does Speyside have its own classification whilst it could be said to be part of the Highlands yet island whiskies are included in the Highlands region?”

Yes, Speyside does fall within the Highlands geographically, and any Speyside whisky has the right to bottle itself as a Highlander. A strict definition of Speyside and its wider story can be found on our dedicated guide page to the region, but here’s the skinny: there are over 50 distilleries here, typically producing single malt that’s the light, sweet, and honeyed or more robust and sherried. 

Historical factors like the expansion of the Great North railway in the late 19th century and the prominence of The Glenlivet as a whisky maker led to the idea of a ‘Speyside style’ Scotch whisky with a huge concentration of distilleries in one groupable area. So while Scotch whiskies distilled in the Speyside area may be described as “Highland” whiskies, there’s enough weight in the history, volume, and style of the whisky made here to create a distinction. As for the Islands, they’re spread out enough and small enough in volume to be justifiably grouped within the Highlands. Some would like that to change and maybe it will one day. 


Talisker Distillery makes peaty whisky but isn’t on Islay

“Do any other regions besides Islay have serious smoke or peat?”

Absolutely. Other island distilleries like Talisker and Highland Park, which fall under the Highlands designation, make peated whisky, as do some Speyside distilleries like Benromach. The Tobermory distillery produces Ledaig, an excellent peated whisky, while Campbeltown distilleries are also known for using peat. You’ll find exceptional smoky whiskies from Springbank and Glen Scotia. 

There’s also peated whisky made outside of Scotland, from the likes of Danish distillery Stauning or Swedish whisky makers High Coast. You can get an idea of how strong the smoky quality of the whisky is by its ppm (phenol parts per million), but the best way to find a new smoky favourite is to start to explore yourself. Nobody knows your palate better than you. 

“Which regions are closest to Islay in terms of staying away from any trace of bourbon-like sweetness?”

Following on from the previous question, the Campbeltown single malts are complex and full-bodied in profile and would never be confused for bourbon. This would be a good place to start.

“My husband doesn’t like peaty ones so which should I avoid?”

Typically Islay and island-based whiskies won’t appeal to him. As we’ve stated, there are exceptions to the rule, but he might be best sticking to the likes of Speyside and the Lowlands if he has more of a sweet tooth. 

Guests enjoy The Fife Whisky Festival

The fact there’s a Fife Whisky Festival at all shows the growth of the region. Copyright Dan Mosley.

“Can I make my own new one? If I build a distillery or two, do I just get told which I am, or could I declare a new region?”

Great question. The regions are divided geographically so, yes, in essence, you get told which one you are based on what region you build in. If you’re within the limits of Speyside or the Lowlands, it’s not like you get given a certificate. But you’ll automatically be classed as part of that region.

There are no current plans to add any more regions as far as we know and you as an individual are welcome to declare a new region, but don’t expect anyone to pay that much notice if it isn’t legally recognised. The idea of more regions has been posited before. Separating out islands like Orkney, Jura, Skye, Arran, and Mull has been raised as an idea, as The Highlands is such an all-encompassing region, while areas where distilleries are being built in greater concentration like the Kingdom of Fife have also been suggested. But we’ll just have to wait and see if there are any more changes there. 

“When is the Kingdom of Fife going to be recognised as its own region?”

This neatly follows on from the previous question. Go back to the start of the century and the whisky scene within the Kingdom of Fife looks very different to how it does now. The likes of Daftmill, Eden Mill, Kingsbarns, Lindores Abbey, and InchDairnie have all joined the burgeoning scene in Fife which has led to the creation of a local whisky festival and some calls for it to be separated into a distinct region, away from the Lowlands.

But there isn’t a consensus on whether the Kingdom of Fife should be its own region. I asked this question to a number of Fife-based producers recently and there wasn’t much of a motivation for it to happen. They’re more focused on their own whisky-making process and what it creates, rather than harbouring a desire to match their neighbours to create a regional symmetry. So it’s much of a case of if not when right now. That might change in the future, of course.

You can read the article Inside the Fife whisky revolution by clicking on the link.