The Astor Wines & Spirits Glossary


Distillation was brought to Scotland from Ireland by missionary monks in the 6th century. In 1644, the first taxes were imposed on Scottish distillers by England, with the result that most of the nation’s whisky was soon distilled illicitly. With the Parliament’s passing of the “Excise Act” in 1824, licensing fees for distilleries were much cheaper. Distilleries started to take out licenses, and since then, the distillation industry in Scotland has been continuously expanding.

There are five main production areas in Scotland: The Highlands, the Lowlands, Speyside, the Islands (specifically Islay), and Cambeltown.

Cambeltown: This region was home to 29 distilleries in the 1800s, but with the development of train systems throughout the United Kingdom, that number has dwindled to three. Before the train was built, Cambeltown was the main entry point for ships. Despite the change in demand, Cambeltown kept producing whisky, but by the end of the grain shortage during World War I, not many distilleries were left. The Glen Scotia and Springbank distilleries still make full-flavored, peaty whisky with a distinctive flavor profile beloved by tipplers for hundreds of years (Springbank makes Longrow and Hazelburn in addition to its Springbank bottling). Cambeltown’s newest distillery is Glengyle, which produces Kilkerran Single Malt.

The Islands and Islay: Pronounced “eye-luh,” Islay is the most famous whisky-producing island in Scotland. Home to ten working distilleries today, Islay is known for its robust, smoky, and heavily peated whisky – although there are always exceptions to the norm. Since all the distilleries are located on the coast, the essence of the sea air is imparted to the whisky during maturation, a quality adored by whisky lovers. Other islands, such as Orkney (home to Highland Park and Scapa) and Isle of Skye (home to Talisker), are also known for making full-flavored whisky. There are also distilleries on the Isles of Mull and Arran.

The Lowlands: Known for a much lighter style of whisky, Lowland distilleries reigned until they decided to start mass-producing single malt whisky. This resulted in a lot of terrible whisky that no one wanted, and many distilleries shut. The Lowlands were known for their triple distillation methods and lighter, grassier style of whisky. You can still see these methods in companies like Auchentoshan.

The Highlands: “The Highlands” refers to anything north of Stirling, both east and west, which means all of Speyside, Isle of Skye, and Orkney are labeled as Highland malts. Highland whiskies can span a huge range of flavors, from light and fruity to heavy and peated. Highland distilleries Glenmorangie and Balvenie are responsible for cask finishing, that we see so much of today. This means the whisky spends most of its time in one barrel and is then finished in casks that formerly contained things like port, wine, and sherry, for anywhere from a few months to a few years. This imparts a whole new set of delightful flavors to the whisky and it is practiced in many distilleries in Scotland today.

Speyside: Home to the highest concentration of distilleries in the world, Speyside falls east of Inverness and west of Aberdeen. Speyside is also home to some of the lightest water in Scotland, which results in a very delicate style of whisky. The region produces a huge percentage of Scotland’s whisky, and is home to such giants as Glenlivet, Macallan, and Glenfiddich.

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