Picking out a Scotch whisky from a wall of names you have no chance of correctly pronouncing can be intimidating. Names like Allt-a-bhainne, Auchentoshan, and Bruichladdich are sure to get you dirty looks from the Scotch enthusiast behind the counter and the people behind you in line. So you choose one the old fashioned way: blind pointing. How different can each bottle of Scotch be, right?
Wrong. That random bottle you pointed out will definitely be peaty, and it’ll probably have some malty flavors. But beyond that, what you get will vary depending on the region where it was produced.
To be clear, the region doesn’t matter as much as, say, wine regions. The barley used in Scotch isn’t tied to the land or a terroir like wine grapes are. Variations come into play with how distilleries produce their final products in terms of how much peat is used, what type of oak cask is used, where the barley comes from, and aging time.
The easiest way to have an idea of what you’re getting without tasting (there are over 100 Scotch distilleries and it’s a pricey task to try and taste them all) is to pick your Scotch based on the region. There are five recognized regions: Highland, Speyside, Islay, Campbeltown, and Lowland. There’s also Island, which is generally looped in with Highland.
Highland is the largest whisky region by land size. It’s also the region where you’ll get the most variability between different distilleries, thanks to the sheer distance of the region. Northern Highland whiskies are generally a little spicier, while southern Highland whiskies are a little sweeter. Brands include names like Lochnager, Knockdhu, and Glen Ord.
Just below Highland is Lowland. It’s a good place for novice Scotch drinkers to start because it has a lighter body, less peat, and a bit of a sweet vanilla note from the barrel treatment. There are four distilleries in Lowland producing single malt Scotch: Glenkinchie, Bladnoch, Auchentoshan, and, most recently, Aisla Bay.
Right in the middle of Scotland, carved out of the Highland region, is Speyside. It’s named from the river Spey, where many of the distilleries draw their water from. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in numbers. Speyside has more than half the distilleries in Scotland, including many of the more well-known brands like Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Macallan. Scotch from Speyside is generally on the malty sweet side, but is balanced out with peat and a dry finish.
Toward the bottom near Ireland is Campbeltown. It used to be the primary region, but today there are only three working distilleries. In 2009, the Scotch Whisky Association folded the Campbeltown region into the Highland region designation.
Finally, there’s Islay, where the biggest of the big single malt Scotches are made. You know Scotch from Islay from the first smell. It has the most campfire peat flavor of any of the regions, as well as a bit of a saltiness and a dry finish. Some of the big names in the region are Laphroaig, Lagavulin (Ron Swanson’s fireside drink of choice), Bowmore, and Ardbeg.
You don’t have to know every unpronounceable Scotch to pick a random bottle you will enjoy. They’re all peaty, but the variations are in the regions. Pick an unfamiliar Scotch by the region and you’ll have at least a general idea of what you’re getting.