Speyside vs Islay

Speyside vs Islay

You’ve got questions about whiskies from Speyside and Islay. And we’ve got answers.

But first, how do you feel about drastic oversimplifications?

Perhaps you’ve read descriptions posted to your whisky group. Online, there is a lot of information about these two scotch whisky regions and the production techniques associated with them.

Some of it may even be true.

But it’s important to point out that the whisky regions do not specify regional production techniques, styles or flavor profiles. While the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 did cement Scotland’s claim for a geographical indication within the European Union, it did not change mash bill requirements, the use of peat, water sourced or type of cask. Thus, a distiller could use the exact technique in Aberdeen as they would in Islay and retain the respective geographical indicator.

Confusing? You bet.

But understanding these two essential whisky regions is crucial before continuing down the rabbit hole into single malt scotch whisky. So, in this post, we’ll take the first step by comparing two single malt scotch regions that loom large over the entire industry: Speyside versus Islay.

What is the difference between Islay and Speyside?

Ocean spray versus highland mountains. Crisp, cold limestone-filtered spring water against the smoky aroma of burning peat turf.

The scotch regulations of 2009 stipulate five whisky-making regions that producers may utilize as descriptors on the bottle. These regions are geographic in nature, but for scotch whisky aficionados across the globe, they have a much deeper meaning.

By law, every bottle of single malt scotch has the same mash bill: 100 percent malted barley. But with over 150 distilleries operating in Scotland and most of them producing single malt, those who have been enlightened enough to compare more than a few single malt scotch varieties know that even within a sub-category with identical grain ingredients, there is a wide variety of flavor.

Over the centuries, each region has come to describe specific whisky-making traditions. Speyside and Islay are two regions that bring to mind particular styles. In this post, we’ll help you understand the nuanced differences between these two influential scotch whisky regions so you can know what to expect should you order a dram.

With the highest density of distilleries on the planet, the Speyside region of Scotland is the largest in terms of active distilleries. It describes a portion carved out from the geographically larger Highland region that follows the River Spey. Historically, the river served as a water source for distillation, and the many springs or burns in the area serve as a prime high-quality water source for fermentation and dilution. As a result, Speyside whiskies are often found to have a mellow minerality with flavors of sweet fruits.

Islay is much smaller in terms of both geographic area and number of distilleries, but it rivals the larger Speyside and Highlands regions in terms of influence. Long after coal and natural gas became economical and ‘cleaner’ sources of fuel throughout mainland Scotland, the remote island of Islay utilized peat turf during the malting of barley. As a result, it has come to embody the big, bold smoky medicinal and creosote flavors associated with peated scotch whisky.

It is important to note that the whisky regions are strictly geographic in nature. That is,  no regulations state Islay whisky must be peated or a Speyside be unpeated. However, when reading the label on a bottle, the region is a helpful determiner of what to expect — and producers who buck these historical trends often have marketing copy on the label to help describe their innovative approach.

We know. It’s confusing.

But this post is here to answer many questions swirling around the minds of newcomers looking to expand their knowledge about the scotch category.

What is peated whisky?

The term peated whisky is used to describe a whisky that uses peat turf as a heating source during the malting process.

To make whisky, producers must first make a type of beer — a fermented beverage made from grain. Fermentation is the process in which microorganisms called yeast consume sugars in a liquid solution and expel ethyl alcohol — the type digestible by humans — as well as carbon dioxide and heat. This process makes all alcohol production possible — from wine and brandy to pulque and tequila to fermented molasses and rum to beer and whiskey — each beverage hosted sugar-eating yeast at one point in the process.

The lack of fermentable sugars naturally available to the yeast makes beer made from grain different from the other drinks mentioned. Grain contains starches, not sugars. Starch molecules are longer and more complex and undigestible to yeast in their natural form.

A process called saccharification turns the starches into sugars. Malted barley is the most efficient grain at promoting this process, so its use has a long history in whisky production reflected by the single malt style today. The barley grain must be tricked into germinated through soaking, then quickly dried using heat to unlock these enzymes.

At one time, most of the whiskies produced in Scotland were peated. When heating the malting floor, producers used whatever fuel source was available, affordable and efficient. In many areas of the British Isles, peat turf was the local fuel source for centuries. But eventually, peat was replaced by coal, then natural gas and today many distilleries throughout the United Kingdom are turning to renewable energy to meet the government’s climate goals.

But on the Island of Islay, isolation made shipments of coal more costly and complex. Peat remained a fuel source by necessity and eventually became synonymous with the distilleries located there.

What are the scotch whisky regions?

There are five scotch regions used to describe single malt whisky-making traditions and history. These regions have been used for decades but were recently updated by the UK legislature in 2009.

Currently, the five scotch whisky regions include Islay and Speyside, as well as the Lowlands, the Highlands and Campbelltown. Before the update in 2009, Speyside was formerly part of the Highlands. And a sixth region — the Islands — was rolled back into the Highlands region at that time. Whiskey fans may come across mentions of the Islands region when reading about single malt scotches from that area, including the many islands and peninsulas that dotted the west coast of Scotland. Like Islay, the location near the sea spray on the coasts often imbues maturing whisky with a maritime brine component.

Which whiskies are from Speyside?

With over 50 active distilleries, the Speyside region is the most densely populated whisky distillation area globally when considering stills-per-square-mile. It is carved out of the Highlands along the River Spey. Many distilleries in this region utilize sherry casks in addition to used bourbon barrels to age their products. Fruity flavors are sometimes associated with Speyside whiskies, but flavor profiles vary depending on brand and product.

While there are too many active distilleries to mention here, some of the more famous Speyside whisky distilleries include:

Glenfiddich — Along with the Glenlivet, Glenfiddich is an industry leader in volume sales. It is considered the quintessential single malt — one of the first to be appreciated by international palates outside the United Kingdom.

The Glenlivet — The Glenlivet also is an industry leader, and an absolute must when starting your journey on single malt. [Check out our article the Glenlivet vs Glenfiddich.]

The Macallan — Slightly behind Glenfiddich and the Glenlivet in sales volume, this brand makes up for in sales value — offering some of the most expensive standard and collectible offerings on the market.

Glenallachie — While it may not be as well-known as some of the other names on this list, the Glenallachie Distillery is one of the oldest continuously run plants in Scotland, founded in 1786 — two years before the US Constitution was ratified.

The Balvenie — Known for sophisticated drams, the Balvenie is smooth, sweet and fruity — with a host of expressions that reflect innovation in cask finishing.

Aultmore — Although Aultmore does not have the market penetration of other brands on this list, it is a solid single malt that has been cranking out products since 1897. Its flavor profile reflects fruits and baking spices.

BenRiach — Founded in 1898, the two wash stills and two spirit stills at the distillery pump out three types of distillate — traditional, peated and triple distilled. This innovative approach showcases the dangers of categorizing Speyside production techniques.

Mortlach — Mortlach utilizes three wash stills, three spirit stills and a complex distillation regimen to create a meaty and malty distillate that showcases the complexity of the Speyside single malt sub-category.

Aberlour — Utilizing pure spring water from beneath the River Spey, the Aberlour range is rich and complex.

Which whiskies are from Islay?

Islay has about nine active distilleries, including the Ardnahoe Distillery, which opened in 2019. Islay single malt scotch whiskies include:

Ardbeg — A big peat-forward flavor synonymous with Islay single malt in the minds of many peat freaks.

Ardnahoe — Opened by longtime scotch merchant Hunter Laing in 2019. The first distillates will be eligible to be bottled as scotch in 2022 — after the requisite three years aging in oak casks.

Bowmore — Arguably the most sophisticated Islay malts. Balanced with a balanced hint of peat smoke, the 30-year expression is a must-try for the hardcore whisky fanatic.

Bruichladdich — Opened in 2001, Bruichladdich offers peated and unpeated expressions.

Bunnahabhain — Located on the bay of the same name, Bunnahabhain also offers peated and unpeated expressions.

Caol Ila — On the Sound of Ila near the port of Askaig, Caol Ila is produced by global spirits leader Diageo and a crucial component in Johnnie Walker blends. It is one of the leaders in volume produced and is considered a balanced and consistent dram.

Kilchoman — A relative newcomer, the stills fired for the first time in 2005. The first products available were relatively young, but this peated whisky continues to improve in its offerings.

Lagavulin — Bold and peat-forward, Lagavulin is a mature dram appreciated by single malt aficionados and peat freaks alike.

Laphroaig — One of the more popular brands, Laphroaig’s reasonable price point and availability helps to introduce new entrants to the Islay single malt sub-category.

What are the five regions of scotch?

We’ve introduced you to Speyside and Islay, so let’s look at the other three regions.

The Highlands is considered the largest region in terms of geography. It is known for making light and floral whiskies, with descriptors including heather heath and honey often making their ways into tasting notes. Before the 2009 update, Speyside was considered part of the Highlands, and today producers in Speyside can use either descriptor on their label.

The Lowlands describes the geographic mainland of Scotland, south of the country near the English border. It contains the metropolitan centers of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and is better known for making grain whiskies and for the processing plants that blend Lowland grain whiskies with Highland single malt to create blended whisky. It might be hard to find a Lowland single malt scotch on a liquor shelf in decades past, but as the whisky renaissance increased interest in the category, new innovative brands came on the market by Auchentoshan Bladnoch and Glenkinchie.

The locality of Campbelltown is also recognized by UK law, comprising of the South Kintyre ward of the Argyll. This is a small region both geographically and in active distilleries, but it has a long history in scotch making and includes several famous distilleries, including Glengyle, Glen Scotia and Springbank.

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