A Guide to Scotch Whiskey

The definition of whisky regions has been much debated and changed since the 1784 Wash Act divided the country roughly into ‘Highland’ and ‘Lowland’ for tax purposes. It is now generally agreed that there are six regions and these are based on taste as well as geographical location.

Lowlands

This area tends to produce whiskies in which the softness of the malted barley itself is evident, untempered by Highland or Island peatiness or coastal brine and seaweed. The Lowlands are defined as being south of a line following old county boundaries and running from the Clyde estuary to the River Tay. The line swings north of Glasgow and Dumbarton and runs to Dundee via Perth.

Highlands

By far the biggest region, the Highlands inevitably embraces wide variations. The western part of the Highlands, at least on the mainland, has only a few, scattered, distilleries, and it is difficult to generalise about their character. If they have anything in common, it is a rounded, firm, dry character, with some peatiness. The far north of the Highlands has several whiskies with a notably heathery, spicy, character which probably derives both from the local soil and the coastal location of the distilleries. The more sheltered East Highlands and the Midlands of Scotland (sometimes described as the South Highlands) have a number of notably fruity whiskies.

Speyside

This area is universally acknowledged as the heartland of malt whisky distillation. This area, between the cities of Inverness and Aberdeen, sweeps from granite mountains down to fertile countryside, where barley is among the crops. It is the watershed of a system of rivers, the principal among them is the Spey.
The Speyside single malts are noted in general for their elegance and complexity, and often a refined smokiness. Beyond that, they have two extremes: the big, sherried types, as typified by The Macallan; and the lighter, less colourful style of the “Glens”.

Campbeltown

Campbeltown is situated on the peninsula called the Mull of Kintyre, on the west coast of Scotland. It once had about 30 distilleries, but now has only two. One of these, Springbank, produces two different styles of single malt whisky. Lightly peated for one style and heavily peated for the other. The Campbeltown single malts are very distinctive, with a briny character.

Islay

Considered by many to be the greatest of whisky islands; Islay is blessed with numerous pockets of peat bog, lashed by the wind, rain and sea. It is only 25 miles long, but has no fewer than eight distilleries, although not all are operational. The single malts from this are noted for their seaweed, iodine-like, phenolic character. Islay malt gives the unmistakable tang to many of Scotland’s finest blended whiskies.

Islands

The Islands are a geographical region rather than a characteristic one.
Jura, the island just north of Islay, can be described as a Highland-like whisky. Talisker, on Skye, has an explosive taste, peaty and sweet. On Orkney is the world’s northernmost Scotch whisky distillery, Highland Park. Highland Park is also compared with Highland malts, due to its exceptional smoothness and smoky dryness


The Essence of Gin

What is gin made from?

A. Gin is made from alcohol of agricultural origin that is distilled, flavoured with botanicals.

What are ‘botanicals’ and which are the most common botanicals used in gin?

A. Botanicals are the spices, herbs and fruit used in the production of gin. According to EC regulations juniper must be the predominant flavour. Other commonly used botanicals include: coriander, angelica, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, liquorice, caraway, grains of paradise, lemon and orange. It is the essential oils from these that supply the evocative taste and aroma of gin. The precise mixture and quantity of botanicals varies from producer to producer and is usually kept as a closely guarded secret.

Help! Should a true Martini cocktail have a green or black olive or a twist of lemon peel or a cocktail onion?

A. Join the debate! Some favor a piece of lemon peel twisted above the glass to release the essential oils from the fruit but not added to the drink. Others then drop the twist into the glass with an olive or just an olive on its own. Definitely a green olive though and never an onion – that’s another cocktail entirely.

Is it correct to put ice in a gin and tonic?

A. The main function of the ice is to chill the drink – to enhance its refreshing flavour in the mouth. Why not try chilling your bottle of gin by storing it in the fridge or even the freezer? Ice does add to the sensual pleasure of the drink though – the crackle as the liquid is poured over and the evocative clink of cubes in the glass. Some people maintain that the ice should be made from distilled water or still mineral water – that tap water has too many impurities. However most people do seem to prefer using ice but it must be fresh from the freezer not half melted so that it dilutes rather than chills – and if the gin and the tonic are already chilled the ice will not melt so quickly anyway.

What is the significance of ‘dry’ gin?

A. Dry gin was so named to distinguish it from the sweet version.

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