Carving up Scotland into its five whisky regions sounds like it should be an easy enough job on paper. Draw a circle round Islay, chop off the end of Kintyre for Campbeltown, trace along the riverbanks for Speyside, and divide what’s left between the Lowlands and the Highlands. Job’s a good ’un.
Yet that simplistic approach creates a headache for bartenders when a customer pulls up a stool and asks for a ‘typical Highland malt’. While Campbeltown is coastal, Islay is peaty, and Speyside is Sherry-sweet, it’s much harder to put your finger on a ‘Highland’ style.
Before the craft distilling boom led to a southern revival, even the Lowlands could be classified as ‘light and smooth’ thanks to the characteristics of its then two surviving sites. In contrast, the Highlands suffered from being ‘what’s left over’. Yet that diversity is also the region’s strength.
Where are the Highlands?
Remember that imaginary line we drew from Dundee down to Greenock when we explored the Lowlands? Hop over onto the northern side of that line and we’re in the Highlands – in terms of whisky at least if not geography, strictly speaking.
Along that southern strip, the region takes in Deanston, Glengoyne and Loch Lomond distilleries. It then encircles Speyside further north; with Ardmore, Dalwhinnie and Royal Brackla standing sentry. Coastal distilleries are an important feature too. They stretch from Ardnamurchan, Ncn’ean, and Oban in the west, to Glenglassaugh and Macduff on the Moray Firth, with Old Pulteney and the revived Brora in the north.
Importantly, the Highlands encompass all of Scotland’s islands, apart from Islay. That rich platter includes Jura with its eponymous distillery, Tobermory on Mull and Lochranza and Lagg on Arran. Orkney is home to Highland Park and Scapa.
In the Outer Hebrides, Abhainn Dearg is on the Isle of Lewis and the Isle of Harris has its eponymous distillery. Talisker and Torabhaig can be found on Skye; while the Isle of Raasay distillery has a wee island all to itself.
What are the most famous distilleries in the Highlands?
While those island distilleries – Highland Park, Jura and Talisker in particular – are among the most famous in the region, there are some big names lurking back on the mainland too. Chief among them is Glenmorangie, which has undergone a renaissance since being bought by French luxury goods giant LVMH in 2004.
Glenmorangie – or ‘GlenMo’ to its friends – also boasts the tallest spirit stills in Scotland; so tall, in fact, that it sponsors the giraffes at Edinburgh Zoo. Not far down the road lies Dalmore. This distillery is making a name for itself on the auction scene, releasing increasingly expensive bottles in the style of Bowmore and The Macallan to tempt bidders.
Tomatin, south of Inverness, is garnering more attention under Japanese ownership. Meanwhile Fettercairn and Royal Lochnagar fly the flag for Queen Victoria’s old stomping grounds around Deeside.
What does Highland whisky taste like?
As we’ve seen during our journey through Scotland’s whisky regions, the flavours of a Scotch owe more to the barrels used to age the spirit than to any sense of regional ‘terroir’. That means it’s impossible to categorise the Highlands into one single style.
Textbooks of the past used words such as ‘bold’, ‘fiery’ or ‘spirited’ to sum up a ‘Highland’ character. However those adjectives owed more to the marketing departments of the whisky companies than any sense of reality; it was an attempt to draw a contrast against their ‘light’ description for Lowland malts.
Peat plays an important role for Highland whiskies including Ardmore, Highland Park and Talisker. Meanwhile Sherry forms part of Dalmore’s fingerprint and bourbon builds Glenmorangie’s backbone. GlenMo also pioneered ‘cask finishes’ by transferring its spirit from bourbon barrels into vessels used previously to age table wines, fortified wines or selected spirits for a few months before bottling.
What’s next for the Highlands?
Scotland’s whisky revival has also touched the Highlands. Arbikie epitomises the single farm field-to-bottle dream, while Ncn’ean embodies organic and sustainable practices.
New distilleries bring with them new ownership models. Lone Wolf is owned by beer giant BrewDog and shares its Ellon site, north of Aberdeen. Meanwhile GlenWyvis is owned by its local community in Dingwall.
Perhaps most exciting though is the growth on the islands, bringing jobs and visitors to Harris, Lewis and Skye. The Isle of Barra distillery and a new distillery on the Hebridean island of Benbecula are due to join the fray in the years ahead. With more than a dozen distilleries, could we soon see a sixth Scotch malt whisky region designated, named ‘Islands’? Time will tell.
Which Highland whiskies should I try?
Peter Ranscombe selects four Highland malts you need to get to know
Glenmorangie The Original Highland Single Malt Whisky
A heady mix of vanilla, coconut, marmalade and milk chocolate on the nose leads into more sweet vanilla, caramel and honey on the palate. It’s rich, without being heavy, and lingers with a crème brûlée-like dance on the finish. Alcohol 40%
Highland Park 18 Year Old Viking Pride Highland Single Malt Whisky
Even before Highland Park adopted its current ‘Viking’ branding, this was already a stand-out dram, and is the biggest award winner in its range. The ideal balance between smoky roast meat, sweet honey, and spicy ginger, all wrapped up in a salty coastal tang. Alc 43%
Royal Brackla 12 Year Old Highland Single Malt Whisky
Hailing from Cawdor, near Nairn, Royal Brackla has rich and deep aromas of toffee, light wood smoke and set honey. Those toffee notes are joined by digestive biscuit, spicy cinnamon and tonnes of dried fruit on its warming palate. Alc 40%
The Dalmore 21 Year Old 2022 Vintage Highland Single Malt Whisky
Like a cosy blanket on a cold night, Dalmore’s 21-year-old wraps you up in sweet caramel, juicy raisins and crunchy brown sugar cubes. Then the distillery’s signature milk chocolate note comes marching through on the finish, accompanied by a brighter and more intense dark chocolate note. Alc 42%