Fact, conjecture, or both?

Fact, conjecture, or both?

Chris explores regional Scotch whisky history

Mythbusters | 04 Dec 2020 | Issue 172 | By Chris Middleton

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Scotland’s malt whisky regions have a somewhat convoluted history. In recent decades, regions became a shorthand to geographically aggregate distilleries and whisky styles into homogeneous flavour clusters.

When Alfred Barnard made his clockwork trip around Scotland visiting 122 distilleries in the mid-1880s, only two Scotch regions existed: Lowlands and Highlands. This was a legacy from the 1784 Wash Act, a geographic boundary determined by tax, licenses and manufacturing specifications. Barnard’s order of distilleries was influenced by urban centres and his modes of transport – the spreading rail network through the rural mainland, and steamboats connecting the western and northern islands. Freight trains also had a significant impact on the costs and type of fuel used for malting. As cheap, cleaner coal penetrated deeper in Scotland by rail, peat receded. Whence 400 Scottish maltsters operated in 1870, their numbers declined considerably. By the 1880s, battle lines formed between the Distillers Corporations (DCL) controlling the grain distilleries, and independent pot malt distilleries. The Lowlands monopolised grain spirit production, with only a handful of malt distilleries sourcing common barley kilned by smokeless coal. These battling factions spawned regional malt distiller’s associations. However, differing agendas on proposed production volumes, interpretations on regulations and even adoption of new technology led to divisions between fellow members. When Barnard visited Glenmorangie in 1886, it was a Highland malt distillery. A year after he left, the distillery installed London gin stills, and became the first Highland distillery to employ steam-heated copper coils, used by many Lowland malt distilleries, not direct fire. Their trade body, the North of Scotland Malt Distillers Association (formed in 1874), refused to recognise Glenmorangie as a Highland malt whisky until the 1920s due to a heating method. On Kintyre peninsular, the Campbeltown Distillers Association formed in 1892, and the Lowland malt distilleries banded together as the West & South of Scotland Malt Distillers Association. Blending houses followed suit at the turn of the century with Wholesale Blenders Association of Edinburgh, Leith, Glasgow, Dundee and Belfast.

Scotland’s coalescing distilling regions began taking shape. The first articulation of sensory agglomerations was by Dr Philip Schidrowitz when giving evidence at the 1908 Royal Commission. He described Islay and Islands whisky as ‘most heavily peated’, Highlands ‘not as big, more ethereal’, Campbeltown ‘not as fine’ and Lowlands ‘small in flavour’. At the Commission hearings, the chair of the North of Scotland Malt Distilleries Association Alexander Cowrie classified Scotch malts into four divisions: Ross-shire, Glenlivets, Islay and Campbeltown. By the late 1920s, another part of the regional puzzle fell into place when DCL amalgamated with the Big Five: Buchannan’s, Dewar’s, Walker, Mackie and Haig, dominating the production of grain and malt whisky. These distillery consolidations led wholesalers and blenders to code casks and distilleries by varying grades (1 to 4, or A to D). Alexander Walker further reported a lack of transparency with regions and distilleries in the 1920s: ‘enough variation even in the same distillery’ to make geography irrelevant. Brokers, too, substituted Irish or mixed Scotch casks concealing the whisky’s provenance. In 1930, Aeneas McDonald, aka George Thompson, wrote the first drinker’s book on whisky placing Scotland’s malt distilleries in Islay, Campbeltown, Lowlands, and Highlands, with North County, Strathspey and Spey whisky Highland subsets.

Scotch regions resurfaced in the late 1970s gaining public attention when consumer whisky books ascribed distinctive flavour styles to the regions. By the 1990s, whisky writers and marketers reclassified the shifting regions into the present five. With once-popular regions like Campbeltown shrinking to two distilleries, and some Speyside distilleries producing peated whisky, these opinions revealed an imperfect and anachronistic taxonomy.
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