The geography of taste

The geography of taste

In part four of his nosing course. Charles Maclean looks at how malts came to be classified by region

Tastings | 13 Jun 1999 | Issue 4 | By Charles MacLean

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Traditionally, malt whiskies were classified geographically by their region of origin – the region itself lending style and character to the whisky made there. With the rediscovery of malt whiskies in recent years, this classification has been eagerly adopted, and indeed expanded, by writers and marketing people addressing consumers who are familiar with the idea of regional classifications for wine.But such a parallel is tenuous. As the chemistry of production and maturation becomes better understood, making it possible to produce, for example, Islay-style malt on Speyside, the usefulness of classifying malt whiskies by region has come to be doubted in certain quarters.
In this article, I will look at how regional classification came about, and explore its usefulness as a guide to the malt whisky drinker; in the next issue I will examine other ways of grouping and classifying whiskies, in relation to their flavour characteristics.The original regional division was simply between whiskies made in the Highlands and those made in the Lowlands. The Wash Act of 1784 defined 17 counties as ‘Highland’; this was tightened up by an amending Act the following year which narrowed the region somewhat by redrawing the Highland Line from approximately Dumbarton to Dundee. Whiskies made above the Line were subject to different legal provisions from those below (in other words, those in the Lowlands) and the nature of some of the provisions, especially in relation to the permitted size of stills, strength of wash and speed of distillation, meant that whisky of very different character was produced in the two regions.
Highland whisky was universally considered better than Lowland whisky.By the mid-19th century three further whisky regions were being recognised – Campbeltown, Islay and Glenlivet. In the case of Islay and Campbeltown, this came about simply because of the number of licensed distilleries which opened there. In the case of Glenlivet, it was because of the historical reputation of the whiskies from this remote hot-bed of smuggling and the fame of what might be described as the first whisky brand, Old Vatted Glenlivet. By the 1860s, distilleries over 30 miles from Glenlivet Parish itself were adopting the name, giving rise to its being called ‘the longest glen in Scotland’. In truth, it had come to describe a style of whisky, approximating to our ‘Speyside’.Not surprisingly George Smith, the owner of the first and most famous licensed distilleries in Glenlivet itself at Minmore and Drummin, and the supplier of the fillings for Old Vatted, was not happy about this state of affairs. In 1858 he enlarged and consolidated his operation and renamed it ‘Glenlivet Distillery’, a name he registered at Stationer’s Hall in London 12 years later, obliging other distilleries to use it as a prefix or suffix only. By the 1890s – the heyday of distillery building on Speyside – 25 distilleries were using the name
Glenlivet in this way: there was Aberlour-Glenlivet, Macallan-Glenlivet, and so on.From a blender’s perspective, Glenlivet continued to be lumped in with the designation ‘Highland’, and Highland malts themselves were divided into ‘Top’, ‘First’, ‘Second’ and ‘Third Class’ for blending purposes. This classification varied somewhat from blender to blender, but generally the dozen or so ‘Top Class’ malts were all Speysides (or Glenlivets – see box), were slightly more expensive and were used as ‘top dressings’ in a blend. The ‘Third Class’ malts were considered as useful ‘fillers’, balancing the flavours of the other whiskies. Over half of the 34 distilleries classified as ‘Third Class’ in the 1974 list have since closed.With the rise in interest in single malts during the 1980s, distillery owners, consumers and writers began to look more closely at regional
classifications, in order to explain to consumers the difference between one malt and another. Especially, we were interested in the ways in which individual regions might be considered to bestow regional styles or characters to the malts made there, although, in truth, it was also an
accessible way of laying out the contents of a book on malts.

Professor R.J.S. McDowell [in The Whiskies of Scotland] had divided the Highlands into ‘The Glenlivets and their Like’, ‘Dufftown’, ‘Northern’ and ‘Island’ as early as 1967, but it was not until Wallace Milroy’s Malt Whisky Almanac of 1986 that sub-division really got underway, quickly brought to geographical sophistication by Michael Jackson in The World Guide to Malt Whisky (1987). Milroy divided the Highland Region into Northern, Southern, Eastern, Western, Speyside, Islands and Orkney. Jackson followed this, but renamed the Southern
Highlands The Midlands, and sub-classified Speyside (where over one third of malt whisky is made)
according to its main rivers, the Findhorn, the Lossie, the Upper Spey, the Lower Spey, the Livet, the Fiddich and the Dullan, Strathisla, the Bogie and the Deveron. A simplified version of this classification of Speyside by rivers was adopted at the same time by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society: Spey, Lossie, Deveron and Findhorn.Some blenders still think geographically, although they tend not to follow the old ranking system. Colin Scott, Chivas Brothers’ master blender, is one. Last summer he gave a demonstration of how he puts together Chivas Century of Malts which, as the name implies, is a vatting of 100 malt whiskies. He arranged his malts geographically as follows: North Speyside (28 malts, including those from Elgin, Keith, Rothes and ‘The Coast’), South Speyside (25 malts, including the products of Dufftown), North Highlands (14 malts), South Highlands (15 malts) and ‘The Rest’ (18 malts from Campbeltown, Lowlands, Islands and Islay. These were each vatted separately for Century).
Having nosed the whiskies individually, Colin then vatted them by regional group and a tasting panel (that included myself )nosed them again, before finally nosing and tasting the end product.Although this arrangement was purely geographical, it was possible to detect family resemblances, even in broad districts such as the North and South Highlands and North and South Speyside. For example, the Southern Highlanders were marginally heavier, fruitier and more intense than their heathery Northern cousins, while the Northern Speysides were firmer, sweeter and more aromatic than those in the south of the region. Most of the whiskies seemed to have come from refill casks, and there was little evidence of sherry-wood, so the
character of the malt, as bestowed by the distillery, was relatively unveiled by the effects of maturation.But is classification by region really much help to us in guessing the likely character and taste of a malt? Even within regions there are marked differences – consider the powerful smokiness of the whiskies of southern Islay (Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg) and contrast with those of the north and west of the island (Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain). Look at the fruity richness of The Glenlivet and compare it with the cut-grass freshness of Tamnavulin, just up the road. Glen Grant and Caperdonich share the same source of water, but are quite different in flavour. Glen Mhor and Glen Albyn, the lost and lamented Inverness distilleries, were separated merely by a railway track, but could not be
substituted in a blend, since each bestowed a different effect.Recently the Nosing Panel of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society was presented with a 10-Year-Old Tomatin (Speyside), distilled from highly peated malt and matured on site in a refill sherry cask. It was superb – rich and gamey; very sweet and very smoky. But we all agreed we would have named it an Islay in a blind tasting. This is where regional classification breaks down.Someone once tried to persuade Hugh Macdiarmid, whom many believe to be Scotland’s greatest poet of the 20th century, to think of the various whiskies as being like an orchestra. ‘The Islay malts are heavy and sombre as cellos. Highland malts are violas. Lowland the discursive violin, and grains are like pianos – sometimes fortissimo, sometimes pianissimo.’ With a snort, Macdairmid dismissed such ‘pseudo-poetical attempts’ as futile. ‘You can only know any or all of them by actually drinking them’.In the next issue we will attempt just this – a taxonomy by flavour.
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