Production

Are regional labels a dodgy area?

How important is regionalism to the character of whisky, and can broad generalisations be made? Ian Wisniewski considers
By Ian Wisniewski
Choice is a beautiful thing, and we’ve never had so much. But choice without guidance can also be counterproductive, as knowing where to start when faced with several hundred malts can be a real challenge.That’s where the concept of regional character comes to the rescue, providing sound-bite definitions of what to expect from Highland, Speyside, Lowland, Campbeltown and Islay malts.However, as these are inevitably generalisations, the real issue is whether there are more exceptions to the regional rules rather than compliance.Defining the Highland style for example, typically raises a list that includes peaty, fruity, spicy, floral, heather and honeyed notes. So, quite comprehensive, with various characteristics hardly exclusive to the Highlands.Moreover, what does a standardised list of flavours imply about the range of Highland malts?“In any group where you have 60-odd distilleries, if they weren’t individual then what would be the point?” asks Jens Tholstrup of William Grant.Dividing such a large area as the Highlands into Speyside, or even progressively smaller areas, doesn’t make the regional definition any more definitive. Discussing Speyside also raises the question of where the borders of the Spey valley actually lie, as they can vary depending on who you ask.Even looking at Dufftown as a microregion with six distilleries reveals plenty of range, and sub-dividing Dufftown to compare three neighbours, The Glenfiddich, The Balvenie and Kininvie, also reveals three individual house styles.Describing Lowland malts as the lightest style reflects a tradition of triple distillation. But it’s not as though every Lowland distillery always followed suit, and there’s nothing to prevent distillers in other regions triple distilling, so this can just as easily be considered a production option as a regional trait.Similarly, defining Islay malts as the smokiest and most robust certainly provides a clear message. But it’s also a misleading one, that could prompt dismissal of the entire Islay category, on the basis that it will be overpowering.While Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin certainly deliver a smoke-fest, Bowmore provides a medium waft, with Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila offering mellowness.Any mention of Bruichladdich actually requires further qualification, and a glossary of its different expressions. Bruichladdich is lightly peated, Port Charlotte distinctly peated, and Octomore monumentally so.Consequently, the distillery’s approach spans the entire Islay range, and is all set to cater for every peating preference. Campbeltown’s regional reputation is similar to Islay, but then so is the range of peating levels. Springbank distillery for example offers unpeated, lightly and heavily peated styles in the form of Hazleburn, Springbank and Longrow respectively.“The traditional Campbeltown style was heavily peated and oily, using local peat and a standard onion-shaped still with short fat necks,” says Springbank’s Frank McHardy. However, he adds, “I honestly don’t think there are characteristics that appear in all Campbeltown malts.”Putting regionalism to the test also depends on the criteria used. One possibility is the French concept of terroir, referring to the individual combination of microclimate and soil (which affects the barley) of particular regions, together with the water source.This concept was relevant historically, when more distilleries cultivated barley on their estate farms, which was distilled and aged onsite. But how often does this happen now?Exactly. Isolated examples of a ‘single estate’ approach include Glenmorangie and The Balvenie, distilling and aging separate parcels of spirit using barley cultivated on their estate farms (I can’t wait to taste them against the ‘regular’ versions).Moreover, until the golden promise variety of barley became widely cultivated in Scotland at the beginning of the 1970s, most barley was imported from England anyway.Commercial maltsters in Scotland can of course source local barley, which makes sense with transport costs, but whether this is local to the distillery where it ends up is another matter (while a certain amount of malt continues to be shipped in from England).Then again, one school of thought says it’s the quality of the barley rather than the origin that really matters.Trying to determine the exact importance of maturing on site is hardly straightforward, with various distilleries aging malts offsite, either in another part of the same region, or a different region altogether.Admittedly Scotland’s central belt, where accommodation is provided for vast amounts of malt whisky, is considered to offer ideal maturation conditions.So, is regionalism important in this respect? “Geographical location has a big part to play in maturation influences, but this applies to Scotland as a whole rather than individual regions,” says Glenmorangie’s Dr Bill Lumsden.Moreover, if up to 70 per cent of a malt’s flavour can be derived from the cask, with different cask types (including special finishes) and ageing periods providing numerous permutations, the potential for geographical influence is correspondingly reduced.As various malts are also bottled offsite, another consideration is the use of a different water source to the ‘process water’ (which is used at the distillery during the production process).Meanwhile, the extent to which water influences mature malt is an ongoing debate, though however long we speculate it’s never going to be more than a minor influence.Using de-ionised (ie. ‘neutral’) water is standard practise for bottling, and no-one would expect this to contribute any regional character.Moreover, the point of de-ionising is to prevent any additional influence from the water, and allow the distillery/maturation/ and possibly regional character to show through unencumbered.Glenfiddich is a rarity in distilling, maturing and bottling at the distillery.“Doing everything on site is a matter of purity, it’s guaranteed to have matured in the right warehouse, using the same water source for mashing, reduction and bottling, the barley is smoked with Highland peat, and the company is owned by a Highland family,” says Jens Tholstrup.Meanwhile, the concept of regionalism continues to serve a purpose.“It’s quite an important starting point, enabling you to explain quite easily what the differences are between regions. If you start talking about technicalities like reflux, copper contact and so on consumers don’t understand it,” says Ewen Mackintosh of Gordon & MacPhail, which bottles vatted regional malts, including Pride of Islay, Pride of Orkney, Pride of Lowlands and Pride of Strathspey (Speyside).“But you’ve got to be careful with regional definitions. Suggesting Lowlands are lighter and for beginners, and Islay’s are acquired tastes for example, that stereotyping is wrong,” adds Ewen Mackintosh.Similarly, Berrys’ Best, launched at this year’s Whisky Live in Glasgow by Berry Bros & Rudd, comprises an Islay, Orkney and Lowland release.“These are our takes on good whiskies that have some accepted character of their regions, but we are not trying to generalise or suggest that one should always expect these as definitive flavour profiles,” says Doug McIvor of Berry Bros.Regionalism can also play an important role as an emotional, rather than stylistic cue.“Saying Islay to a whisky enthusiast automatically gives them a picture, that picture may vary depending on the knowledge that each person has,” says Glen Moore of Morrison Bowmore.“It’s so important how you describe the category, and when you say to someone without a huge understanding of Islay that it’s a small island off the west coast, it creates a picture.”While the concept of regionalism has become part of malt whisky culture, the origin of this approach was fiscal rather than stylistic, based on different tax bands applied to distilleries in the Highland and Lowland regions, as defined by the 1784 Wash Act.If regional characteristics did subsequently evolve, what could have fostered this ?“The Glenlivet personifies the Speyside style, and was a very influential, sought after malt,” says Colin Scott of Chivas Bros. “Other distilleries used The Glenlivet name so I’d assume that to a certain degree they took the style too. So, perhaps individual distilleries were hailed as definitive, and influenced other malts and other distillers in the region.” If so, has the possibility of regionalism stood the test of time ?“Historically it was probably more the case, but I don’t think regionalism is particularly valid as a guide to the sort of characteristics you’ll get,” says Dr Bill Lumsden.“You can select whiskies from any one region to either promote or disprove the theory of regionality. It’s really all to do with how you produce at the distillery.” So, wouldn’t it be simpler to make more definitive divisions rather than regionalism, which beginners can soon outgrow ?“You can divide into regions, but there are other ways of dividing whisky which work equally well. Blenders think in terms of the character of a whisky rather than regions,” adds Jens Tholstrup.Exactly. If we all thought like blenders, then things could be so much clearer.