Get to Know Single Malt Scotch by Region

Single malt whisky in a decorative glass.

Let’s start with whisky. At a very basic level, whisky is a distilled spirit produced by fermenting a mashed grain, or sometimes corn, which is then aged in a wooden barrel. The grains used, the distillation process and the kinds of barrels the whisky is aged in all play a role in its flavour. This style of whisky is produced around the world.

For a whisky to be called Scotch, it must be produced in Scotland. Although malted barley was the first and still a popular ingredient for whisky making in Scotland, other grains such as wheat and rye are also used. By law, all Scotch whisky must be fermented in an oak barrel for at least three years and a day.

With single malt Scotch, the process is slightly different. To qualify, a Scotch must be made exclusively with malted barley and be distilled at a single distillery.

The best starting point for discovering a single malt to suit your tastes lies in understanding the kind of whiskies each region in Scotland offers.

Scotland’s Single Malt Regions

Highlands: There is significant variation to whiskies from the Highlands, though they tend to be a crisp, dry style with spicy, honeyed character. Primary influences relate to the flow of water over diverse geology including granite, sandstone and limestone, as well as and high-altitude foliage like clover and heather.
Flavours: dry, spicy, honey
Whisky Taste Profiles: Medium & Fruity, Robust & Complex, Medium & Spicy, Robust & Smoky

Lowland: This region, defined as Edinburgh/Glasgow south of the English border, consists of mostly gently rolling fields and pasture land, and its whiskies reflect the same easygoing, bucolic character. Lacking the peatiness of Islay malts or the heathered honey of the Highlands, Lowland malts have a very light, grassy, mildly floral character that makes them perfectly suited as an aperitif or restorative. Most could be classified as Medium & Fruity, but versions aged for extensive periods in oak can be Robust & Complex.
Flavours: light, grassy, mildly floral
Whisky Taste Profiles: Medium & Fruity, Robust & Complex

Islands: Expect a little more oomph from Northern Highland whiskies, in the form of big, bold, sweet flavours. Those from islands such as Orkney may even have a subtle smokiness but rarely, if ever, reach the intense peatiness of Islay whiskies. Whisky from Scotland’s Western Islands tend to be a varied as the islands they hail from. Coastal influences can be very prominent, with notes of salt, brine, smoke and peat. This is balanced by the influence of the local island terroir, primarily heather and the honey flavours that it imparts, collaborating to form exceptionally well-rounded whisky.
Flavours: big, briny, sweet, floral, herbaceous
Whisky Taste Profiles: Medium & Fruity, Medium & Spicy, Robust & Complex

Islay: These single malts are robust taste experiences. Islay lacks trees or shrubbery, meaning that peat moss is used to kiln the barley, infusing it with a rich, tarry profile that carries right through to the final product. Secondary notes of smoke, iodine and residual citrus provide balance to these full-bodied, intense malts.
Flavours: bold, buttery, very smoky, medicinal
Whisky Taste Profiles: Robust & Smoky Speyside:

With over 50 distilleries squeezed into an area smaller than PEI, Speyside is by far Scotland’s most densely populated production region. Most Speyside malts follow the pattern of a honeyed, fruit-forward flavour, balanced with hints of spice, grass and dryness with very little smoke. Due to the generally approachable nature of whisky from this region, they tend to act as a good introduction to single malt Scotch for the budding connoisseur. 

Flavours: honey, fruit, spice, oak dryness and light smoke
Whisky Taste Profiles: Medium & Fruity, Robust & Complex