Malt whisky is an elemental elixir, made up of only the water, the air, the earth and the fire of Scotland. It used to be thought that soft mountain water – rising through peat and flowing over granite – was the crucial ingredient. But excellent whisky is also made with hard water. Barley is the quintessential harvest of the earth, and Scots barley is perfect for distilling, but much barley now comes from abroad. Highland peat once fired the kilns and the stills, but today it is used sparingly and the flavor of the whisky is probably better. Finally, there is the air of Scotland: cool, temperate and generally damp – a crucial factor in the spirit’s maturation.
Scotland is typically divided into five regions, each with their own unique characterististics:
The whiskies made south of an imaginary line drawn from Greenock on the west coast to Dundee in the east, tend to be light in body and colour and to have a grassy or hay-like aroma, with some cereal notes.
North Highland malts tend to be medium-bodied and fresh-flavoured with heathery, nutty notes. Those from the West add smokiness and spice to this while Central Highland malts often have floral aromas.
Often described as the "Premier Grands Crus" of malt whiskies - they can vary from highly perfumed, light-bodied confections, perfect for a summer's afternoon, to chocolate and fruitcake-rich digestifs, comparable to old cognac.
The eight distilleries on the windswept Isle of Islay produce some of the most aromatic of whiskies, often redolent of peatsmoke and seaweed. Much of the Island is peat and this taints the water, some distilleries draw their water from springs to avoid this, other use heavily peated barley to reinforce it.
Orkney, Skye, Mull, Jura, and Arran, each have their own distilleries, producing individual whiskies with some of the characteristics of Highland malts, but often with a rebellious edge.