Lumping geographically similar distilleries to create a simplified classification of spirits is a misleading endeavor. Let’s go back to the case against terroir in spirits presented two issues ago and restate that too many variables makes it impossible to assign terroir to spirits. In a subtler variation of that same futility, connections between geographics and sensory traits cannot be well defined. Scotch is our preferred example, but the same logic applies to any region where a substantial population of distilleries exist, and overthinking minds are compelled to “organize.”
We’ve all heard “Speysides are much better than the others” from the public as well as critics. What many are saying is “I’m a Macallan guy.” These comments are usually tossed out for effect, and most don’t really care about other Speysides, being more concerned about sending a message which implies they know all regions well but place the Speyside in the highest regard,” believing it helps validate expertise with a broad sense of knowledge. In reality, their expertise is the product of marketing, as there are more differences than similarities in the sensory perception within a region.
Many critics push to create an overall regional flavor profile for Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Campbeltown, Islay scotch. Dumping a geographic region’s distilleries together by flavors, mouthfeels, and taste to create a regional template or character format is not fair to distillers the public, or factual science. Superficial oversimplification and sweeping generalities are grossly misleading. Here’s why:
• Water is a major difference between distilleries: pH and minerality vary from stream to stream to spring to lake. Differences in these qualities are significant reasons for a wide range of mouth-feel variations between scotches. Ions, minerality and pH of water does not change abruptly when arbitrary borders are crossed but may change abruptly within a particular geographic designation.
• Distillers’ practices may be similar in areas where distillers within a region using many of the same practices, and collaborate by sharing techniques with their neighbor distillers, but it is certainly not region-wide or border specific. All strive for a uniqueness in taste and aroma which differentiates their spirits from others.
• Malt differences can create different flavors as well, however, malt is seldom regional, and few malting houses are on the same site as the distillery. As a result, sourcing is more often decided upon by price and availability rather than subtle flavor characteristics. Malt grown in the lowlands could well be sold to a highland distillery. Would that scotch then exhibit the regional highland flavor?
• Every still is different and produces different sensory attributes. No two stills are ever the same even if they appear similar.
• Within a single region there are inland and coastal areas which give rise to different temperature, humidity, and weather variations, which play a major but seldom recognized role in the taste and aroma of aged spirits.
The supposition that different regions have similar unique characteristics such as the commonly used full-bodied whiskys of the highlands and the light characteristics of lowlands is a notion that does not belong in objective evaluation. These characteristics are not singular to any domain, district or region, and any distiller can choose to make any style, with some single distilleries making several styles at the same distillery.
Many spirits critics/authors lump spirits by region and assign their own area-characteristic “traits,” (e.g.) Speyside scotch whisky water sources vary widely in minerality and pH all along the 107 miles of the River Spey. Many area water sources are rivers, tributaries, and underground springs upstream or unconnected to the namesake river. Each distillery has a unique still and equipment design, different processing methods, and different grain and yeast sources, all of which affect final product taste perception. Assigning traits to geographical boundaries is a futile and misleading exercise which in the end severely disadvantages many great distilleries who may be considered uncharacteristic of their region.
Scotch Whisky Regions
In summary, there are simply too many exceptions. Let science do the work and construct it into classification (if you must) with reason and forethought considering natural resources, rather than convenient map lines. The urge to organize in no way helps to propel the industry forward yet serves to create false experts. Myth is not worth believing until it is proven by factual science. Always be open to positive proof with scientific rationale and experimental validation. Common sense and science is a good yardstick to apply to all spirits.