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Are the Scotch whisky regions still relevant?

Terroir, provenance and locality have become ubiquitous buzzwords in Scotch whisky – but as the industry grows and diversifies, are the category’s five classified regions still fit for purpose? The Spirits Business speaks to producers to gauge the mood in the country.

Are the five classified Scotch whisky regions still relevant?

*This feature was originally published in the March 2017 edition of The Spirits Business magazine

Compared with other spirits sectors, Scotch whisky is unique in its classification of five different areas of production, which are all enshrined in law. Cognac may have its own regional appellations, but these are largely seen to denote quality and scale, rather than unique flavour profiles such as those associated with drams hailing from the Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Campbeltown and Islay.

According to Rosemary Gallagher, spokesperson for trade group the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), the regions “were established over time, as a result of reputation”. One of the first known mentions of the regions was in the Royal Commission on Whisk(e)y and Other Potable Spirits report, published in 1909. They are now legally protected by law in the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009.

Single malt Scotch brands are not legally obligated to list a region of production on their labels, but, as the nature of the industry continues to evolve, it seems appropriate to examine their significance today. As raw materials are transported across Scotland unhindered, brands innovate in a range of styles, marketing tropes modernise, and distilleries open up in previously uncharted (by industry standards) territories, have the regions become meaningless?

Glen Scotia distillery in Campbeltown

For Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach for Diageo, producers continue to rely on the regions and their associated profiles as a “shorthand” to create blends “with some fair degree of accuracy”.

“Inside Diageo, the regions are still quite important,” says Morgan, who believes his company “generally” prescribes to a “classical understanding” of the areas and their correlating flavours. He claims that, historically, the team behind Johnnie Walker would combine liquid into “regional vattings” before creating a final blend. “Broadly speaking, if you look at all the whisky producers today, you would say that the regionality idea still sort of works,” he adds.

Jim McEwan – former master distiller for Bruichladdich, who recently joined what is set to become Islay’s ninth distillery, Ardnahoe – believes regional flavour differentiation became less clear in whisky following the establishment of commercial maltings. “In the old days, each distillery had its own malt barn and they would do their own drying with peat or coal,” he states. “They each had their own drying period and specification, but when the big maltings came in that changed forever. It became really difficult to identify which distillery created which whisky.”

According to McEwan, the regions “don’t really mean a lot anymore” now that the industry is largely dominated by conglomerates that standardise their production processes. “When you are running computerised plants, the classification doesn’t really mean a lot and people don’t talk about it so much now, instead they talk about particular brands,” he observes.

‘Regionality is fading’

“I think the classification is like having too much water on a paintbrush – the colour is diluting very quickly,” he says. “The regionality thing is fading quickly and I would challenge anyone to take a selection of whiskies from all around Scotland, put them on a table, and say whether they are from the Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside and so on. And there’s no need to do it, either.”

It also seems that a competitive environment has forced distilleries to innovate outside of their traditional regional flavours, causing the boundaries to become increasingly blurred. For instance, consumer interest in peated whisky means a number of distilleries outside of the style’s Islay heartland are producing smoky drams, and are easily able to do so thanks to today’s efficient production methods.

According to Jonathan Cornthwaite, head of whisky at William Grant & Sons UK: “Regions are one of the factors that give consumers indications of the style of whisky – sweet from Speyside, smoke from Islay, lightness from Lowlands and so on. These indicators are, however, getting less reliable as distillers innovate and break away from former conventions.”

He adds: “For many years, distilleries didn’t consider changing their style, simply because they did not need to. Crucially, most were sold into blends. But now, with the rise of world whiskies, the industry has changed tack, creating styles not previously expected from them.”

Cornthwaite cites William Grant’s new Ailsa Bay single malt – a peated whisky distilled in the Lowlands that is said to “occupy a new space on the flavour map” with its listing of phenol parts per million and sweet parts per million – as an example of this. At the time of the product’s launch, Peter Gordon, director of William Grant & Sons, said: “This is saying location has nothing to do with flavour.”

Kilchoman is an Islay producer

A number of distillers say they do not find the regional classifications limiting to innovation, since when they go against the grain, it generates excitement for consumers. “We distilled, principally for blending purposes, non-peated whisky at Caol Ila for a number of years, and now it’s part of our Special Releases range. People really love it because it does buck the orthodox expectation of what a Caol Ila or an Islay whisky is,” says Morgan. “It creates a bit of fascination, like a peated Speyside whisky does. So I don’t think [the regions] are inhibiting at all.”

However, other producers believe the regions fail to take into account the industry’s new-found geographical breadth. Entrepreneurs are seeking to build new sites in areas where the distilling industry has long been dormant, or even non-existent. In addition to urban locations in Glasgow and Edinburgh, work is progressing on building distilleries in the Borders and islands in the Outer Hebrides. Many of these brands highlight their home city, borough or island on their labels, rather than one of the established Scotch regions.

The Scottish islands – from Arran to Orkney – have an extensive history of distilling, but an ‘Island’ region is not recognised in Scotch whisky law, and distilleries based in this broad area fall under Highlands. Alasdair Day, co-founder of R&B Distillers, which is building the first legal distillery on the island of Raasay, discussed the possibility of naming his product an ‘Island’ whisky with the SWA, claiming it would be useful for the industry to separate ‘Highland’ and ‘Island’.

“The guidance from our discussions with the SWA was very clear in that they thought ‘Island’ would be too broad, but they were more keen on ‘Hebridean’,” he says. “But then you think to yourself, it could be more important to just say ‘Raasay single malt’. It’s interesting and, in truth, only time will tell what comes from that.”

Alasdair Day of Raasay discussed the possibility of an ‘Island’ region being formed

Day also believes it’s vital that Hebridean producers work together to promote brands hailing from the region. “It’s very important, particularly from a tourism perspective, that the likes of Raasay, Torabhaig, Talisker and even Tobermory all promote the fact that we are Hebridean,” he adds. “This will help if people want to go on a Hebridean whisky tour. Scapa and Highland Park do a great job of talking about Orkney, and it would be great if we could do the same for Raasay.”

Anthony Wills, founder and managing director of Islay’s Kilchoman, says he would “want a reclassification” if his distillery was based on another island, and therefore fell under the Highlands region. “You could argue the regions perhaps need to be redefined,” he states. “But stick with Islay, we like that! Certainly, for new distilleries springing up in places where there haven’t been any for 200 years, it would be far better for them if they had a regionality people could recognise more than they can at the moment, that’s for sure.”

However, Diageo’s Morgan notes that should a movement for reclassification gain pace, the industry could fall into a trap of “reductio ad absurdum”. He asks: “How far do you go? If you’ve got six regions and about 120 distilleries, so each region might have about 20 distilleries in them, I suppose you could break each region down into four sub-categories with five in each. But the regional structure works very well as it is, and those that want to go beyond can just go straight into individual distilleries.”

Focus on provenance

Glenmorangie is one such distillery that focuses on its own provenance, history and production methods, rather than the broader Highland region it sits in. “We are less focused on ‘we must be one type of region’, but we are absolutely focused on every batch, every expression of Glenmorangie having some distinguishing feature that makes it recognisable as Glenmorangie,” says Brendan McCarron, head of maturing whisky stocks.

It seems that the classifications are of varying importance to distillers, depending on where they lie. “Highlands is probably the hardest region to explain in two words, and it requires more time to bring it to life for consumers, which could be seen as a disadvantage – but me, I like to talk,” adds McCarron. Morgan claims that while Islay has emerged as a brand in its own right, Highlands is “a generic and amorphous thing”, Speyside “might have suffered from building its brand because of its ubiquity”, and Lowlands “isn’t even on the chart”.

Today, Campbeltown is certainly the most elusive whisky region in Scotland. The area – dubbed the UK’s ‘whisky metropolis’ by author Alfred Barnard in his famous 1887 book, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom – housed 28 distilleries at its peak, but there are now only three left in operation following a number of historical difficulties. For Iain McAlister, manager of Loch Lomond Group’s Glen Scotia Distillery, the Campbeltown label “provides branding and marketing with a unique point of difference from so many other well- publicised regions and brands”.

He adds: “It was not that long ago that we fought to have Campbeltown, the town, created into a region in its own right. So it is of critical importance to use this uniqueness to its full potential.”

William Grant’s Glenfiddich distillery is a Speyside stalwart

McAlister believes that regions provide a focal point for distilleries to acknowledge both some sense of sameness and also to establish a point of difference. For consumers, the regions can act as a “starting point” for novices to “navigate around the impressive and unique whiskies that are available”.

The role the regions can play in consumer education is acknowledged throughout the industry. “Regionality still has a massive part to play when you are introducing new whisky drinkers to the industry,” says Wills.

“It is a great way of explaining the different profiles, and when you pick up the 10-year-old whiskies or the other core expressions from the different regions, they display those taste profiles. But experimentation will go on.”

As this experimentation continues and consumers become more knowledgeable, it seems plausible that the regions, while present, may slip down the ranks of importance in Scotch whisky marketing messages. Only last month, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society unveiled its first bottle redesign in 10 years, showcasing a new colour scheme that “identifies whiskies more by aroma than region”. A sign that it is possible the Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Campbeltown and Islay may soon denote only the geographical location of Scotch whisky distilleries, rather than their flavour properties.

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