The Highlands: Scotland’s whisky cornucopia

The Highlands offer a superlative range, from brooding peaty monsters to sweet, light whiskies that belong in any Scotch lover’s collection

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highlandsPORTLAND, Ore. / Troy Media/ – When it comes to Scotch whisky, Highland malts tend to be robust, with pronounced flavours and aroma.

In addition, there are regional characteristics that reflect the impact of climate and terrain, as well as the source of fuel used to dry the malted barley.

The Highlands is that part of Scotland northwest of the Highland Boundary Fault, which crosses mainland Scotland in a near-straight line from Helensburgh to Stonehaven.

In turn, the Highlands can be divided into four sub-regions: Northern Highlands, Southern Highlands, Western Highlands and Eastern Highlands.

Here’s a look at Highlands whiskies, broken down in sub-regions.

Northern Highlands

Northern Highlands’ whiskies are full bodied, sweet and rich. These malts show distinctive cereal aromas, along with fruit and nutty notes. There is plenty of variety among Northern Highlanders:

Clynelish 14 YO (45 per cent ABV) has distinctive honey sweetness and spiciness on the nose, followed by hints of malty cereal note and floral aromas. On the palate, there is sweetness, hints of citrus and candied orange peel, followed by smoke and peat. The finish is medium length with notable sweetness and just a hint of salinity at the end.

Dalmore 12 YO (46 per cent ABV) is a malt with a distinctive cooked fruit aroma and a pronounced sweetish nose, showing notes of caramel, dried fruit and maple syrup. On the palate, it’s drier, showing elements of dried fruit and sherry sweetness, but lacking the intensity that its strong aromas would suggest.

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The Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban 12 YO, Port Finish (46 per cent ABV) Distillery Bottling has a pronounced aroma of dried orange peel and dark chocolate, with a hint of damp earth and a slight medicinal overtone. The mouth feel is rich, smooth and velvety, like a smooth berry jam. It reminds you of an old spice shop, a pantry full of dried fruit or possibly a Christmas fruitcake with a hint of port. The aroma profile of Quinta Ruban is heavily influenced by the port finish. The finish tends to overwhelm the cardinal aromas of Glenmorangie, although it is still consistent, for the most part, with its regional character.

Southern/Central Highlands/Midlands

Southern Highland whiskies are slightly lighter, drier and distinctly fruity. The style has more in common with Lowland malts than its more robust northern cousins. Here, too, the choice of cask finishing will introduce a broader range of aromas and flavours than is typical for the region.

Edradour 10 YO (40 per cent ABV) has a distinct aroma of cooked fruits and honey sweetness. On the palate, it is silky smooth, with notable oily, viscous mouth weight featuring honey-like sweet notes of dried fruit, vanilla flavours, some wood spices and cereal notes of digestives. The finish is long and distinctly sweet.

Aberfeldy 12 YO (40 per cent ABV) is rich and sweet on the nose. It opens up with notes of honey and spice, featuring nutmeg and cinnamon, followed by tropical fruit and ripe apple. On the palate, it is rich, with a distinctive body and notable sweetness that carries over into the finish. This is an exceptional malt that’s indicative of the Aberfeldy house style. Aberfeldy is also the core malt around which Dewar’s blended whisky is built.

Western Highlands

The Western Highland whiskies are full and pungent, with a notable tone of peat and smoke. This can be accompanied by pronounced sweet, sherry notes and wood spice, creating a satisfying sweet, smoky flavour. Some Western Highland malts can approach their Islay cousins in the intensity of their peated expressions and their distinctive marine elements.

Glengoyne 12 YO (43 per cent ABV) offers a hint of vanilla on the nose with cereal sweetness accompanied by caramel, coconut, and just a hint of candied citrus. On the palate, there is a heavy, oily mouth feel with flavours of honey, hints of vanilla and croissant, ending with a sweetish, medium-long finish.

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Oban 1992 Distillers Edition (43 per cent ABV, Montilla Fino Cask Finish) is zesty, with sweet, malty overtones on the nose, followed by aromas of canned peaches, hints of seaweed, manzanilla sherry and smoke. The palate is oily, with a heavy mouth feel, with flavours of caramel, salt and nuts, and notes of chocolate and spices. The finish is of medium length, featuring vanilla, chocolate and a hint of pepper. It gets drier and slightly peaty in the end. There is a superb interaction between sweet, salty, peat and smoke elements.

Eastern Highlands      

Eastern Highlands whiskies range from dry to sweetish, and from herbal to very fruity. Those with a distinctive sweetish element and exotic spice notes could easily be mistaken for a malt from the neighbouring Speyside.

Royal Lochnagar 12 YO (40 per cent ABV) has a delicate floral sweetness on the nose, followed by hints of citrus fruit, caramel and traces of lychees and oak wood. On the palate, it is smooth, oily and perfectly balanced. This was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s favourite whisky. It was the first Scotch whisky to be granted a Royal Warrant and the first distillery to be visited by a reigning monarch. Queen Victoria insisted that a bottle of Royal Lochnagar always be placed under the coachman’s seat on her carriages in case of an “emergency.”

The Highlands offer a superlative range of whiskies as varied as the Highlands geography itself. From the brooding peaty monsters of the Western Highlands to the sweet, light whiskies of the Eastern Highlands, these are whiskies that belong in any Scotch whisky lover’s collection.

Joseph V. Micallef is an historian, best-selling author, keynote speaker and commentator on wine and spirits. Joe holds the Diploma in Wine and Spirits and the Professional Certificate in Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (London). Bottoms Up is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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