Over the past 500 years, hundreds of distilleries have come and gone in Scotland. Most of the distillery names that we recognize, such as Glenfiddich, MaCallan, or Glenlivet, originated in the 1800’s, starting out as family operations.
Today, there are six official scotch whisky producing regions;
The Highlands – encompasses the whole northern mainland. Many of the Highland distilleries are scattered throughout the hills and valleys in small towns and villages.
Speyside – is sometimes referred to as a sub-region of the Highlands. Located in eastern Scotland in the area around the Spey River, about half of all active distilleries in Scotland are located in this region.
The Lowlands – is, as expected, the lower Scottish mainland. There are relatively few active distilleries in this region.
The Islands – is also sometimes regarded as a sub-region of the Highlands. It encompasses all of the islands around the Scottish coast (except Islay).
Islay – pronounced eye-la, it is the sole island that is its own scotch region, due to its rich whisky producing history and its high concentration of distilleries. It is located in the southern Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland.
Campbeltown – is a tiny region in southwestern Scotland. Although it has a rich scotch history, it now consists of only a handful of distilleries.
Each region is known for its unique whisky taste and style, from the campfire-licking smokiness of Islay to the mellow Irish influence of the Lowlands. And each is home to some of the well known whisky brands that Scotland is famous for.
Like may industries, ownership of the various distilleries in Scotland has changed over the years, from small, independent locally owned businesses, to a more consolidated corporate industry. The top three scotch producers, Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and Barcardi, control more than half of the industry. But there are still many successful family owned distillers, including the Grant family.
William Grant grew up in Dufftown, in Speyside. He worked at the Mortlach distillery, a well known local distillery known for its high quality offerings. With nine children, his wife may have suggested a new hobby, so, in 1886, he set out to build the Glenfiddich Distillery. A few years later he bought the nearby Balvenie Distillery, making him and his Grant’s Whiskey brand a major player in the industry. Five generations later, this family owned business is the fourth largest scotch whiskey producer.
Currently there are about 120 active distilleries in Scotland, ranging in size from the single-still companies like Benromach and Edradour, with a few thousand liters production per year, to the industrial-sized grain distilleries with annual production of 30-40 million liters.
Hard to keep it all straight? Next time, we’ll leave scotch whisky alone for a while and take a look at some of the other whiskys around the world, starting with Bourbon.