A Guide to Scotch Whisky Regions - Highlands

by Matt Chambers
at Whisky for Everyone
04.5.23 08:20

The Highlands of Scotland are an evocative place.

The name conjures up images of rugged mountains, heather coated moorlands, and exposed coasts. Unlike some of the other Scotch whisky regions, Highland whisky distilleries are spread far and wide across this vast region and can be found in some of Scotland’s most remote locations.

Famous names of the Scotch whisky world rub shoulders with undiscovered whisky gems, many of which grew out of illegal distillation in the 1700s and early-1800s. Illicit producers were rife during this time due to many places being inaccessible to the tax man and authorities.


Where are the Highlands?

A Highland whisky is any Scotch made north of the Highland Line. This imaginary boundary separates the Highlands to the north from the Lowlands to the south. The Highland Line runs diagonally between the mouths of two famous Scottish rivers – the Clyde in the west and the Tay in the east.

The Highlands region is Scotland’s largest geographically for whisky production.

It also contains Speyside, which is home to over 50 distilleries and is the country’s largest whisky region by volume. The Highlands cover a multitude of terrains from rugged and exposed coastline to the Cairngorm Mountains to rolling hills and lochs.

How Many Distilleries in the Highlands?

Over 40 of the 140+ whisky distilleries are in the Highlands. If you add in the Speyside region, then this becomes over 90. The most northerly distillery on the Scottish mainland is Wolfburn in Thurso, which took the crown from Old Pulteney in Wick when founded in 2013.

The furthest south in the Highlands region is Glengoyne. This straddles the Highland Line with the distillery buildings in the Highlands and warehouses across the road in the Lowlands. Ardnamurchan is the furthest west and is found on the remote Ardnamurchan peninsula – the most westerly point on the UK mainland. The Lone Wolf distillery is the most easterly and located in rural Aberdeenshire near Peterhead.

The highest distillery in the region is Dalwhinnie at 1,154 ft (352 m) above sea level. It sits in the middle of the Cairngorm Mountains. However, it is not quite the highest in Scotland. That honour goes to Braeval in Speyside, which pips Dalwhinnie by just nine feet or two metres. It sits at an elevation of 1,163 ft (354 m).


What Does Highland Scotch Whisky Taste Like?

Highland single malts are typically described as being more rich, robust, fruity, and malty in comparison to their neighbours from Speyside. But as with each of the Scotch whisky regions, this is not true these days with distillers making non-traditional styles in different areas.

The diversity of landscape has developed several styles through history. You can find fruity, gentle malts from Dalwhinnie and Tomatin, spicy and rich ones from distilleries such as Ben Nevis and Deanston, and malty and robust whiskies from Glen Garioch and Old Pulteney. 

You will also find some soft and gentle peat smoke at distilleries like Ardmore. Traditionally, all Highland whiskies would have been peated as peat was the only fuel source available to dry barley at the end of the malting process. The practise has now largely died out due to the introduction of modern fuels and working procedures.


The Big Whisky Names of the Highlands

Famous names and distilleries are scattered throughout the Highlands region. Two of the best-selling distilleries are in the far north – Glenmorangie and Dalmore. 

Glenmorangie consistently sits in the Top 5 for total world sales of single malt Scotch whisky and is in the town of Tain on the shores of the Dornoch Firth. Glenmorangie is home to the tallest copper pot stills in Scotland, which stand at over five metres high.

Dalmore is slightly further south in Alness. It is also coastal and sits on the shores of the Cromarty Firth, the UK’s deepest sea loch. The distillery is one of the most prestigious for whisky connoisseurs and collectors and is particularly well known for its use of ex-sherry casks in maturation.

Also highly regarded for using ex-sherry casks is Glendronach in rural Aberdeenshire. The distillery is widely regarded as one of the first to have imported such casks for maturation after founder James Allardice visited Jerez in southern Spain. 

Dalwhinnie offers something fruitier and lighter, and the 15 years old is a classic single malt that is loved the world over. Glengoyne near Loch Lomond is another popular and award-winning single malt and known for its grassy and malty character.


Undiscovered Highland Gems

The Highlands whisky region is home to many unsung heroes of the Scotch whisky industry. Most are now making a name for themselves as single malt brands after decades of production for the big blending companies. 

Classic examples include Fettercairn in the eastern Highlands and Ben Nevis in Fort William. Both produce whisky in a robust and cereal-heavy style that is beginning to be appreciated by whisky drinkers. Similar goes for Blair Athol in Pitlochry and Deanston near Doune, both in the central Highlands.

If you prefer your whiskies lighter and fruitier then single malts such Glenglassaugh on the North Sea coast and Tomatin in the foothills of the Cairngorms near Inverness are both excellent choices. Glenglassaugh is particularly rare and desirable due a sustained period of closure from 1986 to 2008 where there was no production.


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