The fun and games at Spirit of Speyside are a sign whisky’s becoming more relaxed, says Dave Broom.
Scotch whisky regions have become increasingly insignificant as indicators of flavour.
This is not a new trend. As a general global interest in whisky has spread, and Scottish producers have found themselves competing against their American, Irish and Japanese brothers, a desperate need to innovate and diversify has sprouted.
This has led to unpeated Islay whiskies, heavily Sherried and robust Speysides and light, fruity Highlanders, not to mention the tidal wave of experimental cask finishes that have altered traditional regional flavour profiles beyond all recognition.
The Scotch whisky regional map is often used by educators such as The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh to communicate flavour to new drinkers. Photo: Tripadvisor.
For the seasoned whisky enthusiast this is no big deal – they moved beyond judging a whisky’s style by its regional provenance long ago. Factors such as age, wood type, distillery reputation and even filtration are much more accurate representations of flavour than provenance. It’s led many to believe categorising Scotch styles into geographical regions is an outdated method of communicating flavour, and they’re correct to an extent, but it also provides an expedient map for the Scotch newbie.
Whisky educators consistently use the regional map as a tool to break down the admittedly overwhelming spectrum of Scotch whisky styles for new drinkers. It’s clear, easy to navigate and stands true for the vast majority of entry-level malts on the market.
Grouping Scotland’s 115-odd distilleries into five geographical areas makes the category so much easier to digest. You like a light and fruity dram? Great, explore Speyside. Is your preference for something smokier? Islay is for you.
Some 34 whiskies were blind tasted at the 2016 Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky Awards.
Last week I had the pleasure of judging the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky Awards, a mouthful of a competition that’s open exclusively to distilleries from the region. A newcomer to the category might expect glass upon glass of fruity and floral liquid, but that was far from being the case.
If the whiskies entered give a snapshot of their region, one could only conclude that Speyside is home to the most diverse range in Scotland. Sherry monsters, wine cask finishes and even peated whiskies made an appearance, all of which combined to challenge the concept that regional variation still exists, for Speyside at least.
It’s all well and good to give whisky drinkers some choice and variety – innovation is the key to driving the category forward. However experimenting with flavour beyond any recognition of a region’s historical style will make Scotch whisky as a whole more intimidating and tough to navigate for newcomers. It’s all about balance.
If you want to realise Speyside’s diversity for yourself, get along to the Spirit of Speyside festival on 28 April – 2 May (tickets on sale on 2 February). There you will also have the oppotunity to pick the winner of the whisky awards.
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