Whisky Classified is compared with distillery location and water type in an article entitled "Exploring the Geography of Taste" by Alex Kraaijeveld. It was published in Whisky Magazine, issue 14, February/March 2001.
The classification is compared with ten whisky regions of Scotland: Northern Highlands, Speyside, Eastern Highlands, Western Highlands, Campbeltown, Islay, Islands, Midlands, Lowlands, and Ulster. Within the Speyside Region, the author makes a further comparison with ten districts: Spey Valley, Upper Speyside, Bogie and Deveron, Strathisla, Dufftown, Lossie, Findhorn, Livet, Rothes and Inverness. Comparisons are also made with an earlier classification by Pierre Legendre and Francois-Joseph Lapointe of the Université de Montréal, published by the Royal Statistical Society in 1994, which provided the inspiration for "Whisky Classified".
The author concludes that there is not much evidence for the existence of regional taste characteristics such as typically "Islay", "Speyside" or "Lowland". Within the Speyside area, for example, the whiskies are assigned to 8 of the ten Whisky Classified clusters. He also makes comparisons with the types of rock from which the water sources originate, and the sizes of the stills used in production. His conclusion is that human influences are more important in determining malt whisky taste characteristics than natural ones.
We concur with Alex Kraaijeveld's conclusions. Still sizes and water sources are fixed attributes for most distilleries. The main variables influencing the taste of malt whiskies are the amount of peat used in malting the barley, and the types of cask used for maturation or "finishing". Some island distilleries such as Bunnahabhain, Tobermory and Jura, together with Springbank and Clynelish on the mainland, have reduced the peat content of their malts in recent years to appeal to more mainstream whisky markets. Glengoyne and Auchentoshan emphasise the peat-free character of their whiskies, whereas at the other end of the peat spectrum, Laphroaig and Ardbeg stress the high phenolic content of their malts.
Greater flavour diversity has, however, been introduced by varying the types of cask used to mature or "finish" the malts. For many years, Macallan had an exclusive niche market for sherry-style malt whiskes, due to their policy of using specially selected first-fill Spanish sherry casks for maturation. Most other distilleries either used American ex-bourbon casks exclusively, or in combination with a proportion of sherry casks (new, or in some instances, second-fill casks from Macallan), or refill casks previously used to mature whisky. It is now generally accepted that about two-thirds of the flavour of malt whisky is determined by the cask, which has nothing to do with the distillery's location.
Maturation techniques have also changed significantly in the past 10 years, led by Glenmorangie which in 1996 introduced a new range of special "wood finishes" utilising casks that formerly contained port, madeira, sherry or fino sherry; and more recently, Malaga wine, Cote de Nuits Burgundy, Claret, Sauternes and Cognac wood finishes have been added. Glendronach, Glenfarclas and other distillers have moved towards Macallan's approach, using more sherry casks in their maturation. Glenfiddich are vatting whiskies aged at least 15 years in sherry casks to produce a sherried "blend" of their own malts under their new Solera brand. Glen Moray are marketing malts finished with chenin blanc and chardonnay casks, their advertising posing the question "are we talking white wine or single malt?" Springbank launched a rum cask edition in 2002 that sold out in 3 weeks.
Casual observers might be forgiven for thinking that such whiskies are not malts in the traditional sense, but are flavoured to appeal more to wine drinkers. However, there is a long tradition of using sherry casks in varying proportions to add the complexity of vanilla, butterscotch and honey to the raw spirit, peat and oak traditional flavours of malt whisky.
We anticipate further differentiation of whiskies by flavour in the future, as distillers experiment with new production, maturation and finishing methods. As Kraaijeveld points out, the driving force is marketing, with producers increasingly adapting their whiskies to their corporate "unique selling points" (USPs) which the marketing people seek to project.
Whisky Classified provides a solution that helps the consumer sort out his or her taste preferences, by revealing the diversity of malt whisky flavours and the clusters of brands that most closely resemble old favourites. The regional classification is really only helpful today if you're trying to visit a distillery.
Further details of our classification of single malt whiskies according to flavour can be found in Whisky Classified: Choosing Single Malts by Flavour by David Wishart, Pavilion Books, 2002.