The Coast Is Scotland’s Undersung Whisky Region

Scotch whisky guides typically slice the country into neat regions: Highlands, Lowlands, Spreyside, Islay, Campbeltown, and other Islands. But fans of Scotland’s coastal malts prefer life on the edge, much like the distilleries that cling to Scotland’s wild perimeter, with its thousands of miles of coastline encompassing long sandy beaches, rugged cliffs, sheltered coves, and deep blue estuaries that convey the outflow of rivers to the ocean. Their whiskies run the gamut of flavor, from fiery, elemental smoke bombs to sumptuously smooth charmers, yet find a common bond in their affinity with the sea. Whether a wisp of briny ocean spray, reeking to the rafters with iodine, or as lip-smackingly moreish as a giant pretzel, each sip is a compelling case that Scotland’s coast is a whisky region unto itself.

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It’s impossible to ascribe the saltiness to any single factor. As the casks breathe in the sea air, distillers with warehouses close to the shore swear the proximity to the ocean is paramount, yet killjoys cite how that alluring saltiness prevails even when whisky from coastal distilleries is matured in inland warehouses.

Living on Scotland’s coast can be taxing, but the hardy souls that live and work here will stand up in the teeth of a gale to defend their way of life. The whiskies do not bow to convention either. Their nature suits maturation in sherry and bourbon casks, peat is prevalent but not universal, they can be mellow, they can be punchy; they seem to revel in being contrary with impunity. Given their diversity, drinking scotch shaped by the sea offers year-round sensory pleasure.

Spring

Springtime whiskies should be fresh and bursting with the aromas of blossoming flowers and ripening fruits. A cluster of whiskies from distilleries around Scotland’s northeastern coast, including Glenmorangie, Deveron, and Glenglassaugh deliver lightly fragrant floral notes and sweet fruity flavors to suit the optimism of the season. Glenmorangie 10 year old Original brings floral complexity, peach stone, apricot, and citrus notes, Glenglassaugh Evolution has its vanilla, salted caramel, and white pepper, and Deveron 12 year old from Macduff conveys heavenly sweet charms. These single malts share an elegance and beauty that brings to mind a more placid sea, and the shoreline leaves a subtle impression upon the whiskies as they develop inside the cask. “Everything we make at Glenmorangie is matured on the shores of the Dornoch Firth,” says Andy Macdonald, Glenmorangie distillery manager. “Our winters are not too cold, and the summers are not too warm. We would never claim that the sea has that much of an influence on the flavor of Glenmorangie, but the coastal location influences the climate in the warehouse, giving us an even maturation profile without huge variations in temperature throughout the year.”

The Ruvaal Lighthouse can be found on the northeastern end of Islay. (Photo by Ian Cowe/Alamy Stock Photo)

Scapa is Orkney’s only coastal distillery (its close neighbor Highland Park sits on a hill), the low, drab buildings seemingly sheltering behind the baffle of the white wall emblazoned with the distillery’s name. A thick, strong-necked Lomond still, a hybrid design from the 1950s, is a rare sight in a coastal distillery, quite a contrast to the elegantly tall Glenmorangie stills. Although Scapa runs it in an uncomplicated manner with the internal plates removed, the ability of the still’s broad copper neck to influence the spirit’s clean, fruity flavors is mitigated by a purifier, which returns the heavier elements in the vapors back to the still. Other than the peated whisky casks used to finish Scapa Glansa, all of Scapa’s whisky enters American oak for maturation, with the known exception of one errant sherry barrel that was secretly filled in the 1990s.

Down the west coast, Kilkerran 8 year old Cask Strength from Mitchell’s Glengyle Distillery delights with a green apple note, the Campbeltown whisky carrying sufficient salinity and smoke to whip the taste buds into a state of excitement. But with summer approaching, it’s time to look toward the Isle of Jura. With the shimmering ocean behind us, we can drink in the view of the palm trees growing outside the hotel, the 1960s frontage of Jura Distillery, and the string of pale little cottages stretching along the island’s only road. The sun glints through a glass of Jura 10 year old, with its flavors of bright orange, dark chocolate, and spices.

Summer

The carefree days of summer call for invigorating golden drams and thirst-quenching cocktails, ideal for clinking in celebration at laid-back beach weddings. Vanilla and light fruit flavors offer respite on hot, sticky summer afternoons, while those with firm smoke welcome evening bonfires and match tasty smoked seafood.

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The Jekyll and Hyde flavors of vanilla in malty Tobermory 10 year old and its briny, peaty alter ego, Ledaig 10 year old from the Isle of Mull, make both whiskies ideal drams for summer drinking and pairing with grilled foods. Wolfburn, Scotland’s most northerly mainland distillery, bears witness to some spectacular blazing sunsets, although it can be a long wait, with eighteen hours of daylight in midsummer. Their youthful Wolfburn single malt delivers fresh fruitiness and grassy notes, with subtle smoke and ginger.

Tucked further up the Dornoch Firth from Glenmorangie Distillery is Balblair, the oldest working distillery in the Highlands. “Beautiful clean air, surrounded by open fields, with hills to the north and the sea to the south: it’s Scotland at its best,” beams distillery manager John MacDonald. Production here moves intentionally slowly. After more than six hours, an unhurried drain through the mash bed delivers clear, bright wort, which gives tremendous fermentation aromas. “You can smell an orchard when you open the lids,” MacDonald remarks. “Slow distillation produces apple and pear notes when the spirit is flowing through the safe.”

Balblair Distillery was moved a quarter of a mile north in 1895 to be closer to the railroad. The coast was a secondary consideration, but given the proximity to the banks of the Firth, does the manager pick up any brininess in his dram? “No. I would say the effect on our spirit is negligible,” comes MacDonald’s laconic reply. Every cask at Balblair is matured in traditional dunnage warehouses, exactly as they have always done, which MacDonald is convinced plays a part in the final flavors. It’s younger vintages, like the tasty Balblair 2005, fully matured in bourbon barrels, that he finds particularly refreshing in the summer. “I find notes of apples, oranges, vanilla, flowers, and honey,” says MacDonald. “Fresh citrus fruit followed by intense toffee and vanilla on the palate. Summer in a glass!”

Visiting Islay in the warmest months is hard to beat when it comes to drinking whisky in the open air. Standing at the gates of Bruichladdich Distillery, the coast is no more than a stone’s throw away. The honey, citrus, and floral notes of Laddie Ten make it a phenomenal beach whisky, though if smoke is called for, turn to the lemon, peat smoke, and honey of Bowmore 12 year old from the opposite shore of Loch Indaal. For a really decadent beach dram, open an old bottling of Port Ellen, if you can lay your hands on one. Sitting around a campfire with good company and rolling such a rare whisky around your glass, you’re likely to find a dry, earthy peatiness, waxed lemons, and strips of peppered, oily smoked fish.

The cool, crisp air on the Scottish coast signals the change of the season and fall’s approach. (Photo by Jim Allan/Alamy Stock Photo)

Fall

The awns and whiskers of the barley have turned from tawny to amber, signaling time for the harvest to begin. The farmers are not the only ones hard at it, as the coast is a busy place: enterprising Scots engage in fishing, tourism, oil and gas, and coastal management, and reap renewable energy from the power of the wind and waves.

Old Pulteney, like a sea shanty in a bottle, is an exemplar of a coastal whisky. “The distillery grew up during the herring boom,” says Malcolm Waring, Pulteney’s distillery manager since 2006. “When times were tough at sea during the winter, the guys would work on the still, but in the summer, they would go and fish when the herring were abundant. The biggest market for Pulteney in those days was actually Wick and Pulteneytown; there were 500 gallons a day drunk in the town.” These days, private boats, not fishing trawlers, berth in Wick’s marina; the spectacle of the herring girls on the quayside splitting, gutting, and packing the silver darlings into wooden barrels is consigned to history.

The fish may be gone, but Wick still has water and wind in abundance. “Terroir lends itself perfectly to Pulteney,” says Waring, contemplating the mystifying reasons for Old Pulteney Navigator’s pleasing saltiness. “The distillery sits on the top of the cliffs overlooking the North Sea, and the warehouses are just pulling in that coastal character all the time; that brininess, which is imparted into Pulteney.” Why does the saltiness express itself so assuredly? “Go back to the essence of the Pulteney spirit—it’s not a delicate spirit at all,” explains Waring. “We’re looking at something big and powerful, vegetal, slightly sulfury and meaty. The robustness of the new make spirit lends itself to harmonizing perfectly with these salty characteristics.”

There is a briny saltiness in the air all year round. You can smell it, you can taste it, and when you lick your lips, you know where you are. From days gone by until now, the sea is our link to the rest of the world. It is an association we cannot do without.

The cool, crisp air signals the change of the season again. Frost blanches fall’s forsaken leaves, the icy chill hastening us to reach for whiskies with warmth and a depth of flavor that only sherry cask maturation can attain. We drink Bunnahabhain 18 year old on mellow afternoons and Dalmore 15 year old after dinner when we can fully succumb to the spices and dried fruits. Glen Scotia’s Double Cask keeps out the cold with the power of vanilla and spicy richness from the Pedro Ximénez cask, while Oban 14 year old’s heady marmalade and smoke flavors lanced with a raw saltiness make it a staple of the season.

Winter

The transistor radio crackles to life with the shipping forecast for the day ahead. Ominously, the announcer informs, “There are warnings of gales in all areas….” Winter can be merciless on the coast. The first drink of the day is very strong coffee, cradled in both hands for warmth. But the last will surely be whisky. The west coast of Scotland is punished repeatedly with storm-force winds, the ocean swells and heaves, and huge Atlantic breakers smash against the seawalls. After each assault, the distillers survey the damage: warehouse shingles ripped from the roof in the night, the alarming new crack running up the distillery chimney, whatever damages the storm sees fit to inflict. Deliveries of malt, yeast, and casks can be delayed for days as the ferry takes shelter in safe harbor.

In the dead of winter, we crave hearty, full-blooded whiskies, replete with an invigorating smoky character, and instilled with salty, maritime qualities. It’s the season for wintery drams of Springbank 15 year old and Longrow 18 year old, full of brine, viscous oils, and freshly dug peat. Oh Campbeltown Loch, I wish you were whisky!

Winter can be merciless on the coast, but a full-bodied whisky and a gorgeous view make it easier. (Photo by Adam Burton / Alamy Stock Photo)

On Skye, Talisker hugs the southern shore of Loch Harport, as if the distillery just sailed into port, dropped anchor, and docked there indefinitely. The dramatic landscape is captured in the muscular power, toffee, seaweed, and peppery warmth of a glass of Talisker 57° North.

As the year draws to a close, the coastal malts of Islay fit our needs perfectly. Caol Ila 18 year old’s mellow fruitiness and graceful peat smoke notes are bewitching. We yearn for the dry peatiness of Lagavulin 16 year old, and the downright gutsy qualities of Laphroaig 10 year old cask strength.

“We distill whisky by the sea,” beams Michael Heads, the ebullient Ardbeg Distillery manager who lives next door to the distillery. “There is a briny saltiness in the air all year round. You can smell it, you can taste it, and when you lick your lips, you know where you are. From days gone by until now, the sea is our link to the rest of the world. It is an association we cannot do without.” His winter survival plan seems sound: “Winter on Islay means long, dark nights, sometimes with the Atlantic gales battering the walls of the distillery and our homes. Put on a roaring fire, pour a dram of Ardbeg An Oa, sit back, have a good sip, smile, and say, ‘Weather, do your worst! I’m quite happy.’”

A year spent savoring scotch by the sea makes for a pleasurable learning experience for any whisky lover. We are reminded that it will take a lifetime of devotion to deeply understand how Scotland’s single malts align with the wind and waves.

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