The Highland region is geographically the largest Scotch Whisky producing region. The rugged landscape and changeable climate, and in some cases, coastal locations, are reflected in the character of its whiskies, which embrace wide variations.
North Highland Malts
The North Highland distilleries are all coastal (apart from the southern most, Tomatin, and the latter is included for convenience: its product has more of a Speyside character).
The most northern is Pulteney, which produces a delicious, fragrant, dry whisky, long referred to as 'the Manzanilla of the north'. Then comes Clynelish at Brora (built in 1969, beside an earlier (1819) distillery) - a sophisticated and complex whisky (hyacinths, fennel, Latakia tobacco), it was once very highly regarded and deserves to be better known. It is a core malt in the super de-luxe Johnnie Walker Gold blend.
North Highland Malts' Characteristics
North-Highland malts tend to be light bodied, delicate whiskies with complex aromas and a dryish finish sometimes spicy, sometimes with a trace of salt. Some are faintly peaty (Highland Park, Scapa, Clynelish, Balblair); in others the smoke is more like Lapsang Suchong (Pulteney, Teaninich, Dalmore). They cannot take too much sherry-wood maturation (although, the sherry-finishing technique developed at Glenmorangie suits them well).
East Highland Malts
The region, which stretches from the Moray Firth to the Firth of Tay, and West as far as Deeside, just over the hills from Speyside, is one of rich farmland. There are only six operating distilleries here: prior to 1983 there were over twice that number.
Two are rated 'First Class': Royal Lochnagar and Glendronach. The first is a wonderfully smooth, rich, butterscotch-flavoured whisky made in the shadow of the mountain of the same name, in a distillery established in 1825 (rebuilt 1845). The second is also luscious and sherried, with vanilla notes, some smoke and a dry finish.
The distilleries in the northern part of the region - Macduff, Ardmore, Glen Garioch, Knockdhu - tend to be dryer. The last-mentioned has improved greatly in recent years under new management; Glen Garioch (which was closed by its owners in 1995, but is still often encountered) is variable but can be very good, with most unusual gingery notes.
Further south is Fettercairn, in the rich red Meams, an underestimated malt with a fruity/fudge-like nose (but still the dry finish), and Glencadam, the last remaining distillery at Brechin, which produces an unusual creamy, fruity (tangerines especially) malt.
East Highland Malts' Characteristics
The malts from distilleries north of Aberdeen - Macduff (the product is named Glen Deveron in its proprietary bottlings), Knockdhu, Ardmore, Glendronach and Glengarrioch - are medium-bodied, malty, slightly sweet, smooth, slightly smoky and with a surprisingly dry finish. South of Aberdeen - Royal Lochnagar, Fettercairn, Glencadam - they become richer, more toffee-like, with citrus notes, but still a whiff of smoke and still the dry finish.
West Highland Malts
There are five distilleries in the West Highlands, three on islands and two on the mainland. The island distilleries are: Jura (Isle of Jura), Ledaig/Tobermory (Isle of Mull) and Talisker (Isle of Skye). The mainland distilleries are: Oban (in Oban) and Ben Nevis (at Fort William).
If they share a characteristic it is smoky/peppery, not as strong as Islay malts, and very much depending upon age.
West Highland Malts' Characteristics
West Highland malts are much less peated than their southen cousins in Islay, although they all have at least a whiff of smoke and a mildly phenolic flavour. If there is a uniting factor it is the sweet start and the dryish, peppery finish of these whiskies, particularly Talisker and Oban (and one might add Highland Park, from Orkney, but I have included this in the next section). Ben Nevis is a one off; sweet, with a remarkable aroma and flavour of coconuts. The brand Tobermory is a vatted malt, not a single malt.
Central Highland Malts
These used to be called the 'Perthshire Whiskies'. Most are found along the valleys of the Tay and its tributaries, the Tummel and the Earn.
The furthest north is Dalwhinnie, which qualifies as a Speyside, although it is at the very head of the river, over sixty miles from Grantown-on-Spey. The original name of the distillery was 'Strathspey'. Certainly its product - one of the 'Classic Malts' - leans towards Speyside in character.
Central Highland Malts' Characteristics
The offerings from the Central Highlands are a mixed bag. Generally they are lighter-bodied and sweeter that their cousins to the east, but not as sweet as Speysides. Like Speysides, they are fragrant - blossom, violets, elderflowers, heather, mint, spice, pears: all these words appear in the tasting notes - but they tend to have a dry finish (like other Highland malts, apart from Speysides).