Ian Macleod Distillers is the family business behind Glengoyne, Tamdhu and Rosebank distilleries as well as being owners of the Smokehead single malt and the Isle of Skye blended scotch. Now in its third generation, the company produces and sells more than 15 million bottles of spirit each year and has served as a major supplier to some of Europe’s largest supermarket groups for over 40 years.
Among the more accessible of their products is the Regional Single Malts range. This series of bottlings was designed to showcase the traditional character of whiskies from different parts of Scotland.
The creation of what we think of as Scotland’s whisky regions is a long and complicated story that I won’t go into in detail for fear of an excessive word count. Suffice to say, the Government in the 18th century decided to take a more lenient approach with those distilling on a small scale in the Highlands than they took with distillers in the lowlands who produced on an industrial scale. In order to distinguish between the two a line was drawn across the map, creating for the very first time the notion of Highland and Lowland whisky regions.
Since then further division has seen Islay, Campbeltown and Speyside designated regions in their own right. To the every day whisky drinker this was mostly irrelevant but it was a useful tool for blenders to differentiate between different spirit styles.
When Diageo launched their “Classic Malts” range in 1988 they went with a regional approach. Representatives were selected from Islay, the Islands, Western Highlands, Central Highlands, Speyside and Lowlands in order to introduce drinkers to the diverse range of flavours available in single malt whisky. That way of thinking seems to have somewhat seeped into the public consciousness over the years.
With the amount of diversification these days, the regions aren’t perhaps as relevant as they once were. There are unpeated Islays and peated Speysides and countless other exceptions to the supposed rule. Perhaps for the newbie however, the regions still offer a convenient way to get acquainted with the landscape of the whisky map and understand the historical development of different styles.
Smell: Lots of fruit. Apple. Orange. Mango. There’s a touch of sherry too with raisins, sultanas and walnut. Malt and honey. Cinnamon. I must admit; I didn’t expect quite so much complexity on the nose.
Taste: A bit of a flat arrival after such an interesting nose but develops well with a bit of that sherry note coming through. More orange. Chocolate. There’s a wee touch of salted caramel and a bit of oak before a honeyed malty finish.
Value for money: Accessibly priced at £30 a bottle. Admittedly there’s a lot of competition at that price point but despite a worryingly soft arrival, the dram grows into itself and seems to build in flavour with each sip.
A light Speyside with more character than I expected. Fair play to Ian MacLeod for that. It would be so easy to bottle bland spirit in ranges like this but that’s far from what’s happened here. Instead they’ve produced a fine young Speyside malt that seems to have been aged in quality casks.
Smell: Straw. Honey. Candle wax. Apple and pear. Fresh oak. Vanilla. Lemon drizzle cake.
Taste: Like the Speyside it arrives quietly before developing some buttery vanilla notes. Caramel and orange follows. Then comes apple, pear and even grapes. There’s some pepper too and a little touch of oak on the finish. Perhaps some subtle wisps of smoke. Pleasing weight to the spirit.
Value for money: This one seems to retail slightly higher at £33. I do think I prefer it to the Speyside, though only just. Perhaps the nose isn’t as complex but there’s a depth to the flavour profile that ticks all the right boxes for me.
I only wish it first landed on the palate with a little more vigour. Instead it shyly slides onto the tongue and makes itself comfortable before drawing your attention to its presence. It does become a pleasant sipping experience though and it seems to intensify the longer it swishes around the mouth. No idea where it comes from but reminds me a little of Clynelish.
Smell: The distinctive peat reek that makes Islay so beloved is there as soon as you put your nose in the glass. There are notes of creosote and iodine. Liquorice and tar. Old rope and brine. If that all sounds completely unappealing there’s also caramel and vanilla, with some woody citrus notes. Typically wonderful Islay nose.
Taste: Good weight. There’s caramel, honey and vanilla with malt and cereal with the medicinal smoke an ever-present undercurrent. Smoky bacon crisps on the finish.
Value for money: We’re back at £30 for this one and I have to say it’s probably my favourite of the bunch. I’m sure that won’t come as a surprise to regular readers. Many of these Islay malts come across a bit like Islay-by-numbers but there’s an impressive complexity to this one. I’d be rather pleased if I’d paid £30 for it.
I usually shy away from making guesses at the origin of a spirit. But the body of this whisky, even at 40%, makes me think of Lagavulin. I’ve no idea if that’s what it is, but it should give you an idea of what to expect. It is a surprisingly robust and complex single malt that displays all there is to love about Islay whisky. It’s a bit of a sink or swim introduction to Islay but that’s OK. Why take the slow road?
I’m quite impressed with this range despite, I confess, having never seen it before. I turned 40 last year and as a present, my 5 year old daughter came up with the idea of giving me a box that I could use to hold all my samples. With the help of my wife she filled the box with some chocolates and put in the three miniatures that made up this review. It was a lovely thing to do but I didn’t expect much from the whiskies to be honest.
The entry level market is quite crowded and every supermarket in the land carries a range like this. With Aldi and Lidl offering similar stuff for less than £20, this MacLeod’s range may even appear a tad expensive. As much as I think the Aldi and Lidl stuff has been pretty good however, I feel like we’re dealing with a step up in quality here. Maybe it’s a little bit older, maybe the casks are better or maybe it’s just been put together better. Whatever the case, this was some of the best entry-level whisky I’ve come across in a wee while.
If any of the whiskies reviewed in this article have caught your eye, you can buy them from Master of Malt…
Buy MacLeod’s Speyside here
Buy MacLeod’s Highland here
Buy MacLeod’s Islay here
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For more on MacLeod’s Regional Malts visit here.