Andrew Jefford in the Financial Times:
An uneasy conflict troubles the collective conscience of those involved in the creation of Scotch malt whisky. The imagery with which it is communicated stresses the purity of its wild water and its malted barley, and the beauty, peace and loneliness of the surroundings in which it comes into being. The implication is clear: if the whisky tastes delicious, these ingredients and surroundings are causal.
The customary divisions of the Scotch malt world, moreover, are regional: lowland, highland, Speyside, Islay and the islands, Campbeltown. The malts of each group are said to have a different character, deriving in some unspecified way from that location. All this makes beguiling sense – for a set of consumers who are already familiar with the concept of terroir in the wine world. This notion of a link between whisky and its place of origin provides a useful scaffold for the climb into complication and connoisseurship.
But as whisky scientists point out, it’s not really like that. Water has no influence on malt whisky flavour; barley can come from anywhere, provided that it delivers satisfactory spirit yield; and, in many cases, the newly made spirit is taken by tanker from its beautiful, peaceful, lonely distillery surroundings within a couple of weeks of distillation. It’s then aged in uglier, less peaceful but more logistically sensible locations in central Scotland.
Flavour in malt whisky, those troublesome researchers insist, is essentially attributable to the malt specification, to brewing and distilling practices and to wood-ageing regimes.