Whilst visiting Speyside you’ll be confronted by an array of distilleries that you rarely see on the shelves of your local supermarket or independent whisky retailer. These are the workhorses of the blended market, existing to provide content for their owners and master blenders. This is very much the case with Glen Spey distillery, which was established back in 1878 and to this day remains relatively unknown.
Founded by James Stuart originally as the Mill of Rothes due to its proximity with the town, its site was a former corn mill and the nearby Doonie burn acted as its water source along with the burn of Rothes. James was by trade a corn merchant who moved into the whisky realm having supplied many distilleries during his career. Glen Spey was his most successful start-up coming several years after his failed involvement with the Glen Rothes distillery. Glen Spey changed hands in 1886 when Stuart sold it to W & A Gilbey, a wine and spirits company based south of the border who were mostly known for their gin. He moved onto pastures new at the Macallan where he took over the distillery having been the previous licensee and remained at the helm before having to sell due to financial difficulties in 1892.
For W & A Gilbey, their period of ownership would endure until 1962 when their sizeable company merged with the United Wine Traders to create International Distillers & Vintners. This new company was one of the forerunners to the Diageo we see today and supports its Justerini & Brooks’ rare blended Scotch that sells in excess of 6 million cases annually.
In 1892 several of the warehouses collapsed following a bout of severe winter weather, but a more notable event occurred in 1920 when a fire destroyed Glen Spey. The distillery had to be rebuilt, but the financial clout of W & A Gilbey ensured its revival and that Glen Spey was always in demand for its blends. As we’ve seen across the industry post 1960, many ageing producers were modernised and in 1970 Glen Spey had its number of stills doubled to 4, which remains its current number. An annual production of 1.4 million litres is extremely small by Diageo standards and the geographical confines of the site ensures space is at a premium.
During the 1970 renovations, the maltings on site were closed and this building was converted into further warehousing. Other changes with the passage of time include the move away from wooden washbacks to the more efficient stainless-steel variety along with a similarly constructed semi-lauter tun. What does remain are the lantern shaped stills that promote reflux from their necks and the combination of purifiers and tube condensers on the spirit and wash stills respectively.
In terms of official releases bearing the name Glen Spey, these are few and far between although strong independent support ensures some availability. An official release did debut in 2001, as part of the Flora & Fauna, which existed to showcase relatively unknown distilleries. This 12-year-old is still widely available online or via Diageo distillery shops for a modest £45. Since this debut only a couple of limited editions have reached market, as the Glen Spey remains content to produce malt for blending purposes.