Speyburn is a distillery lauded in some quarters, enjoying a cult following today but it is still relatively unknown and obscure at retail. This is slowly changing with the current owners, Thai Beverages Plc, revisiting the core range and investing heavily in this picturesque Speyside distillery.
Established in 1897 during the midst of a whisky boom, Speyburn was designed by the famous distillery architect Charles Doig. A consortium of relatives founded and financed the distillery via John Hopkin & Co at a cost of around £17,000, which also owned Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. The location is an idyllic Speyside glen with the previously untapped Granty burn acting as the water source that endures to this day. To harness this location the design of the distillery had to reach up into the skies rather than spread out in a traditional courtyard fashion. Usable space was at a premium within this steep glen and Charles Doig created a distillery spread over 3 levels and united in its function. With whisky tourism booming across Scotland, many photographs are taken of the distilleries that attract visitors and it has been suggested that Speyside remains the most photographed due to is visual appearance and setting.
The first spirit distilled at Speyburn was in 1897, but only just. Intent on achieving this feat during the year celebrating the Queen’s Jubilee, the owners and workers achieved this feat by a thin margin despite the distillery being unfinished and the stills being delivered late. With the harsh economic conditions around this time following the Pattison Crisis, Speyburn remained in operation before the parent company was acquired by the Distillers Company Limited. This was in 1916 and marked a period of consolidation of distilleries across Scotland and larger companies were formed and distilleries, blenders and spirit merchants acquired. Unfortunately, the previous owners – like many others – were unable to produce whisky due to the onset of the First World War and this may have added to their financial burden.
Records confirm that this was the first of a handful of periods of inactivity at the distillery, as in 1930 Speyburn shut its doors once again but was revived in 1934. This was another period of economic uncertainty with the Great Depression and Prohibition affecting international demand for whisky. The distillery shut down once again during the Second World War but thereafter has remained in production. A drum maltings existed on site until 1968 having been originally a feature of Doig’s inventive design. This style of malting required less space than a traditional malting floor and fitted perfectly within the constraints of the project. Nowadays Speyburn still receives its malt via the drum maltings method but from a central facility elsewhere.
The oddity of the design continues to this day and with the arrival of new owners in 1991 in the form of Inver House Distilleries, some attempt was made to establish the Speyside distillery as a single malt of quality. Previously the only official release was in 1990 as part of United Distillers’ (who later became Diageo) then Flora & Fauna series that showcased all of its distilleries however obscure. Due to the sale of the distillery shortly after this bottling, the Speyburn 12-year-old edition is the rarest of the range and commands a very high price at auction. Shortly afterwards, a 10-year-old expression under its new ownership was released to the market.
Speyburn continued without too much fanfare or expense even after being acquired by Pacific Spirits in 2001. Change was on the agenda when Thai Beverage Distillers acquires the parent company and in 2015 announced a major investment at the distillery. Costing in total £5 million, these improvements more than double annual production at Speyburn, rising to approximately 4 million litres. These include the insertion of a new larger wash still plus a change in size of an existing example along with new stainless steel mashtun and several new steel washbacks. Other changes have been introduced including the fermentation time rising to at least 72 hours and the impact of these amendments will only become clear after a period of maturation. With such an investment, Thai Beverages have plans for Speyburn and it would not be a surprise to see its limited core range and presence expanded in the coming years. For now, we’ll have to sit back and await these developments with keen interest.