The Speyside distillery may have only been established as recently as 1956 – a relative teenager amongst Scottish distilleries – but offers a colourful history already. The journey commenced when George Christie selected a site near Kingussie called Drumguish. This location offered nearby access to the nearby A9 road which links the north of Scotland to the more populated central belt.
The land also contained a derelict mill and outer buildings giving Speyside a more aged exterior than its establishment during the 1950’s suggests. Originally distilling existed nearby, with the short-lived Drumguish distillery being situated across the River Tromie that closed in 1911. Many of the buildings were converted to be used by Speyside Distillers Company whilst the slow process commenced to build a new distillery. In keeping with the existing buildings on site, the owners employed a traditional craftsman to complete the distillery that we see today. This is not the preferred route for distilleries nowadays that often knock up modern constructions in rapid fashion. Those that have restored and kept intact the appearance of what existed around the distillery include Annandale, Ballindalloch and to a certain extent Kingsbarns. Often this is due to laws around historical buildings but also to harness the character that a site offers. Needless to say, this method is often far more costly, arduous, subject to detailed planning approval and its constraints, ultimately leading to a longer turnaround time before distilling can commence.
The distillery itself was not completed until 1987; in the meantime, the owners had engaged themselves with the North Scotland grain distillery which eventually closed in 1980 and remains in use today by Diageo but only for cask maturation. Meanwhile at the Speyside distillery, its debut as a single malt arrived in 1993 with the launch of the Drumguish single malt. It represents an unmemorable whisky, as this young malt lacked any worthwhile character whilst the minimum 40% strength also limited the experience. Needless to say, history isn’t kind to the Drumguish whisky and it did not stick around for too long before being consigned to books and auctions as an oddity.
In 2000 Speyside Distillers was acquired by a private investment group who launched a 10-year-old expression shortly afterwards. This was oddly labelled as a single Highland malt although the distillery itself is called Speyside and resides within this famous whisky region. Again, history is not favourable regarding this launch and the Speyside that we see today only commences in 2013 when Harvey’s of Edinburgh acquire the company and its interests. Today, Harvey’s focus massively on exporting Speyside and in particular the Taiwanese market, which accounts for annual sales in excess of 1 million bottles. Strong connections to this country and the surrounding region are enhanced by a working relationship with the Vedan food company.
The profile of the Speyside whisky continues to grow with recent events including the use of former footballer Michael Owen as an ambassador and the selling of the whisky under the simplified name of Spey. This launch in 2014 introduced a more extensive and coherent range of whiskies including an entry No Age Statement, a 12-year-old and a promising 18-year-old expression. Shortly after launch, the range was revamped and the distinctive bottle shape now ensures that Spey stands out in a crowded marketplace and visually is suggestive of quality.
The distillery remains relatively small in scale and output, with just 600,000 litres being produced annually. Its success comes from targeting specific markets and putting in the necessary effort to achieve results in such international markets. The fact that such a small distillery can compete with and outsell many of the larger brands in the Taiwanese market remains impressive. The whisky itself continues to improve from its Drumguish roots and there have been some enjoyable independent releases in recent times that suggest much of its potential remains unfulfilled.