Speyside represents the beating heart of Scotland’s whisky industry, playing host to some of its most recognisable whiskies in the form of Glenfiddich, the Glenlivet and the Macallan. Today there are over 50 distilleries stretching from Speyside near Kingussie to Inchgower in the Northeast.
Speyside represents the beating heart of Scotland’s whisky industry, playing host to some of its most recognisable whiskies in the form of Glenfiddich, the Glenlivet and the Macallan. The region is also a concentrated hotbed of distilleries, focused on supplying whisky for the majority of blended Scotches that dominate the international market.
Today there are over 50 distilleries stretching from Speyside near Kingussie to Inchgower in the Northeast. It’s a region that caters for great diversity but the majority of these distilleries produce spirit that is light, sweet, refined and layered with gentle characteristics that are prized by blenders. Whilst Speyside occupies a modest chunk of Scotland, its distilleries are amongst some of the oldest with many having roots in illicit distilling such as the Glenlivet, which occupies a site amidst a romantic windswept Scottish environment far removed from the powers of Westminster.
The area is dissected by the fast flowing River Spey that weaves its way across 107 miles of wilderness before reaching the Moray Firth. Water is a vital resource for whisky production and the River Spey is a fertile breeding ground for salmon. Nowadays it is the tributaries that connect to the Spey that are utilised for whisky including names such as the Rivers Fiddich, Livet and Lossie. Rain is tomorrow’s whisky and this network of lochs, rivers and mountains means that water shortages are rare unlike other distilleries that may only rely on a single isolated water source such as Talisker.
With the arrival of the Excise Act in 1823 and the ability to become a legal distillery for a license fee and tariff on each gallon produced, many illicit distillers or budding entrepreneurs established themselves as distillers. In total 16 took up the challenge and sought out a new opportunity with 9 of these fledgling distilleries still in operation today such as Cardhu. Moving from illicit stills towards farm distilleries or onto the edges of towns where natural resources were still at hand. A major factor was the arrival of the railway in the 1850’s that connected many distilleries to a network that reached south and removed the arduous trek across the Highlands. This explains the concentration of distilleries around the main towns of the region with the majority found within the triangle of Dufftown, Keith and Rothes. Within this area are names such as Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Glen Grant, Mortlach and Strathisla, making it a popular destination and whisky tourism being a major employer.
A journey through Speyside is very much an experience of Scotland’s whisky heritage. Turning off the A9 at Aviemore you’re about to follow the Malt Whisky Trail via the picturesque A95, passing by the epic splendour of Tormore distillery that sits on the edge of the region. As you edge closer to the heart of Speyside, Ballindalloch plays host to a promising new comer and a distillery to watch out for; whilst the historic Cragganmore awaits nearby. The town of Aberlour greets you with its distillery and Glenfarclas nearby. A central hub, it marks the entry point to a cluster of distillery signs pointing you in all directions across Speyside. Literally it feels as if around each corner there is another distillery to discover and visit.
With so many distilleries across the region, many are not open to the public. These tend to the faithful producing types that mainly go into blends and have very little if any single malt presence. Falling into this camp are names such as Allt-a-Bhainne, Dufftown, Knochando, Tamnavulin and many more besides. However annually the Spirit of Speyside Festival encourages such normally closed distilleries to throw open their doors with special tours and events held across the region. The event towards the end of April is a major tourist attraction and offers a combination of whisky, fine food, local crafts and plenty of enthusiasm.
A bountiful whisky history means that there are several famous closed distilleries across the region. Dallas Dhu is today operated by Historic Scotland for the nation and is preserved as it was from the 1980’s for you to explore, also fallen include Coleburn, Convalmore and the demolished Imperial. Benromach owned by Gordon & MacPhail is a revived distillery with a passion for producing an older style of whisky. The town of Elgin harbours a clutch of distilleries including the rarely seen Miltonduff, the affordable and varied Glen Moray and the overlooked Glenlossie. Other distilleries worth experiencing via the independent bottlers include the prized Aultmore and the forever impressive Glentauchers. These mainly go into blends but single cask releases can be wonderful. It’s a momentous challenge to write an introduction to Speyside as it offers so much variety and a consistent emphasis on quality. It’s a region that offers diversity, distilling heritage, a passion for whisky and the Scottish perfection of its national drink.