“A good gulp of hot whiskey at bedtime – It’s not very scientific but it helps.” (Sir Alexander Fleming)
The Speyside is a region that forms a core within the Highlands and that stretches along the Spey River. It goes even further, far beyond the lands of the Spey. Thus, the distilleries placed along Livet, Fiddich, Avon, Lossie, Findhorn and Deveron are also considered as a part of the Speyside. As it is not a geological unit, the boundaries of that region have never been set and sometimes, one could argue about the region from which a distillery comes from. According to the way we establish the boundaries, 63 of the 90 distilleries still in operation in Scotland are in the Speyside.
But why can we find as many distilleries in that area? As it was hardly accessible in the past, Speyside used to provide a good protection for distilleries that were usually illegal at that time. Later, when the railway was introduced and the roads were improved, the region still had the required infrastructure to interest investors. Besides, it met all the necessary conditions for whisky manufacturing, which are water, peat and barley in quantity.
The development of the region was strengthened by the Glenlivet distillery, the first one to obtain a license in 1823. Impressed by its success, other distilleries added Glenlivet to their names. For a long time, Glenlivet whisky had such an outstanding reputation that the region itself was called Glenlivet, before being renamed Speyside.
Most distilleries are concentrated around a few larger towns such as Elgin, Rothes, Dufftown and Keith, who is said to be “world capital” of whiskey. No other place has so many distilleries as Dufftown. At the end of the nineteenth century, the phrase “Rome was built on seven hills, Dufftown stands on seven stills” became a slogan dedicated.
It was Balvenie Distillery, Convalmore (demolished), Dufftown, Glendullan (closed), Glenfiddich, Mortlach and Parkmore (demolished).
Today, this slogan is not entirely valid because Pittyvaich (demolished in the meantime) and Kininvie were added to it. The town still has some other notable historical buildings to be seen, for example Mortlach Church. Once, an illegal distillery was hidden in the bell tower at the center of Dufftown. The clock of the tower, which was known as “the clock that hung MacPherson”, once came from Banff to Dufftown.
In 1700, MacPherson, a kind of Robin Hood Scotland, should be hanged. The day of the execution, the sheriff of Banff moved the clock ahead one hour to prevent a pardon petition. Before the official announcement was broadcast, the sentence had already been implemented because of the late hour.
The Speyside lies between the North Sea and the Grampian Mountains to the south, and does not exceed 120 km between Aberdeen and Inverness. The River Spey which gave him his name goes through it from south to north. Other rivers flow through the region, constituting as many sub regions for malts: the Livet, Avon, Fiddich the Lossie, the Deveron the Findhorn. This is one of the most beautiful areas on the mountain scenery in Scotland.
This region has 46 operating distilleries, more than half the total number of distilleries in Scotland, and among these, are the biggest names.
Distilleries, due to their significant water needs, are never far from the river. And those that are further away have a specific source. Rivers winding, narrow winding roads, often lined with trees and thickets: Speyside is not easy access, even today, and distances, without being very long, take time to be covered.
This is the difficult geography that is probably the origin of the development of distilleries in Speyside. The first whiskey producers, before legalization in 1823, worked in fraud in the eyes of English law and its taxes. This remote region, far from the cities and harbors, offered both excellent hideouts for smugglers and plenty of water. More than one tax officer who ran the risk to go there was molested or killed in ambushes easy to organize.
The style of Speyside whiskey
The Speysides are mainly sweet. The whiskeys from this region are noted for their elegance and complexity. They have a little peaty character (although some have a smoky flavor) and the salient feature is the typical ester aroma that can be compared for example to the solvent. All these scents were discerned in the Speyside malts. They age in sherry casks and can be rich and strong, with light or medium-high mid-light fragrance.
The purity of the water from the Grampians, its character often lightly peaty or not peaty at all, its climate particularly temperate and good moisture without excess: these characteristics common to different valleys in the Speyside are found in the malts. Moreover, they are often powerful.
Nevertheless, there are many variations of the Speyside malts, such as between the powerful Glenfarclas with complex aromas and the light and delicate Linkwood. Yet, their common feature is their classic character, constituting a reference for other Scottish malts.