This year Speyside whisky makers Speyburn opened its doors to visitors for the first time in its 125-year history. It was for the Spirit of Speyside festival it and won the best new event. Now the distillery is officially open to the public for tours all year round, which is very good news, and not just for those of us who collect distillery visits like Pokemon.
I know from (recent) experience that Speyburn is one of the most beautiful, enigmatic, and underrated distilleries in Speyside, and indeed Scotland. Which is saying something.
Somewhat paradoxically for one of the biggest-selling single malts in the US, Speyburn remains a slightly elusive whisky. It’s made at a previously hidden away distillery and is sold at a very affordable price which means some people dismiss it. I’m a sucker for a bargain, however, and watching a single malt brand step out of the shadow of its blended past is always intriguing to me.
So I ventured to the charming site in Rothes to tour the distillery, learn the history, understand how the whisky is made, and see what the future holds for Speyburn.
A little history
Speyburn dates back to 1897. Brothers John and Edward Hopkins, as well as cousin Edward Broughton, spent £17,000 to found the site, enlisting renowned distillery architect Charles C. Doig (responsible for 56 Scotch whisky distilleries, no less). Whisky production actually started before the build was complete in order to produce whisky to mark Queen Victoria’s Jubilee year. A severe blizzard and no windows didn’t stop the employees, who just worked in heavy coats. Perhaps someone should have told Queen Vic what they went through for her. We might be talking about Royal Speyburn today.
Much of that distillery built then remains intact today, pagoda ventilator and all, but the highlight for touring whisky nerds may just be Speyburn’s Old Drum Maltings. The first malt distillery to install one of ‘Henning’s Pneumatic Drum Maltings’, the traditional maltings spans three floors, with vintage mechanically driven germination drums in plain sight. Originally they would have slowly revolved to stop the barley rootlets matting together to create even germination and to negate monkey-shoulder-inducing manual labour. It also enabled Speyburn’s production not to be tied to the size of its malting floors. They were mothballed in 1967 and have lain locked and perfectly preserved until today, where it now serves as a malty museum for Speyside’s whisky history. The person who closed it then, Stewart Duffer, reckons it will start back up again soon. He’s been begged out of retirement twice, has worked everywhere, and is said to be able to fix a plant by listening to screws. Sounds like someone I would like to buy a pint.
Speyburn, like most distilleries, has changed hands a few times. First John Hopkins and Company, doing business as the Speyburn-Glenlivet Distillery Company, ran the distillery from 1897 through 1916. Then Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) took over, running Speyburn until 1962, surviving closures between 1930 and 1934 as well as 1939 to 1947. Scotch Malt Distillers (SMD) then held the reins, then United Distillers followed from 1986 to 1991 before Inver House Distillers acquired Speyburn. Inver House is now global drinks business International Beverage (IB). Got it? Good, let’s talk production.
How is Speyburn whisky made?
All IB brands use Scottish-grown, Scottish-malted barley, and Speyburn is no different. Barley and malt procurement has changed massively, doubling in price in 18 months, a cost you can’t reasonably put onto the consumer, but remains a very labour-intensive process. The largest carbon footprint print in whisky is malting and farming, I’m told. IB is making a bigger deal about its considerable environmental commitments, so that’s a theme of the tour and indeed this article. I’m also informed there’s going to be a bottleneck unless things change. Scotland currently produces 1.2m tonnes of malted barley, 900,000 of which is used domestically. As Scotch whisky grows, either the amount shipped abroad will need to shrink, or more will need to be grown.
Crisp and Baird’s Malting provides both laureate and sassy barley to Speyburn, 90 loads a week in a seven-day cycle, adding up to 250 tonnes of barley. Each malt bin holds 28 tonnes of grain, which is then transferred into a 10-tonne twin-roller Boby mill which crushes the malt into grist 5.6 tonnes at a time. The water comes from Granty Burn, a beautiful stream that no other distillery has access to and a big reason why Speyburn was built here in Rothes.
In a traditional semi-lauter mash tun 40 mashes take place every week, each one processing six tonnes at a time across four hours to produce a clear and fruity wort. The sugary liquid then goes into nineteen washbacks, fifteen stainless steel, and four wooden ones made of Douglas Fir. A total of 27,000 litres goes into each and fermentation is a minimum of 72 hours. The whisky makers say they don’t notice any difference in character between the two washback styles.
The 8% wash goes into a big wash still with a 28,000 litre capacity which simultaneously charges the two smaller spirit stills at the same time, an unusual distillation regime that helps create a light, fruit-forward spirit. The stills are broad and onion-shaped at the base with slender, long necks that encourage more reflux and copper contact. Traditional worm tub condensers are used here, which gives the spirit a bigger body and a slightly sulpury depth than some other gentler drams which perhaps explains why it stands up so well in sherry casks and also calls to mind the Speyside whiskies of the 1950s and 60s.
The one thing Speyburn can’t really show off is warehouses because there aren’t many here. A traditional dunnage warehouse, complete with earthen floors and barrels stacked three high, holds 2,500 casks. But the majority of the spirit isn’t matured here on site. The cask profile is very much geared to American oak bourbon barrels and Spanish sherry casks, with about 15% of the matured whisky being bottled as single malt. That other 85% either goes to third parties or in-house blends like the underrated Hankey Bannister, but as the brand grows, a greater cut of single malt will follow.
A sustainable, Speyburn future
Growth is very much on Speyburn’s radar and the distillery underwent a big transformation in 2015, with £5m of investment to increase production capacity from 1.8 million litres to over 4 million litres per year. There was also an updated design complete with a flying salmon logo and a 15-year-old single malt introduced to the core range. The staff spent weekends upcycling items around the site to update its look, while the very latest energy-efficient technology was implemented to increase the brand’s green credentials.
Speyburn’s owners IB as a group are aiming to achieve the Scotch Whisky Association’s (SWA) industry’s targets of reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2030 and to net zero by 2040. It’s moving away from heavy fuel oil through investment in biomass systems, Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG), and natural gas, while reducing the amount of water needed to use per litre of alcohol produced and returning water to the local environment. The local CORDe plant takes 100% of spent lees and washing water and processes it to be returned to the watercourse or converted to animal feedstocks, a job it does for 15 other distilleries, keeping the Spey River healthy and generating enough energy to power 15,000 homes.
Speaking of energy efficiency, in 2015 Speyburn became one of the first distilleries in Scotland to invest in TVR to reuse low-energy/temperature waste heat from the distillation process. This low energy/temperature heat is recompressed through a venturi system by using steam, fed from a fossil fuel-fired primary source, as the motive power to recompress it into high energy/temperature vapour which is then suitable as the primary heat source for reuse in the wash distillation process again. This saves approximately 30% fossil fuel usage within the wash distillation process and has made Speyburn the most energy-efficient site in the IB Group, hence why its other sites such as Balblair are following suit.
Tasting Speyburn whisky
But amongst all the sights and promises for the future, it was the whisky that stayed with me from my time at Speyburn. The aim for the whisky makers is to create a spirit full of an estery apple and pear drop character and it absolutely delivers. This is a gentle Speysider in many ways, but the spirit has enough weight to not get lost when matured for a length of time in sherry casks.
The Speyburn range includes Bradan Orach as well as 10 Year Old, 15 Years Old, and 18 Years Old. We got to taste the age statements and here’s what we thought.
Matured in first, second, and third-fill bourbon casks and bottled at 40% ABV with its natural colour, Speyburn 10 Years Old is super value and a lovely little sipper.
Nose: Big ripe apple fruitiness, pear drop intensity, and vanilla fudge from the bourbon cask, with ripe barley in support.
Palate: Oily and sweet with more orchard fruit, a little oak spice, and toffee.
Finish: Slick and sweet with a bright, tart raspberry note in there.
Another whisky with a good deal of bourbon cask maturation, but for the last three years it undergoes secondary maturation in oloroso butts and hogsheads. Rich and sweet, I liked this whisky and I can’t imagine anybody being underwhelmed by it.
Nose: Blackcurrant jam, warm gingerbread, red apple skins, and mocha.
Palate: Bigger sherry influence here with a slightly menthol note, like blackcurrant cough sweets, as well as nutmeg, grilled tropical fruit, and oak char.
Finish: Aromatic spice lingers with lots of ripe fruits.
Made much like the 15 year old, but with four years in first-fill oloroso for its secondary maturation. Wow. The 18 is so refined and gorgeous, delivering big, complex flavour but in a gentle, subtle way. Sherried, Speyside goodness just waves over your tongue. It’s very much on my recommendation list now and has been since I tasted it first at the distillery.
Nose: Beautiful deep rich scotch tablet, chocolate orange, syrupy pears, and a little dunnage earthiness.
Palate: Still oily but the weight is cracking too, with lots of aromatic baking spice, sticky dried fruit, apple Bon Bon and
Finish: Delightfully fresh, the sherry steps aside to let the classic Speyburn signature style shine with orchard fruit and toffee.