You might have noticed that we have a big shiny new campaign all about the regions of Scotch whisky, including competitions to win trips to each! Today we kick off a bitesize series of blogs covering each region: Islay, Campbeltown, The Highlands, The Lowlands, and Speyside, starting with the latter.
Speyside whisky explained
A short history of regions
The establishment of whisky-making regions is pretty unique to Scotland. There’s been specified whisky regions in Scotland ever since the Report of the Royal Commission on Whisky and Other Potable Spirits was published by the UK government in 1909. The comprehensive survey of Scottish and Irish distilleries listed regions like the Highlands, Lowlands, Islay, Campbeltown, and Speyside.
The Scotch Whisky Regulations in 2009 greater formalised this process, establishing the big five as we know them today to protect Scotch whisky’s identity worldwide and to boost Scotch’s European Union geographical indication (GI). They can also be useful to help people understand what can be an overwhelming category, with 142 distilleries operating across Scotland.
With Speyside, for example, we can talk about the history that led a huge concentration of distilleries to be located in one smaller geographical area. There’s also the potential to break down these regions into typical flavour profiles. But there are exceptions to every rule. Islay might be famed for its peaty whisky, but distilleries such as Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain are known for their non-peated offerings. So understanding regions by flavour is more a useful beginner tool to acquaint people new to whisky.
The spirit of Speyside
On to Speyside, home to over 50 whisky distilleries, the greatest number of any Scotch whisky region. It’s located in the Moray area surrounding the River Spey in the north-east of the country and has been understood as a sub-region of the Highlands, with distilleries like Glenfarclas, Dalwhinnie, and Macallan, having the word Highland on its packaging. The 2009 regulations defined the region as its own entity to help clear this up and Speyside now has its own dedicated festival, the Spirit of Speyside, taking place in late April annually.
Following the Excise Act of 1823, George Smith and his son John Gordon Smith attained the first licence to legally distil whisky in the Highlands and opened the Glenlivet distillery in Speyside. There was a time when in whisky’s early days when dozens of distilleries used a ‘Glenlivet’ suffix appended to their names, like Aberlour-Glenlivet and Macallan-Glenlivet. The word Speyside is really a substitute for Glenlivet, such was the prevalence of distilleries using the name as a generic term for whiskies from the region. The brand was never able to gain a sole trademark so the suffix was a compromise and it lasted for a surprisingly long time. By the 1980s, there were 28 distilleries registered with the -Glenlivet suffix or using the term in labelling or as a trademark, but it began to die out then and is now something you only really see from the odd independent bottling.
The area of Speyside always had access to water and grain, but really took things up a notch was the expansion of the Great North railway in the late 19th century, which connected the region with easy fuel access to coal (meaning less reliance on peat) and market access to the likes of London.
Generally, Speyside whiskies fit into two styles: the light, sweet, and honeyed single malts of distilleries such as the giants of The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich; and the more robust, sherried malts from the likes of Aberlour and Tamdhu. But that’s not to say there aren’t outliers. Distilleries like Craigellachie with worm tub condensers make big, meaty spirit, while there’s also a history of peated whisky in the Speyside region that faded with the introduction of more accessible coal from the rails, but the likes of BenRiach and Benromach have been reviving in recent times.
With such a huge number of whisky makers, there’s understandably a lot of variety and distinction between distilleries. Speyside is one to explore, best done by putting whisky in your glass and it’s also certainly an area to visit if you’re in the mood for some whisky tourism. Below are some whiskies to sample, as well as some info on our latest competition. A trip there could be on us!
Whiskies to try:
The Glenlivet 15 Year Old French Oak Reserve. A classic lighter Speysider, this whisky was matured in French Limousin oak casks, common in Cognac maturation. It’s got a lot of those sweet orchard fruits and honeyed elements.
Glenfarclas 105. A robust, sherry bomb aged in a combination of both sherry and bourbon barrels and bottled at 60% ABV. It’s drying, assertive and richly spiced with lots of dried fruit and nutty tones typical of a sherried whisky.
Benriach The Smoky Twelve. A Speysider outlier, this peated whisky was aged in a combo of bourbon, sherry and Marsala wine casks. It’s full of sun-dried fruit, warming festive spice, and bonfire smoke.
You can also win a trip to Speyside to visit Glenfiddich Distillery! Buy any of the following: Glenfiddich 18 Year Old, Glenfiddich Grand Cru 23 Year Old, and Glenfiddich 21 Year Old Reserva Rum Cask Finish and you’re in it to win it.