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Speyburn Whisky

Speyburn is one of the most beautiful, enigmatic, and underrated distilleries in Speyside, and indeed Scotland, somewhat paradoxically for one of the biggest-selling single malts in the US.

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.

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).

Much of the orignal distillery 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. Hell yeah.

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.

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.

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.

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.

In 2023, 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.

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