Speyside: Fact or Fiction?
Speyside boasts the greatest concentration of malt whisky distilleries on the planet. But, beyond the obvious geographical factors, what does it really mean? Richard Woodard investigates for WhiskyInvestDirect.com…
In the early years of the annual Spirit of Speyside festival, the whisky writer Dave Broom recalls a panel discussion featuring some of the area's leading distillers. "The debate was: Does Speyside exist?" he says. "And the consensus was: no, it doesn't."
Disconcerting news for anyone who 'mistakenly' thought Speyside was home to more than 50 distilleries, including the world's best-selling malt whiskies, Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet. All in a relatively small part of the Highlands centred around the watershed of the River Spey.
'Relatively'… The 70-odd-mile drive from Inchgower distillery near Buckie on the Moray Firth to the Speyside distillery near Kingussie, on the edge of the Cairngorms will likely take you more than an hour and a half. And you'll still be in 'Speyside'.
Part of the trouble is the law. According to The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009, Speyside is wholly contained within another official whisky region, the Highlands (meaning that distilleries can pick either denomination – and some 'Speysiders', such as Glenfarclas, Dalwhinnie and The Macallan, consciously opt to label themselves as Highland whiskies).
The Speyside boundaries outlined in the regs have everything to do with politics (and geography), and nothing much to do with whisky. How could they? Beyond proximity (they're less than a mile apart), what connects the Dufftown distilleries of Mortlach, with its famously meaty, heavy spirit style, to Glenfiddich's light, apple-scented new make?
"It's an artificial construct," says Broom. "It's political boundaries rather than watersheds, and stylistically I really don't think you can say that there's a Speyside style. Individual distilleries are much more important."
And yet… Ask someone with a passing knowledge of single malt to identify a Speyside style, and there's a good chance that they'll use the word 'fruity'. Even the website of the Scotch Whisky Association plumps for this tempting but lazy shorthand.
"It's true that if I was talking about Speyside, to make it easy I might say to folk that I look for that sweet, fruity style," says Alan Winchester, former Glenlivet master distiller. "But people like George Grant at Glenfarclas would always say that they didn't consider themselves to be Speysiders." Given Glenfarclas' heavy, sherry-matured template, perhaps that's hardly surprising.
So how did we get here? "It originates from blenders defining styles of whisky within flavour camps," says Broom. "Campbeltown has a style; Islay has a style. Blenders were saying: we need this, this and this – so they gave it names."
Even so, they recognised the method's limitations: the old Johnnie Walker blending books place 'Speyside' distilleries in various different flavour camps, and mingle Speyside and Highland together – recognition of Broom's point; there is no substantial stylistic difference between the two regions.
How, then, did this part of Scotland become the engine room of a multi-billion-pound industry? Broom answers the question by ticking off a series of reasons why other parts of the Highlands didn't develop in the same way. Perthshire? Mixed agriculture, and not just barley. East coast? Not enough water. And so on.
But the region we're talking of had barley and water in plentiful supply. "It was kind of what people did," says Broom. "It just became part of the economics of the area. There were lots of new towns, like Keith, Dufftown, Forres, the extension of Elgin, and then ancillary industries." The coming of the railway, adds Winchester, boosted this expansion further. 'Speyside', with its barley maltings, coppersmiths and cooperages, became – in malt whisky production terms – self-sufficient.
Self-sufficient, but still evolving. The biggest change in Winchester's 48-year career was the great opening up of distilleries, the advent of guided tours and visitor centres. And inextricably linked to this was the inexorable growth of single malt whisky.
Distilleries created to fuel the industry's great blends are stepping out of the shadows and claiming their slice of the malt whisky boom. The latest is Tormore, sold in 2022 by Pernod Ricard to Elixir Distillers, run by Sukhinder and Rajbir Singh, founders of The Whisky Exchange (itself sold to Pernod in 2021).
For Sukhinder, buying Tormore was partly about practicality. Elixir's new Islay distillery, Portintruan, is now unlikely to open until 2025, so having a working plant with aged stocks made sense to fill the considerable time gap involved.
However, running Tormore for single malt, compared to filling for blends, involves a different mindset. Witness the changes made at Glenallachie, another Speyside workhorse reconfigured for single malt by Billy Walker: much longer ferments, slower distillation, a sea change in spirit style.
Elixir's distillers are pursuing a similar strategy at Tormore, extending ferments and slowing distillation, but taking it gradually and learning as they go. "It's easy to say I want to make this style of whisky, but it might not be best-suited to that distillery and that character," says Sukhinder. "The changes you make still need be reflective of that individual style."
He agrees with Broom that it's more meaningful to talk about differences between individual distilleries, rather than between regions such as Speyside and Highland. So, does that make the term 'Speyside' useless? Not a bit of it.
"If you're a big brand, it doesn't matter because the brand is more powerful than the category or the region or whatever," says Sukhinder. "But we are in the heart of Speyside – Tormore is one of the first or last distilleries you see, depending on which way you're going. So, 100% we will be Speyside."
It seems therefore, despite its many limitations, exceptions and caveats, that Speyside does have some relevance and currency as a whisky term after all. Not bad for a place that, many would still argue, doesn't really exist.
Richard Woodard has been writing about spirits and wine for 20 years, editing and contributing to a number of magazines and websites, including Decanter, The Spirits Business, just-drinks.com and Club Oenologique. He was also one of the founding editors of Scotchwhisky.com.