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Exploring Whisky Series: Inside Speyside

Discover the Scottish region with the most malt distilleries. Peter Ranscombe takes us on a tour and recommends the key drams to try.

Mention the words ‘Scotch whisky’ and the name ‘Speyside’ is seldom far behind. The region is home to Scotland’s largest concentration of malt whisky distilleries, including some of the nation’s most famous labels, such as Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and The Macallan.

Heavy taxes levied by first the Scottish and then British parliaments forced whisky-making underground. Speyside was home to so many secret stills that the Duke of Gordon, on whose land much of the illicit drink was made, suggested in the House of Lords that the government should reform taxes. In doing so he laid the foundations for the modern whisky industry.

Today, Speyside is a centre for both distilling and tourism. As well as visiting distilleries, tourists can follow The Malt Whisky Trail between sites. Why not visit a museum inside the former Dallas Dhu distillery near Forres? Or pop into the Speyside Cooperage, the only barrel-making facility in the UK that’s open to visitors?

Where is Speyside?

As its name suggests, Speyside runs along the banks of the River Spey, the second-longest river in Scotland and a popular haunt for salmon fishers. From its source in the Corrieyairack Forest to the east of Fort Augustus and Loch Ness, the river runs for 172km to its mouth at Spey Bay. From here it flows into the Moray Firth.

In its upper courses, known as Strathspey, it passes through picturesque villages and towns – including Laggan, Newtonmore, Kingussie, Aviemore and Grantown-on-Spey – before flowing into Speyside proper. Here, it reaches famous whisky-making towns, such as Craigellachie and Rothes.Dufftown and Keith lie further to the east, while Moray’s county town, Elgin, lies to the west.

The Speyside whisky region also extends beyond the banks of the river itself to the surrounding distilleries, stretching from Benromach in the east and Inchgower on the coast, to Knockdhu in the west and Braeval in the south.

Whisky stills inside a Scotch whisky distillery

The Glenlivet Distillery

What are the most famous Speyside distilleries?

Speyside is home to some of the world’s best-known whiskies. They include Glenfiddich, which pioneered the promotion of single malts instead of blends in the 1960s. There’s also The Glenlivet, whose founder was one of the first to switch from illicit to legal distilling. As well as The Macallan, which commands some of the highest prices at auctions.

Blends still play an important role in Speyside too – Cardhu is the spiritual home of Johnnie Walker and Strathisla sits at the heart of Chivas Regal. Diageo’s Roseisle and Chivas Brothers’ Dalmunach sites are among the largest malt ‘super-distilleries’ in Scotland.

While Speyside may be home to big brands, there’s also still room for smaller distilleries. Independent bottler Gordon & Macphail revived Benromach near Forres in 1998 and is now building The Cairn near Grantown-on-Spey.

What does Speyside whisky taste like?

If Speyside’s style had to be summed up in a single word, then it would be ‘Sherried’. For generations, fortified wine casks from Jerez in Spain have added sweet and fruity notes to the whisky aged inside them.

Whether those barrels are made using American or European oak also has an effect on the flavour. American oak tends to impart more vanilla notes, while European oak is seen as spicier.

Originally, distillers used butts that had transported sherry from Spain to the UK but, after Sherry started to be bottled in Jerez, Scotch makers had to resort to using casks that were ‘seasoned’ with the fortified wine instead.

Is Sherry the only influence on Speyside whisky?

Sherry definitely isn’t the only flavour in town. In the days before coal, gas, or kerosene were used to heat the stills, peat was burned to malt the barley, and the resulting smoky style is preserved in examples from Benriach and The Balvenie.

After ageing for most of their life in either ex-bourbon barrels or casks seasoned with Sherry, many Speyside malts are now ‘finished’ for several months in more exotic vessels. Glenfiddich’s India Pale Ale Experiment used casks from brewer Seb Jones, while the distillery also finishes whiskies in Cognac, Madeira and South American red wine casks.

The newly made spirit has an influence too. Traditionally, Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet were held up as examples of the lighter Speyside style, while The Balvenie and The Macallan were hailed for their richer and fruitier characteristics.

Which Speyside whiskies should I try?

Peter Ranscombe recommends four classic Speyside bottles

Four bottles of whisky against a white background

The Macallan 12-Year-Old Double Cask Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky

For historic reasons it’s still labelled as ‘Highland’, but The Macallan is an archetypical Speyside, using a mix of American and European oak seasoned with Sherry. Intense marmalade, apricot jam and honey aromas on the nose lead into vanilla fudge, dried apricots and more honey on the palate. Alcohol 40%

Glenfiddich 18-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Glenfiddich 12-year-old is a true classic, but its 18-year-old turns all the dials up a notch. Sweet Christmas cake flavours of dried fruit and marzipan are wrapped up in honey and red apple, with a rounder and more oily texture. Alc 40%

Glen Moray Elgin Classic Cabernet Cask Finish Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Aged in American oak and then finished in Cabernet Sauvignon wine casks from France. Delicate aromas of spun sugar and runny honey are joined by flavours of red cherry, caramel and spicy black pepper. Alc 40%

Benriach The Smoky Twelve Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky

One of Benriach’s range of peated single malts, which was finished in Marsala wine barrels. Lots of charred notes in among the redcurrant, cream, vanilla and honey flavours, plus a really chewy tannic texture. Alc 46%

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