Speyside whiskies

Gavin D Smith reports on the rapid expansion of Speyside’s distilleries

WHISKY is now being produced by more distilleries in a greater number of locations around the world than ever before. But for all this increasing diversity, a small area of north east Scotland known as Speyside remains the global heartland of whisky production.

At the last count, Speyside was home to 46 operational malt distilleries out of a Scottish total of 101, and the region boasted a theoretical capacity of almost 212 million litres per annum, accounting for 62% of the industry’s total. 

Global Scotch whisky leader Diageo chose Roseisle, near Elgin, for its ‘super-distillery,’ which opened in 2009 and has a capacity of 12.5 million litres, putting it up there with fellow Speysider Glenfiddich as one of the two largest malt distilleries in Scotland. 

The ‘make’ of Roseisle is destined for Diageo’s leading blended Scotches, including Johnnie Walker, and at the present time Pernod Ricard’s Scotch whisky subsidiary Chivas Brothers is in the process of creating its own large-scale rival to Roseisle on the site of the old Imperial distillery, not far from Aberlour. 

This will increase the company’s malt capacity by 10% and provide spirit for Chivas’ principal blends, such as Chivas Regal and Ballantine’s, which are major rivals to the likes of Diageo’s Johnnie Walker and J&B. 

In April 2013, Diageo announced an additional £30 million investment in Speyside, including expansion at Mortlach and the construction of a new anaerobic digestion plant at Glendullan to process co-products from a number of distilleries and create bio-gas to power Glendullan itself.

A Diageo spokesperson notes: “These developments build on recent Diageo investments in Speyside totalling in excess of £40 million, including distillery expansion and upgrade projects at Linkwood, Mannochmore, Glendullan, Dailuaine, Benrinnes, Inchgower, Cragganmore, Glen Elgin and new bio-energy plants at Dailuaine and Glenlossie.”

Meanwhile, Chivas Brothers, having increased capacity at The Glenlivet by 75% in 2010 with the creation of a new distillation unit, went on to enhance potential output at Glenallachie, Longmorn, Glentauchers and Tormore distilleries in 2012, as well as reopening the silent Glen Keith plant during April 2013. Overall, Chivas has committed £40 million annual capital expenditure to its whisky operations, the bulk of which is being spent on Speyside.

Speyside may be playing a major part in fuelling the global growth of blended Scotch, but its role as home to many of the leading single malt brands is equally significant. No fewer than six of the top eight best selling single malts of 2012 are distilled on Speyside.

They are headed by Glenfiddich, which accounted for 13.5% of the world market for single malts during 2012, while chief rival The Glenlivet closed the gap over previous years, with 11.5%. The Macallan, Glen Grant, Aberlour and The Balvenie are the other leading Speyside malts globally, and in total these six brands boast 43.5% of the sector internationally.

The Glenlivet is a quintessentially Speyside whisky, both stylistically and in terms of its heritage. Nikki Burgess, international brand director for malts at Chivas Brothers, claims: “From our perspective, you can’t understand The Glenlivet without understanding Speyside, and similarly you need to know about The Glenlivet to fully understand Speyside as a whisky region. 

“Although only fully defined recently in the last set of Scotch whisky laws, the Speyside style has long been connected with a benchmark The Glenlivet set going back many years. History tells us many Speyside distillers sought to emulate the Glenlivet style, and many used the ‘Glenlivet’ regional name as a badge of ultimate quality.”

Burgess adds: “In today’s world, single malts have become brands in themselves but there is a lasting legacy of what those pioneering distillers were trying to achieve – our founder George Smith among them – to create a smooth, sweet floral whisky that could be appreciated by consumers in Scotland and beyond.”

Latest from The Glenlivet is a trio of experimental expressions exclusive to members of the Glenlivet Guardians, the distillery’s equivalent of Diageo’s Friends of the Classic Malts or Ardbeg’s Committee. The three whiskies in question are Classic, described as fruity with soft sweet caramel and toffee notes; Exotic, which is rich with warm spicy notes; and Revival, fruity with a creamy sweetness. Guardians have voted for which one they wish to see bottled as the limited edition The Glenlivet Guardians Chapter, which is due to be released next month.

Cardhu remains Diageo’s leading Speyside single malt, accounting for some 150,000 cases per year, but last month the company announced a new release programme which is destined to shine the international spotlight on another of Diageo’s Speyside single malts, the previously elusive Mortlach.

As Diageo’s head of whisky outreach Dr Nick Morgan says: “No one is more committed to distilling on Speyside than Diageo. There is wide stylistic variation, from Cardhu and Glendullan, which display classic Speyside style, to Cragganmore, which is significantly different, to Benrinnes, and to Mortlach, which is the most different of them all. Mortlach is among the most distinctive single malts in Scotland, and the distillery has an absolutely unique distillation regime. We say that Mortlach is 2.8 times distilled. People who know the whisky are passionate about it.

“We are investing £18 million at the distillery in Dufftown, with work due to begin in the next few months and take two years to complete. A replica of the current stillhouse will be built, along with a new mash tun and washbacks. The capacity of the plant will be doubled from 3.8mla to 7.6mla.”

From the middle of this year onwards, four expressions of Mortlach will be available in global markets, with the focus squarely on global travel and the luxury and connoisseur segment. The expressions in question are Mortlach Rare Old, Special Strength, 18-year-old and 25-year-old, with the malt’s signature European oak maturation element being very much in evidence.

Beyond the massive financial votes of confidence invested in Speyside by Diageo and Chivas Brothers, last month’s Mortlach announcement closely coincided with one from The Edrington Group, relating to its intention to spend no less than £100 million rebuilding its Macallan distillery and associated visitor centre. Subject to receiving planning consent, work on the project will begin in autumn 2014 and is due to be completed in spring 2017.

Edrington is to work with architects Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners to develop the Macallan Estate, which boasts the Jacobean manor house of Easter Elchies at its heart, and as Ian Curle, chief executive of Edrington, says: “This is a confident investment in the future of The Macallan and its home on Speyside. Our plan for the estate includes a contemporary distillery that embodies the international style of The Macallan and builds on the brand’s tradition of quality and craftsmanship. As this long-term investment develops it will bring significant employment and economic benefit to the local community.”

The Edrington Group’s investment at The Macallan reflects the contemporary importance of the image of distilleries and their visitor centres. It is sometimes not enough to make great whisky, but distillers have to be seen by members of the public to be making great whisky. 

In this respect, a key way in which Speyside’s distillers align their products with the region is through visitor facilities, and seven operational distilleries, along with the historic Dallas Dhu distillery museum and the Speyside Cooperage at Craigellachie, are part of Scotland’s Malt Whisky Trail. In total, 13 working distilleries open their doors to the public.

The most popular distillery in terms of visitor numbers is Glenfiddich, on the outskirts of Dufftown, partly because admission to the standard tour is free. In 2012 some 74,500 people toured Glenfiddich, but the historic, family-owned distillery is also now offering more in-depth tours, including the ultimate Pioneers’ Tour.

This is a pre-booked £75, three-hour experience during which participants may bottle their own 20cl cask strength unique Malt Masters’ Selection directly from a cask in Warehouse 8. There is also a masterclass which involves nosing and tasting Glenfiddich whiskies aged up to 30 years.

The brand’s proprietors, William Grant & Sons, use the strapline From the Best Dram in the Valley to the World’s Most Awarded Single Malt Scotch Whisky, with the ‘best dram’ referring to founder William Grant’s ambitions for his new distillery back in the 1880s. Heritage and tradition, along with progress and innovation, are keystones of the Glenfiddich ‘message,’ which places the distillery and the Grant family firmly within the context of their Speyside location.

The Grant Family Home – created during 2012 in a former maltings – provides an opportunity to emphasise this. It offers a fully functioning blending room and private dining facilities, in addition to an archive area which focuses on key items from the Grants’ vast collection of memorabilia. The Home is also where those participating in the Pioneers’ Tour complete their experience with a sampling session.

Glenfiddich boasted sales in excess of one million cases during 2012, and last September three new expressions, selected solely on the basis of their flavour profile then married in purpose-built Solera vats in Warehouse 8, were launched into the travel retail arena under the Cask Collection banner.

In addition to distillery visitor offerings, Speyside’s identity as a leading whisky-producing region is underlined by two well-attended annual whisky events, namely the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival staged each May, and the Dufftown Speyside Whisky Festival held in September. 

These allow distilleries not in the ownership of the industry’s major players an equal opportunity for exposure, with the likes of Benromach, Tomintoul and BenRiach and GlenDronach, with their lively programme of releases, taking their place in the limelight, along with Tamdhu distillery – reopened in 2012 after three years of silence and already building six new warehouses.

Speyside came to prominence as a malt whisky region in the late Victorian whisky boom, when no fewer than 21 distilleries were created in the area during the 1890s alone. It seems that in the current Scotch whisky boom Speyside is once again fairing very well.