Speyside’s Identity Crisis?

Not all the capacity increases have been aimed at the blended scotch market, however, with construction of a 16mla, £100m distillery on The Macallan’s site currently ongoing. This is intended to provide spirit for single malt bottling, as is the case with The Glenlivet, which overtook Glenfiddich as the world’s best-selling single malt during 2014. Output was increased to 10.5m litres with the addition of a new production plant in 2009/10. There are plans ultimately to grow capacity to 30mla.

The Glenlivet’s owner is Pernod Ricard subsidiary Chivas Brothers, which has a high concentration of activities on Speyside, with 13 of its 14 malt distilleries located there, along with extensive handling and maturation facilities. In 2015 Chivas Brothers’ new 10mla Dalmunach distillery officially opened for business.


Not surprisingly, the Chivas team takes a slightly different view of Speyside identity to Robinson. The company’s brand experience director, Neil Macdonald, says: “I believe Speyside has a genuine regional style. Islay and Speyside are the two definitive regional styles of scotch malt whisky. Everyone is there to break the rules now, but there are core references and founding characteristics of Speyside whiskies, and master distillers are looking for a fruity, floral, rich style. The heavily-sherried Speysides are a sub-category, if you like, and the spirit being made overall is of a style.”

He adds: “Producers need to offer a wider range of expressions, so you get peated Glen Moray and so on, but single malts such as The Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve and Aberlour 10 Year Old really embody what Speyside is. On Speyside you know you’re in whisky country. There’s a distillery round every corner and everyone knows someone who works in a distillery. There’s a real concentration of activity and a great pool of expertise, and there has been for a long time.”

Macdonald says: “There was an early critical mass on Speyside going back to the early 19th century, especially in the Glenlivet area. There was a well-known ‘appellation’ of Glenlivet before the establishment of The Glenlvet distillery. The area had a great reputation for its whiskies and you would gravitate to the region as a distiller. There was a reliable source of pure cold water, barley from the Laich of Moray and local peat. Then from around the middle of the 19th century you had the railway providing transportation.”

He adds: “The Speyside style is appreciated all over the world and is the bedrock of the industry. Lots of Speyside distilleries were designed for blending, and Longmorn, for example, is hugely respected by blenders. Don’t forget that pioneer blender Andrew Usher used Glenlivet in his early blends.”


Ewan Mackintosh, chief operating officer for Speyside-centred Gordon & MacPhail of Elgin, owner of Benromach distillery, makes the point that: “Whisky tourism promotes the origins of Speyside whiskies. Consider the success of the Spirit of Speyside whisky festival, which is about to celebrate its 14th year, or the Malt Whisky Trail [featuring eight distilleries and the Speyside Cooperage], which has existed for over 40 years. Both initiatives attract visitors from throughout the world and are built on the success of promoting the Speyside region.”

Both Robinson and Macdonald agree on how the Spirit of Speyside whisky festival encourages and reinforces a sense of regional identity. In 2015 the festival featured more than 400 events, generating an estimated £1.4m for the local economy, and a new ‘mini-festival’ is to be staged in Elgin this September. According to festival director Ann Miller: “The festival has brought together whisky distillers large and small, independent bottlers and retailers. They all work together to promote the Speyside region and its character to the many enthusiastic visitors who come each year.

“By offering such a variety of distillery visits and whisky themed events they have really put the region on the map.”

Gordon & MacPhail’s Mackintosh says: “The regional boundaries of scotch whisky production are a little more blurred than they were as distillers experiment and produce expressions that perhaps were not ‘typical’ for a particular region of Scotland.  With this in mind, producers often focus on waxing lyrical about their respective whiskies as a priority. However, geographical location is an important part of the message as product provenance is still an important driver of purchase.”

That may be so, but as regional boundaries blur, perhaps consumers are right to pay less attention to geographical malt whisky production areas and their assumed influences on whisky character than they might have in the past. After all, fifth-generation Speyside family distilling stalwart William Grant & Sons recently launched its first heavily peated single malt. And where was it produced? Not on the peat-laden island of Islay but at Ailsa Bay distillery in the Lowland region, traditionally home to polite, delicate, floral whiskies.

At a Glance- Speyside by numbers

- Total scotch malt whisky capacity 2015: 353.8mla

- Speyside region malt whisky capacity 2015: 225.5mla

- Best-selling Speyside single malts and principal expressions (Cased sales 2014)

- The Glenlivet: 1,080,000 – Founder’s Reserve, 15 Year Old French Oak Reserve, 18 Year Old, 21 Year Old Archive

- Glenfiddich: 1,052,240 – 12, 15, 18 and 21 Year Olds, Rich Oak 14 Year Old

- The Macallan: 787,000: Gold, Amber, Sienna, Ruby

- The Singleton: 410,000 (overall figure includes Singleton from Dufftown and Glendullan distilleries on Speyside as well as Glen Ord in the Highland region): Singleton of Dufftown 12, 15 and 18 Year Olds, Singleton of Glendullan 12 Year Old

- Aberlour: 287,000: 12, 16 and 18 Year Olds, a’bunadh

- Balvenie: 246,700: Doublewood 12 and 17 Year Olds, Caribbean Cask 14 Year Old, Portwood 21 Year Old

- Glen Grant: 221,840 – Major’s Reserve, 10 and 16 Year Olds

- Cardhu: 190,000 – 12, 15 and 18 Year Olds

[Statistical source: The Scotch Whisky Industry Review 2015]

Spirit of Speyside Festival: April 28-May 2


Scotland’s Malt Whisky Trail: maltwhiskytrail.com