Over 50% of all malt whisky distilleries in Scotland are
located in the central 'Speyside' region alone. The Speyside
region itself stretches from Inverness in the West (usually
considered part of the Northern Highlands, except by the
late, great whisky writer Michael Jackson) to the watershed
of the river Deveron in the East. The entire region is less
than 100 miles wide and no more than 50 miles 'high'. Yet,
many people divide it further into eight smaller districts;
A lot of the 'big names' in maltland are produced in the heart of the Speyside region.
Aberlour and Glenfarclas usually bottle classic, sherried malts with lots of character,
and so did Macallan until they introduced their 'Fine Oak' series in 2004. These malts
give the expressive Northern Highlanders a run for their money; the older versions are
almost guaranteed to pass my '80 points / recommendable whisky!' benchmark.
That being said, I should point out that the sherried character of these whiskies has
little to do with the region; it's the result of the type of cask(s) used for ageing.
If you want to experience more of the 'original' charcter of the distillery, bottlings that
are matured in (mostly) bourbon casks should suit you better. Cragganmore offers
excellent examples of the type of whiskies in the 'natural' Speyside style that are
usually particularly popular among wine lovers. An Cnoc and Tamdhu are more modest
malts, but great summertime drams at a great price. And even underachievers like
Allt-A-Bhainne, Cardhu and Tormore seem not quite so mediocre when it's really hot
outside and you just need a whisky to moisturise your palate now and then.
The important part of Speyside is the central area where most distilleries are located.
The heartland of Speyside around the river 'Spey' itself is no more than 15 miles wide,
but as you can see at the right, it's home to some of the most famous single malts in
the world. This makes the area a perfect location for those who want to do a 'distillery
tour'. When I visited Scotland with some other maniacs in the summer of 2003 we did
just that. We visited Aberlour and Glenfarclas, but could have stopped at over a dozen
other distilleries along the way as well.
It's hard to say anything 'definitive' about this Eastern part of Speyside, because 3 out
of the 4 malt whisky distilleries in the area (Banff, Glendronach & Glenglassaugh) have
been closed down for considerable periods and I haven't sampled many expressions
from the remaining active distillery (Glen Deveron) either. Glendronachs and
Glenglassaugh were re-opened under new owners recently.
Directly East of the Speyside heartland lies the Dufftown district. It's home to malts
that are generally quite soft and sweet when they enter their teenage years, gaining
more power and character as they grow older. Balvenie, Dufftown and Mortlach are my
current favorites. Especially during springtime and summer, they make for a great after
dinner dram - or two. During the 1990's I wasn't a very big fan of Glenfiddich, but now
we're a few years into the 'noughties' the quality of the average 'Fiddich' seems to be
rising again. It's interesting to see this change in focus from such a large whisky
producer, especially because at the same time the focus of the second largest producer
(Macallan) has shifted from craftsmanship to mass production at the same time.
Michael Jackson puts Tomatin in the 'Findhorn' category of Speyside, but I think that
the house style is more in line with Northern Highlanders like Dalmore and Glen Ord. My
experiences with Benromach, Glenburgie and Dallas Dhu indicate that these Findhorn
malts need at least ten years to mature sufficiently. Not much news there I suppose;
except some peat monsters that goes for most single malts. Just keep in mind that
'house styles' will drift over time as production methods (stills, casks, etc.) change...
Just south of the central Speyside area, around the rivers 'Livet' & 'Avon'
we find the
'Livet' district. The Glenlivets, Tomintouls and Tamnavulins I've tried were mostly clean
and fresh at a young age, but once again I'd like to point out that I feel that matters
like peating level of the malt and the type of cask have a far greater impact on the
'house style' than the region where a distillery is located. For example, Braes of Glenlivet
(a.k.a. Braeval) seemed to have used more sherry casks (or at least fresh Oloroso casks) than the other distilleries in the area - and some single casks are simply staggering!
Around the town of Elgin, no more than twenty miles north of the centre of Speyside,
a number of 'Lossie' distilleries produce very diverse malts. Longmorn and Linkwood
can almost compete with the classic sherried Speysiders, and Miltonduff and Glen Moray
give it a nice try as well. Based on my experiences so far average bottlings from
Benriach, Coleburn and Glen Elgin are not quite as impressive, but still very drinkable.
But then again, there's Loch Dhu; the worst malt in the world. Many people seemed to
agree with that assessment and the brand Loch Dhu (the wisky was actually distilled
at Mannochmore) was discontinued around the year 2000. Well, I won't shed too many
tears about that - the stuff was really vile... According to Michael Jackson, Glenburgie
(which also produced the 'Glencraig' malt with a Lomond still) belongs in the 'Findhorn'
area, but it's located closer to many 'Lossie' distilleries. Perhaps Michael was focused
more on the valleys and glens than on purely geographic criteria like the distance?
The 'Rothes' district lies directly north of the Speyside heartland, so it's no surprise the
malts I've tried so far are very similar to 'real' Speyside malts. The official bottlings of
Glen Rothes can be excellent at a younger age while Glen Grant and Caperdonich seem
to need quite some time to reach their prime. At the same time, I've rarely enjoyed a
real 'stunner' from the underachievers Glen Spey or Speyburn. Glen Grant offers a fine
example of the fairly small role that the region plays in the style of a malt whisky; the
young OB (NAS) resembles a young Tamdhu more closely than a 30yo G&M bottling.
Based on my experiences so far, the Strathisla area seems to produce decent malts
with interesting noses but unsatisfying palates. Maybe a slightly 'piney' character
I've found is a regional influence? Well, perhaps, but to tell you the truth differences
between these sub-regions of Speyside are often too subtle for me to pick up. And
besides, as I've already pointed out, other factors play a much bigger role today...
The funny thing is that the closest neighbours of the Speyside distillery are Tomatin and
Dalwhinnie. Both manage to produce decent enough whisky. All in all, I wonder if the
subdivision of Speyside into smaller area's is useful. I've found considerable differences
between single malts from 'neighboring' distilleries and fairly striking similarities between
malt whiskies that were produced in different area's.
Anyway - on this page you can find an overview of all malt whisky distilleries in Speyside.
Click on the name of the distillery to jump to the distillery profile where you can find more
information about things like the history, equipment and portfolio of the distillery.
So, I have my doubts about the significance of the traditional whisky regions in the
modern whisky world. There is, however, one aspect of the enjoyment of
single malt Scotch whisky where the 'regional' approach makes a lot
of sense: vacation & travel in Scotland. The area may have
become more accessible in modern times, but from the
'usual' points of arrival in Scotland for most visitors
(Glasgow & Edinburgh), it can take quite some time to
reach certain distilleries on Islay and in the Highlands.
The distilleries that are located in the Lowlands and
Campbeltown regions are more easily accessible. For
example, from Glasgow you can reach Glengoyne and
Auchentoshan within an hour. Most distilleries in the
Highlands (where Speyside is 'technically' located) are
too far away from Glasgow or Edinburgh to allow for
a convenient round trip in a single day. So, most
visitors decide to stay for two days or more, allowing
for distillery visits, of course. The Speyside area is
just perfect in that respect; dozens of distilleries,
often located just a few miles from each other.
While it's theoretically possible to visit 3 or even 4
distilleries on a single day, it would be advisable
to restrict yourself to one or two.
I have to admit that Google Earth is a brilliant tool for the people that like to plan their own vacations - or that just want to enjoy some of their vacation in their minds ahead of schedule in a virtual way. The great thing is that you can import 'KMZ' files into the program, and somebody has made an overview with all malt whisky distilleries in Scotland.
If or when you've got Google Earth, just do a search for the KMZ file in your browser and install the file.
Alternatively, if you prefer to keep browsing I'd like to point you to the pages for the four other regions; the Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown - or one of the profiles for more than a hundred active & silent distilleries in Scotland. Check out the sitemap for an overview of the contents of the rest of this Malt Madness website.
Or you could check out the interactive map of Scotland that my brother Franc and I built a while ago...
The variety in character and style
in Speyside is incredible.
There are no simple 'giveaways' like the peat and smoke in
Islay malts, at least not anything my roughly calibrated
senses could pick up. Speyside malts usually do have plenty
of nose, but please note this isn't always a good thing.
It actually IS a good thing with most of the 'Speyside'
malt whisky distilleries, but in the case of the generically
named 'Speyside' distillery (founded a few decades ago)
their very mediocre whisky could have been a tad less
expressive, as far as I'm concerned. After more than a
decade of 'second chances', I still haven't found one single
expression from this distillery I could actually recommend...
So, that distillery might as well be avoided.
Is the distillery or