Glen Spey is one of the most 'obscure' distilleries in Scotland.
That’s despite the fact that it is located in the heartland of malt whisky
production: the Speyside area. The low profile might be caused by the
fact that the capacity of the distillery is relatively modest compared to other
distilleries in the area. What's more, Glen Spey was always meant to be
used for blended whisky and hardly any proper OB’s were ever released.
Glen Spey distillery was built in 1878 by James Stuart & Co. under the
name 'Mill of Rothes'. Less than a decade later James Stuart bought the
Macallan distillery and sold Glen Spey to W. & A. Gilbey for 11,000 GBP.
They were the first English company to buy a Scottish malt whisky distillery.
Glen Spey actually started its life as an oatmeal mill - founder James
Stuart was a corn merchant before he ventured into the whisky world.
The distillation equipment was simply added to the existing mill in the
years before the Glen Spey distillery was sold to the Gilbey company of
London in 1887. Apart from a fire in 1920 and an expansion of the
production capacity from two to four stills in 1970, the distillery went
about its business fairly quietly for more than a century
Glen Spey may be an obscure distillery, but it actually has quite a few fairly
interesting features. For one thing, they use special after-coolers to help
condense the vapours from the still. Several distilleries that are located
upstream along the Rothes Burn discard their warm water into the stream.
By the time the water reaches Glen Spey, the temperature is too high to be
fully effective in cooling the stills and condensing the spirit.
By the way, these days the distillers don't discharge hot water directly into the
streams and rivers any more - this would be bad for the local fish populations.
These days most hot water is recycled within the distilleries or cooled through
heat-exchangers before it's released back into the stream.
Another noteworthy feature of Glen Spey is the fact that the two spirit stills
both have so-called 'purifiers'. Purifiers act as small condensers, returning
a proportion of the alcohol vapours back to the pot to be re-distilled later.
So, this would increase the amount of 'reflux' within the pot stills.
These purifiers are said to produce a lighter, more delicate
malt whisky. Since the majority of the malt whisky produced
at Glen Spey is used in various blends (notably J&B - the
logo is even shown on the large name sign at the distillery),
I would imagine they would aim for a 'heavy' whisky with lots
of character, but apparently that's not the case... Based on
my experiences so far, the relative scarcity of Glen Spey as
a single malt isn't a huge loss to the malt whisky community;
less than half managed to earn a score of 80 points or more.
I claimed earlier that the first Glen Spey OB was a 12yo. However, as the pictures above prove there has been an eight years old bottling as well which looks very much like an official bottling. Unfortunately, this bottle isn't listed on the MMMonitor, so the existence isn't confirmed by one of the other maniacs. In the selection of tasting notes below you'll find my purely personal impressions of around half a dozen bottlings of the Glen Spey single malt - not all of them positive I'm afraid...
The distillery draws its ‘process water’ (used for the whisky)
from the Doonie Burn while the Rothes Burn is used to
provide Glen Spey with its cooling water. Due to the many
distilleries upstream, the water temperature is quite high.
Glen Spey is hardly marketed as a whisky brand - so guided tours of the distillery are not available.
1) Apparently, an alternative name for this malt whisky distillery during the
early years was 'Millhaugh' - which may have been hard to pronounce. .
2) Glen Spey, Glenlossie and Strathmill are Diageo's only remaining
distilleries to still use purifiers in the production process.
5) A so-called semi-lauter mash tun is used at the Glen Spey distillery.
Furthermore, eight stainless steel washbacks are used.
3) The malt whisky distilled at the Glen Spey distillery has always been
used for blending and blended whisky. The first semi-official bottling of Glen
Spey (in the Flora & Fauna range) wasn't released until 2001.
7) In the early noughties J&B was the second-best selling blended whisky
after Johnny Walker, but it has dropped a few spots on the list since then.
4) Glen Spey is one of five malt whisky distilleries located in or near the town
of Rothes in Banffshire. The others are Glenrothes, Glen Grant and Speyburn
(all active) and Caperdonich (mothballed).
6) Most of the malt whisky distilled at Glen Spey has a generic profile and
is used in the famous brand of J&B blended whisky.
2001 - Diageo launches the very first semi-official bottling of Glen
Spey - a 12yo 'Flora & Fauna' release.
2010 - Almost a decade after the Flora & Fauna semi-official
bottling was released, two new "official-ish" bottlings appear;
a Special Release at 21yo and a Manager's Choice from 1996.
And let's be honest, Diageo would have been unwise if they had
not jumped at the opportunity to sell some of their Glen Spey
whisky with a much larger mark-up than they could hope to get
for the whisky if it was used or sold for blending. Enough people
with more money than taste are willing to pay...
2018 - The whisky world as a whole has been hectic for the
past few years, with many existing distilleries being expanded
and new ones being built. However, progress seems to have
passed Glen Spey by - possibly because the J&B blend has
been suffering from declining sales for the past decade, which
may have made investment an unattractive proposition.
2006 - Murray McDavid releases the Glen Spey 30yo 1974/2004
(46%, MmcD Mission IV, 720 Bts.) - which some maniacs consider
as the very best botling of Glen Spey ever released.
Glen Spey 12yo (43%, Flora & Fauna, Bottled +/- 2004)
Nose: Neutral. Light. Clean. Maybe just a little bit herbal. Only the obscurity maskes it appealing.
Taste: Grainy and a little bit bitter... Gritty. Growing bittersweet in te finish. Not too impressive.
Score: 65 points - I guess this explains why Glen Spey is hardly ever bottled as a single malt.
Glen Spey-Glenlivet NAS (56.5%, Cadenhead's, Bottled +/- 2003, 5cl).
Unfortunately, Cadenhead's doesn't provide a distillation or bottling year on the mini's in this range.
Nose: Sweet and polished. Sweetened cereals. Grain. Barley. It becomes spicier after adding water.
Taste: 'Middle of the road' and not very expressive. Some nice liquorice notes but not much else.
Score: 75 points - let's go with a score of 75 points for this whisky; we're still in 'average' territory.
Glen Spey 15yo 1985/2001 (43%, Signatory, C#3045, 678 Bts.) - a 'Hamstergeddon' malt.
Nose: Something like citrus, but not actual citrus. Sharp nose. Tea leaves. Continued development.
Palate: A little dull and flat compared to the nose. keeping the overall score out of the 80's.
Score: 77 points - despite the interesting nose I can't really recommend it..
Glen Spey-Glenlivet 15yo 1985/2001 (57.5%, Cadenhead's, Sherry Butt, July 2001, 612 Bottles)
Nose: Full & heavy, big and sweet. Could perhaps use just a little more depth, but I like it. Then spices.
Marmeldade? Fresh croissants with melting butter. Just the slightest hint of burnt toast. The breakfast malt...
Taste: Sweet, fruity and very drinkable at cask strength. Bit of orangy bittersweetness in the finish.
Score: 85 points - without a shadow of a doubt the best Glen Spey I ever tried.
Glen Spey 1985/1999 (60.9%, Cadenhead's, 222 Bottles)
Nose: Sweet start, evolving into bittersweet fruits. Blueberries. Coffee? Nice but not very 'deep'...
Taste: A single drop causes a smooth micro-explosion in your mouth. Becomes grittier with water
Score: 82 points - very pleasant, but it wasn't quite complex enough for the upper 80's.
Glen Spey 13yo 1981/1995 (62.3%, Cadenhead's, Distilled June 1981, Bottled March 1995)
Nose: Restrained start with a hint of coffee. Something nutty? Diesel? A little odd but interesting.
Taste: Salty start; quite unusual. Benefits from a little water; suddenly turns sweet. Coffee as well.
Score: 82 points - further proof that great bottlings come from even the most obscure distilleries.
Glen Spey 21yo 1970 (55.4%, James McArthur, 5cl)
Nose: Sweet and spicy. Flowery. Grassy and just a little herbal. Lemon.
Not a powerhouse malt, but certainly more expressive than the big bottle I tried more than five years ago.
Taste: I got beer on the palate; sour with a pinch of salt. Peat? Menthol. Pine resin. Liquorice.
This expression of Glen Spey whisky is not really my type but interesting enough...
Score: 74 points - just a smidgen below average.
My own tasting notes for some expressions of Glen Spey malt whisky are collected on this distillery profile.
Those were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Glen Spey I've tried over the years, but the notes should
convey how I felt about those whiskies. However, these tasting notes only reflect my purely personal opinion.
Your tastes might be different from mine - so it would be prudent to check out some other opinions as well.
Serge Valentin’s Whiskyfun website offers tasting notes on thousands of whisky bottlings, including Glen Spey.
The Malt Maniacs Monitor provides opinions of several other aficionados on over 15,000 different whiskies.
But perhaps you'd like to read a little bit more about whisky in general or single malt Scotch whisky in particular?
In that case, you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky - 10 chapters filled with (almost)
everything you need to know in order to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky. Or, if you’d like
to dig a little deeper, the Whisky Lexicon offers more detailed information on a bunch of whisky-related topics.