The variety in character & style in Speyside is incredible.
There are no simple 'giveaways' like the peat or smoke
in Islay malts, at least not anything my roughly calibrated
senses could pick up. Speyside malts usually do have
plenty of nose - although this isn't always a good thing.
By the way, the Speyside region should not be confused
with the generically named 'Speyside' distillery which was
founded in 1990. Even after several decades, they still
are not able to produce anything but mediocre whisky.
Over 50% of all malt whisky distilleries in Scotland are
located in the central 'Speyside' region. 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'.
On the page about the Scotch whisky regions I explained the
difference between the old ‘Michael Jackson’ classification with
5 classic malt whisky regions and the new ‘SWA’ system which
only recognises 3 malt whisky regions: Speyside, Highlands and
Lowlands. For the purposes of MM, I’ll stick with the old system.
And in that old system, the Speyside region was actually divided
further into eight smaller districts - ‘Central Speyside’, Deveron,
Dufftown, Findhorn, Livet, Lossie, Rothes and Strathisla. Much of
this division was based on the original water sources of distilleries.
The main page with distillery data on Schotch Whisky provides some information
on all active and recently closed distilleries in Scotland. This page gives you an
overview of all distilleries in Speyside - both active and recently deceased.
You can click on the name of a distillery to jump to a full distillery profile with
more information about things like the history, location, equipment and portfolio.
Below you can find an overview of all Speyside malt whisky distilleries, divided
into the eight Speyside districts at the right that were identified by whisky
writer Michael Jackson in the late 1980s. Just try to keep in mind that it’s hard
to find real ‘regional’ traits in most of the whiskies distilled in the 3d millennium.
The most important part of Speyside is the central area around the river 'Spey'.
That’s where most distilleries are located and the central Speyside district is home to
some of the most famous single malts in the world, including Glenfarclas and Macallan.
Surprisingly enough, the heartland of Speyside itself is no more than 15 miles wide.
The presence of so many distilleries within
close proximity makes the area a perfect
location for people who want to do explore
Scotch whisky via a 'distillery tour'.
A lot of the 'big names' in the malt whisky
world are produced in the heart of Speyside.
Aberlour & Glenfarclas usually bottle classic,
sherried malts with lots of character, and so
did Macallan until they introduced their
sub-standard 'Fine Oak' series in 2004.
Many Central Speyside malts can give the expressive whiskies from the
Northern Highlands a run for their money - especially the older expressions.
It's difficult to define a typical ‘Deveron’ style because three out
of the four malt whisky distilleries in this eastern part of Speyside
(Banff, Glendronach and Glenglassaugh) have been closed for
considerable amounts of time. The latter two were reopened,
but the equipment or process may have been changed.
Whenever a malt whisky distillery was ‘mothballed’ for an extensive period of time, it usually isn’t
reopened unless a new owner takes over. They often have other ideas and insights than previous
owners and may need to change or replace old equipment to meet the demands of modern times.
Furthermore, changes in the workforce or the suppliers of ingredients may be unavoidable.
To make things in the area even more confusing, the fairly young MacDuff distillery changed its
name to ‘Glendeveron’ around 1970. These days, the name ‘Macduff’ is still most widely used by
whisky aficionados - but that hasn’t stopped the higher-ups from changing the brand on the bottle.
These days, the malt whisky distilled at MacDuff is sold with a ‘The Deveron’ label .
Within the ‘Dufftown’ whisky district there is a town also called Dufftown.
And within that town there is a malt whisky distillery with the name... yes,
you guessed it: Dufftown! But the town actually is home to multiple
distilleries, including the powerhouses of Balvenie and Glenfiddich.
The Dufftown district lies directly east of the Speyside heartland.
The surviving distilleries in the area produced almost as much malt
whisky as the entire central Speyside district (which houses almost
three times as many distilleries). I’m a fan of many older bottlings of
Convalmore and Mortlach - and the Balvenie Doublewood is great.
I wasn't a very big fan of Glenfiddich in the past, but starting in the 'mid-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 malt whisky producer, especially because at the same time the focus of many other large
liquor compenies seemed to shift from craftsmanship to mass production around the same time.
Benromach in Forres and Glenburgie in Alves are the only two surviving
malt whisky ‘distilleries’ in the Findhorn Valley district. I’ve put distilleries
between brackets because the ‘Glencraig’ malt was distilled at Glenburgie.
By the way, Michael Jackson places Tomatin in the 'Findhorn' district
as well, but in this case I’d like to deviate from his regional classification.
My personal experiences with Dallas Dhu were usually positive. Over the years I’ve sampled two
dozen expressions and all except one earned an ‘above average’ score. But I should add that by
the time I really started ‘power-dramming’ in the late 1990s, any expression of Dallas Dhu I could
find on the shelves of a liquorist would be at least 15 or 16 years old.
I personally think that the house style of Tomatin is more in line with Northern Highland whiskies
like Dalmore and Glen Ord. Given the ‘personal’ nature of Malt Madness, I’m going my own way...
Older whiskies are not ALWAYS better than younger ones - but (at least for me) most
malt whickies require at least a decade in a decent cask (except perhaps some peat monsters).
That explains why the average score for all Benromachs I’ve sampled is slightly lower than that of
Dallas Dhu - after Gordon & MacPhail relaunched it they had to release many younger bottlings.
Just south of the central Speyside area, around the rivers 'Livet' & 'Avon',
we find the 'Livet' district. When it comes to the Glenlivet and Tomintoul
distilleries, there’s a big difference between the whiskies distilled before
and after the mid-1980s. By the late 1990s a lot of the good stuff reached
its prime and was released at very friendly prices by Gordon & MacPhail.
Just keep in mind that 'house styles' are mostly extinct these days - if they existed at all.
Most distilleries try to offer a wide range of flavours with different expressions now. Any profile will
drift over time anyway as production methods (stills, casks) and ingredients (barley) change over time.
Another personal favourite from the area is Braes of Glenlivet - these days known as ‘Braeval’.
They seem to have used more sherry casks (or at least fresh Oloroso casks) in the past than many
other distilleries in the area. Some older single cask bottlings of Braeval are simply staggering!
Modern (official) bottlings cannot be compared to those ‘sherry bombs’.
Around the town of Elgin, 20 miles north of Speyside’s centre,
a number of 'Lossie' distilleries produce very diverse malts.
Longmorn and Linkwood can compete with many classic
sherried Speysiders like Macallan - especially these days.
I’ve tried a handful of great Mosstowies as well.
Most people that have had the misfortune of tasting ‘The Black Whisky’ Loch Dhu agree
that it probably is the worst Scotch malt whisky in recent history - if not ever. In fact,
SO many people seemed to agree with that assessment that the brand Loch Dhu was
discontinued around the year 2000. That’s one lost whisky I won't shed many tears about.
(By the way, there’s no Loch Dhu distillery; the stuff was actually made at Mannochmore.)
The Benriach distillery is one of the best examples of a
successful ‘revamp’ of a distillery. I hadn’t found a lot of very
interesting bottles until Billy Walker and a few other investors
bought Benriach in 2004 and started to release many great
bottlings - most very nice AND interesting to boot.
But the ‘Lossie’ region has a dark child as well...
The 'Rothes' district lies directly north of the central Speyside district.
Most of the malts from the area I've tried so far were very similar to 'real'
Speyside malt whiskies. 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 relative underachievers Glen Spey or Speyburn.
On the other hand, the youngest Speyburn OB offered great value.
By the way, the range of Glen Grant offers a fine example of the fairly tiny role that the region plays
in the style of a malt whisky. For example, I found that in the late 1990s the young Glen Grant OB
(without age statement) resembled a young Tamdhu more closely than a 30yo Glen Grant by G&M.
Once again I'd like to point out that I feel that traits like the peating level of the malt, the type and
size of the cask(s) and the length of time a whisky gets to spend in those casks have more effect
on the profile of a whisky than the region where a distillery happens to be located.
If ‘regional influences’ still exist in Scotch whisky, they are too subtle for
me to pick them up. I could distinguish ‘Kildalton’ whiskies from other Islay
whiskies in the past - and in blind tests I was able to identify single malts
from the Strathisla district by a subtle ‘piney’ trait.
The small ‘Strathisla’ area inbetween Dufftown and Deveron is home to only 3 whisky distilleries.
Two of them can be easily identified by the word ‘strath’ in their name. (A ‘strath’ is a wide river
valley, usually wider and shallower than a ‘glen’.) The third one wasn’t even the third one for over
a decade because Glen Keith was mothballed between 1999 and 2013. Fortunately, the beautiful
distillery (almost as beautiful as the nearby Strathisla distillery itself) is operational again.
That concludes the page about the Speyside whisky region and the districts it contains.
You can find links to the other regions and distilleries in Scotland on the pages about
the Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown. And keep in mind that they make excellent
(malt) whisky in many faraway countries like India, Japan, Taiwan and Tasmania as well these days.
During the 1990s, virtually all malt whisky was Scotch whisky by definition.
Irish whiskey still was recovering from a slump and Japanese whisky hardly made it to these shores.
But times (and prices) have changed. Despite what the focus of Malt Madness on Scottish stuff might suggest,
the whisky world now offers plenty of interesting alternatives to Scotch whisky. So, why not explore a bit?