Travel

Desperately seeking Spey what

The Speyside Festival starts April 28th. To mark the event Michael Jackson visits the region and considers its boundaries
By Michael Jackson
To say that something is taken for granted can imply that perhaps it shouldn’t be. Can I take it that you are familiar with the geography of famous drinks? Yes? Hand on heart? So, how about using the index finger of the other hand to point out, on an unmarked map, the following: Pilsen and Budweis, the Rhine and the Mosel, Burgundy and Bordeaux, Charente and Gascony, Oporto and Jerez, Islay and Speyside. Put your finger on them all did you? Excellent.Let’s not patronise any whisky novice who was not quite sure about Islay and Speyside. When I began to explore whisky, Islay was neglected; now, it is celebrated. Speyside has been celebrated for as long as any of us can remember, though its celebrity sometimes seems to be taken for granted. I hear, less frequently on Islay than on Speyside, that my writing has contributed to this new juxtaposition of the great whisky regions. Certainly, I have devoted much energy to Islay, but I have also written about Speyside with due reverence.Islay used to seem at a disadvantage. People were not sure how to pronounce its name. It was not on the Scottish mainland (it still isn’t). It was often described as being remote and stormy. Its best-known whiskies were yet harder to pronounce, with smoky, medicinal tastes that some drinkers found difficult to acquire (still are); it had few hotels, and was not geared for tourism (still largely true).All of those disadvantages have been turned round. Or perhaps they turned round of their own accord. Like every other market, tourism has fragmented. A minority of vacationers, but with significant disposable income, want to visit places that are not “touristy”. If the name, the journey, the weather and the local products present a challenge, that is all to the good.Being an island is the greatest of Islay’s advantages. There may be a parochial rivalry between Port Ellen and Bowmore, but both clearly belong to Islay. It is identifiable and contained. Its border is its coast. This is accentuated by the maritime character of its malts. They do not all speak loudly of their origins but enough do to make a very distinct impression.The first single malts to be widely known were in the were mild, flowery and fruity, then enthusiasts graduated to the salt,
seaweed and peat.“Is this whisky any good?” an American friend asked me the other day. “Well, it’s a Speysider,” I began. “Spey what?” he said. Or was it, “Say what?” (American for “Pardon me?”). In his enthusiasm to embrace malts, he had scarcely had time to
notice Speyside. He had vaulted over the Cairngorms and landed on the Big Strand.Newcomers to malt whisky do not arrive with a knowledge of its geography. We need to take a step backwards.A STATE OF MIND?It doesn’t look as tricky as Islay, but the uninitiated do not necessarily know how to pronounce “Spey”. Nor do they necessarily know that the Spey is a river, let alone that it is much more, too. Speyside is a distillery, a region, perhaps a style of whisky, an imprimatur, a state of mind…?Just how big or small is Speyside? Where does it begin and end? Where is it? Not being an island, it is not so easily isolated. Which city, town or village is its capital? And what is the salient character of its whiskies?Every knowledgeable whisky lover can respond with confidence to these questions, but no two sets of answers will be the same. Speyside does not necessarily run the whole length of the river. Nor is it necessarily restricted to the banks of the one river. Its capital? There are too many candidates.And there are arguably too many distilleries. Depending on where you set the boundaries, between a third and a half of all Scotland’s malt distilleries are on Speyside.Can such a large proportion constitute an elite? And, from that many distilleries, is it possible to discern a common style? This last question raises another.Scotland’s whisky regions were originally drawn up for the convenience of regulation. Is their purpose today to make sense of the distilleries’ geography, or to indicate style? In mapping and discussing the regions in my 1987 World Guide to Whisky, my first concern was to divide the distilleries into manageable, logical, geographical groups, but I did also try to tease out similarities of style.For the novice, I explained that Scotland had several distilleries on islands, among which Islay was so important as to be a region in its own right. Likewise, the Highlands had at their heart an especially rich region of distilleries known as Speyside. My definition of Speyside was – and has continued to be – generous, perhaps excessively so.By my reckoning, a whisky lover who had driven from Glasgow or Edinburgh for a morning visit to a relatively accessible Highland distillery like Aberfeldy, Edradour or Glenturret could in the afternoon have a comfortable drive over the hill the 40-odd miles to Dalwhinnie, which is close to the source of the Spey.Long before it gained a wider audience as one of the Classic Malts, I had an affection for Dalwhinnie. Standing alone on what seems to the roof of Scotland, it presents a dramatic picture: a distillery that is also a weather station. The drama is heightened when there is snow on the ground. Perhaps it was in the first place the distillery and its location that excited my imagination, rather than its whisky, but the one can lead to the other. When I drink Dalwhinnie, I think of the distillery, standing up to the elements, taking their measure, and meanwhile producing Essence of Scotland.When marketing men talk glibly of “the brand”, my irritation is fired by memories of wind-stung walks at Dalwhinnie.Could such assaults on the senses, such unforgettable places, be synthesised by the new product development department of an advertising agency?(“The research says that the 18-to-25s find this terrain a little bleak. Could we reposition Dalwhinnie? The creatives have suggested we relaunch it as being made in the smoky mountains of North Carolina.Our guys in New York have found an old tobacco-drying shed that could be adapted as The Dalwhinnie Experience. The liquid? We could make that at our plant in Secaucus, New Jersey”). Sorry, I drifted into a daydream, more of a daymare, I guess. Nothing like that could ever happen.I tried to move Dalwhinnie, using only the strength of my convictions. In the Classic Malts range, Dalwhinnie is identified as a Highlander, but I had already placed it in my Speyside. On what possible grounds? On its peaty plateau – so close to the source of the Spey.Here, the Spey is little more than a stream, a creek – a burn, in the Scottish version of the English language. Snow-melt on the mountain peaks gathers in tiny lakes – known as lochans, then spills down into the Spey. The water lingers over peat before gradually gathering speed. It is born here: an infant river that will never grow big, rarely more than 100 yards wide, not 100 miles long by the most generous stretch, yet it has in its day washed away bridges and made the earth move. A remarkable river alongside which so many great whiskies are made. We whisky-lovers need better to understand its influence, so that we can celebrate (and sell) it anew.There is a slight peatiness to Dalwhinnie’s whisky, and a fullness of flavour, preserved by the reintroduction of worm tubs after an unsuccessful intrusion by shell-and-tube condensers. That slight peatiness might be advanced by some as a Highland characteristic rather than a Speyside note.When I first took an interest in such matters, many Speyside whiskies had a whisper of fragrant peat smokiness. Whenever I mention this on Speyside, I am given a reproachful look, as though I had farted in the kirk on Sunday and am to be deported to Islay.In vain, I argue that there is more than one shade of peat smokiness, and that such characteristics are not exclusively the property of island distillers. The peat smokiness of Speyside whiskies was light and heathery, against a background of estery fruitiness. The most assertive Islay malts are more peaty, tar-like, oily, seaweedy and salty (though the last characteristic is well known to exist only in my imagination).IN THE CLOUDSAfew miles down the Spey, I find Ricky Christie in his office in a 200 year old, waterdriven, grain mill. Ricky introduces me to Andrew Shand, manager of the Speyside Distillery. Despite its name, this distillery is not generally regarded as being on Speyside. Where is it? Somewhere up there in the clouds.When I researched my World Guide to Whisky, there was no such distillery. When one suddenly started appearing on maps, my initial inquiries were greeted with mystification. No one seemed to know much about it.I learned that, between 1895 and 1910, there was a distillery called Speyside near Kingussie. This caught the imagination of Ricky Christie’s father George. Home from World War II, and working as a merchant, blender and bottler, George began to want a distillery of his own.In the late 1950s, he bought a site for his distillery. In the early 1960s, he broke ground. As the premises took shape, it resembled a farm building made from field stones by the technique of dry stone dyking. The project was self-financed, slow to progress, and cautious in scale. It eventually became clear that the building was too small, and would have to be extended slightly. Such was the lie of the land that the extended portion is at a slight angle to the rest, as though the building were turning a corner.The new Speyside distillery, at Drumguish, near Kingussie, produced its first spirit in 1991. The barley malt used is “the average Speyside mix”, according to Ricky Christie. Seven times a week, a fourton mash passes through the semi-lauter system. The onion-shaped stills produce a nutty, flowery spirit. I find a touch of mustardy, grassy, peatiness in the 10 year old Speyside, and a more obvious driedgrass note in a version called Drumguish, which has no age statementThe Speyside distillery is on an estate five or six miles long by two or three wide. The distillery is on the river Tromie, which meets the Spey a quarter of a mile away. The Spey then proceeds for one oR two miles through the estate.INSPIRATIONAL SPIRITIf a re-born distillery with that inherited name, and grounds that accommodate the river, cannot call itself a Speysider, what can? Where on the river does Speyside start? Perhaps at Cromdale, with the inspirational spirit of Balmenach. This distillery was founded by the family of Robert Bruce Lockhart’s, and features in his 1951 book Scotch, In Fact And Story. Another member of the family was Sir Compton Mackenzie, author of Whisky Galore. Again, I find in this big malt a leafy peatiness. Does this root the whisky in the Highlands or is it a traditional Speysider?Albeit near the river, perhaps the countryside here is just too wild to produce the elegance that is regarded as the attribute of the finest Speyside malt. Each of these distilleries on the upper stretch of the river has its own strong claim to our attention.So does Tormore, with the most beautifully designed exterior of any distillery. The first time I encountered it, unexpectedly, I wondered whether I had a stumbled upon a spa offering a mountain cure: perhaps fresh air, spring water and pine forest. I suppose it does. The water can be sampled at the dam just behind the distillery. Or it can be taken in sweeter, richer, form as the water of life.With its carillon playing Scottish folk tunes on the quarter-hour, its ornamental curling lake, and topiary in the shape of mash tun and still, Tormore is a showpiece that deserves to be better known. It was designed in the late 1950s by Sir Albert Richardson, who was president of the Royal Academy. Aesthetically, it is a credit to the industry.With such interesting distilleries, it is perhaps no surprise that I lingered up river when Whisky Magazine recently asked me to take a new look at the Spey.JOSTLING BY THE WATERFrom Cragganmore and Glenfarclas to Aberlour and Macallan, the more familiar and famous names of Speyside jostle one another for a good spot by the nowswelling waters.I spend two or three days renewing acquaintanceships, asking what Speyside means to them, and trying to distil their answers to a quintessence.One day, John Grant invites me to lunch at Glenfarclas. I have always wondered how such large stills produce such a fullbodied spirit. The answer has been staring me in the face: the caramelisation caused by direct-flame heating of the stills.At lunch, the geographical question is raised. Someone suggests a wholly arbitrary measure: yours is a Speyside distillery if it is within five miles of the river.Another diner has a better idea: if your water source flows into the Spey, your claim is secure. With a sixth generation of the family now active, the Grants should know Speyside. Let’s hope they can maintain their most independent position.Another day, a bar lunch with Alan Winchester, of Chivas. His rich knowledge of Speyside distilleries is clearly powered by a passion for the spirit.GRANDE CHAMPAGNEHe gestures toward Ben Rinnes the peak, rather than the distillery – and itemises the points at which water rises and flows to different distilleries. That could be another criterion: a Grande Champagne of Speyside, though it would miss many renowned distilleries.One of the benificiaries would be Glenallachie, built in 1967 to the clean, functional, design of Delmé Evans. From the miniature cask on the pagoda to the waterfall and dam, it is a pretty distillery, making a sweetish, perfumy malt that has rarely been seen in the bottle. We shall be seeing a little more of Glenallachie, and Alan gave me a tasting of a 16 year old matured in dry oloroso. It was rich and fruity, with cherry and chocolate flavours.Men like Alan provide their companies with an experience and perspective that cannot be matched by the ciphers that they seem to want. The same thought occurs to me when I sample a honeyish Manager’s Choice with Ed Dodson, retiring at Glen Moray after more than 40 years in the industry.Glen Moray is on the Lossie, which Ed tells me was once a tributary of the Spey.That historical reminder is hardly necessary. Everyone regards the Lossie distilleries as Speysiders. In retirement, Ed’s first task will be to help with the Speyside festival.I have long regarded The Craigellachie Hotel as my base on Speyside, and especially for the festival. It has recently changed hands, and I hope the new owners continue to develop it as Whisky Central. If they do, it has tremendous potential. If they don’t, whisky-lovers could go to Keith, Dufftown especially, Tomintoul, even Rothes, or Elgin – and Inverness is not far.In Rothes on my recent trip, I was reminded that hotel rooms can still be in short supply. The Berry family (of …Brothers and Rudd) has acquired the former manse, dating from the 1850s, to accommodate visitors to the Glenrothes distillery. That made for a pleasant walk through woods to the smartly maintained distillery, established in 1878/9 but extensively refurbished in the 1960s and 1980s, with pebbledash to tell the tale. It is a handsome distillery nonetheless. The Rothes Burn, which crashes past the distillery on its way to the Spey, provides cooling water. Two wells provide the mashing water.That perfumy, sweet shop, aroma, and liquorice flavour? I believe it derives from the large stills, run slowly, and plenty of copper.We debated this, and less pressing matters, over dinner at the manse. My host that night was Ronnie Cox. Within two or three weeks, I had run into him twice, wearing a plaid suit: in San Francisco and Tokyo.The world does a good job of trying to find Speyside. On those occasions when it does not succeed, the likes of Ronnie will take Speyside to the world.