The Speyside region (around the valley of the river Spey in the eastern Highlands) has the greatest concentration of distilleries, being home to 50 of Scotland’s 101 malt whisky distilleries, which includes The Glenlivet, Macallan, Glenfarclas, Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Benromach. Speyside is also hailed for producing distinctively elegant, complex and sophisticated malt whiskies. Sounds great. But those characteristics are hardly absent from other regions of Scotland. Is it possible to be more specific about a region with so many distilleries that are individual?
Let’s start with the flavour profile. One example of what the region offers is Speyside Reserve, a blended malt bottled by Berry Bros & Rudd.
“Speyside Reserve is designed to reflect our view of the Speyside character, and as such has fruit, honey, and slightly floral characteristics,” says Doug McIvor, spirits manager, Berry Bros & Rudd.
“However, this view is inevitably a generalisation, which can be dangerous, and generally I try to avoid making generalisations as Speyside has such a diversity of styles.”
Speyside’s diversity includes Balvenie’s honey and vanilla character, Glenfiddich is a fruity style led by pears, The Glenlivet’s fruityness includes tropical fruit notes such as pineapple, while Macallan has a dried fruit and spice character.
Such variety reflects the fact that each stage of the production process, particularly fermentation and distillation, influences the new make spirit. Each distillery is of course at liberty to follow an individual production regime (there aren’t any ‘regional rules’), resulting in new make spirit with a character that’s particular to each distillery.
The usual choice of casks for ageing in Speyside (as in the rest of Scotland) is Bourbon barrels, which are renowned for contributing a vanilla flavour, and sherry casks, hailed for adding dried fruit notes. However, this doesn’t mean Bourbon and sherry casks exert a uniform vanilla or dried fruit influence on the malt.
The range of flavours that evolve during ageing vary, depending on the individual character of the new make spirit, whether lighter or richer, and how this interacts with the cask.
“Benromach new make spirit is vibrantly fruity, particularly pears, and medium-bodied. Ageing in Bourbon barrels results in a lot of tropical fruit notes, including pineapple and mango, with just a hint of vanilla, while sherry casks result in a balance of chocolate, along with notes of fruit, nuts and delicate spices,” says Michael Urquhart, managing director of Gordon & MacPhail, owner of Benromach Distillery.
Additionally, various Speyside distilleries produce unpeated, or very lightly peated new make spirit, whereas various malts beyond Speyside are more heavily peated (ie. smoky).
This also influences interaction between the spirit and the cask, and consequently the character of the mature malt.
“Being unpeated allows the flavours from the cask and from our new make spirit, which features floral, citrus, apple and quite a lot of sweetness, to come through more directly than they would in a peated malt,” says Callum Fraser, production manager, Glenfarclas Distillery.
Continual innovation during the past 15-20 years in Speyside (as in the rest of Scotland), includes using casks beyond the usual choice of sherry and Bourbon, such as port or rum, which contribute a different range of flavours.
“When innovating we map any new expressions against the existing range to ensure that the underlying style is unmistakably Glenfiddich, and being predominantly fruity is a classic example of the Speyside style.
“Innovating is a key part of my role, and maintaining the classic house style while innovating is a real balancing act,” says Brian Kinsman, master blender, Glenfiddich Distillery.
So, where does that leave us? Speyside undoubtedly produces amazing malts, but then so do other regions such as Islay.
Of course trying to find ‘unique’ Speyside characteristics that apply to every distillery will inevitably raise exceptions, or similar examples beyond Speyside, particularly as these days any style of malt whisky can really be produced in any part of Scotland.
In which case, sticking to generalisations seems the best option for us, the point being that a generalisation is a valid statement, just not an absolutely definitive term!
Consequently, thinking in terms of regional characteristics is still a valid starting point to navigate a category that offers so much choice.
Regionalism isn’t just about the style of the malt. “It also summons up the landscape and romance of the region where a distillery is located, and this will continue to be more important as whisky tourism grows,” says Russell Anderson, Macallan’s distillery manager.
One way of becoming more familiar with the Speyside region, and the malts, is to attend the annual Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival (May 2-6), now in its 14th year.
Meanwhile, as many malt whisky lovers become more knowledgeable, choosing a malt is increasingly based on technical rather than regional credentials: whether peated or unpeated, the type of cask, length of ageing, etc.
But whatever the technicalities involved, it all comes down to the flavour, and whether you like it.
Scotland malt whisky regions
Scotland comprises four malt whisky regions, with key descriptors providing a sense of the regional style. The Lowlands
have a reputation for producing a lighter style of malt whisky, while Islay
are both renowned for peated malts with a distinct smokeyness. Malts from the Highlands
are characterised by elegance and complexity, and while the Highlands includes the Speyside
region, the concentration of distilleries in Speyside means this is often considered as a region in its own right.