Distillery Focus

Taste and Consistency

The story behind one of Charles Doig’s creations
By Gavin D. Smith
Speyburn Distillery was born in the heat of the late Victorian whisky boom, though ‘heat’ is probably not the most appropriate word to use, seeing as the first spirit flowed during a mid-December snowstorm, before the newly-built stillhouse had even been fitted with doors and windows!

The desperate hurry to make spirit was due to the fact that the distillery was constructed in 1897 – Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year – and the founders were keen to have whisky distilled before the year was out in order to be able, ultimately, to offer a special commemorative release. Watched over by distillery manager John Smith, the production workers battled to produce spirit in the teeth of a blizzard, and the result was just one butt, which carried 1897 as the year of filling.

The last decade of the 19th century saw Speyside confirmed as the most important region in Scotland in which to make whisky, partly due to the abundance of barley, the excellent rail links to the south, and a desire by blenders to have spirit that was elegant, fruity and lacking in overt peatiness. In total, a remarkable 24 new distilleries were constructed on Speyside during the last decade of the 19th century.

Speyburn was built in a small valley beside the Granty Burn, a tributary of the River Spey, on the outskirts of Rothes, 10 miles south of Elgin. It was designed by Charles Doig, who practiced in Elgin and is best-known for his trademark Chinese-style, kiln pagoda head, formally known as a Doig ventilator. As well as equipping Speyburn with a ventilator, Doig also installed the first set of pneumatic ‘drum’ maltings in any Scottish malt distillery (see panel).

Speyburn was commissioned by Glasgow-based blenders and whisky merchants John Hopkins & Co., already owners of Tobermory Distillery and cost some £17,000 to build, with the new plant going on to operate under the auspices of the Speyburn-Glenlivet Distillery Co. Ltd.

The acquisitive Distillers Company Ltd. purchased John Hopkins & Co. in 1916, and with it Speyburn, which supplied malt whisky for DCL’s many blends. Speyburn had a very low profile as a single malt, with just a 12-years-old Flora & Fauna bottling being available. A more widely distributed 10-year-old replaced the Flora & Fauna expression in 1992, a year after Inver House Distillers Ltd. acquired the distillery. However, most of the output continued to be used for blending, and in particular for the lavishly-packaged Pinwinnie blend.

Inver House Distillers had been established in 1964 as a subsidiary of the North American company, Publicker Industries, and after acquiring Speyburn, the company proceeded to buy up Pulteney, Knochdhu and Balmenach Distilleries.

2001 saw Pacific Spirits buy Inver House for $85, and just five years later, International Beveridge Holdings Ltd. took over Pacific Spirits, adding Scotch whisky to its extensive portfolio of spirits and beer brands.

In 2009 a new expression of Speyburn without an age statement by the name of Bradan Orach was released to accompany the existing 10-years-old bottling. Bradan Orach translates from the Gaelic as ‘golden salmon,’ and is so named in tribute to the River Spey, renowned as one of Scotland’s finest salmon rivers.

Speyburn has long been a popular single malt in the USA, principally due to Inver House’s original US parent, Publicker Industries, and according to global brand ambassador Lukasz Dynowiak, “Speyburn’s key focus markets are the UK, USA and global travel retail. In fact, we’ve very recently launched our first travel retail exclusive collection.

“Speyburn’s unique taste and consistency has acquired fans globally, winning a plethora of gold awards. Speyburn is a good quality whisky, sold at a reasonable price, which is why consumers enjoy it so much.”

Dynowiak adds, “In the UK, our core collection includes Bradan Orach, 10 Years Old, 15 Years Old and our most recent addition, the 18 Years Old, matured in American and Spanish oak casks. In the global travel retail market, we have the Hopkins Reserve, 10 Years Old and 16 Years Old. In the USA, we offer consumers the Bradan Orach, 10 Years Old, Arranta Casks, Companion Cask, 15 Years Old and 18 Years Old.”

Hopkins Reserve commemorates the distillery founder, while Arranta is matured exclusively in first-fill Bourbon casks, and Companion Cask is aged in ex-Buffalo Trace casks.

Distillery manager at Speyburn is Bobby Anderson, who began his career in distilling during the 1980s at Miltonduff, where his grandfather had been manager, going on to work at fellow Chivas Brothers-owned Glentauchers and Glenburgie Distilleries, then Speyburn.

According to Anderson, “We’ve made quite a few changes at the distillery in the last couple of years which have resulted in our production output increasing by 125 per cent. This included adding a new mashtun, additional malt storage, a new spirit still and new steel wash backs. In addition, we have installed a new industry-leading energy recovery system, saving us around 20 per cent of energy.

“We increased our fermentation time to make the distillation cycle easier, resulting in a more consistent wash, and to optimise spirit yield. The character as a result is very similar and some even report tasting more esters.”

Anderson adds, “Our 18 Years Old is now beginning to hit the shops. Although it’s an ongoing expression and part of the UK and USA core collections, the first bottling coincided with my 18th anniversary of working at the distillery, so Speyburn dedicated the first bottling to myself!”