Speyside is the busiest of all Scotland’s whisky regions, with more distilleries than anywhere else in the land, including many of the most famous names in single malt. Indeed, the world’s best selling single malt lists are regularly topped by The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich and The Macallan, which all hail from the Speyside region.
In this piece we’ll take you on a tour of Speyside and pick out ten of its distilleries, highlighting the incredible range of whiskies it produces.
The Speyside region is in Morayshire, within the Scottish Highlands, with the distilleries distributed either side of the river Spey, hence its ‘Speyside’ name. Technically it’s a sub-region of the Highlands, and there is some confusion over where exactly some of those distilleries belong.
One of its most celebrated distilleries, Macallan, labels itself as a Highland distillery, but it’s very firmly placed at the heart of Speyside. Other distilleries, including Glendronach and Tomatin, are often referred to as Speyside whiskies, despite being reclassified as part of the Highland region back in 2009.
For the purposes of this piece, we’re sticking to the Scotch Whisky Regulations classifications when it comes to calling a distillery Speyside.
With so many working distilleries, you can get just about any type of Scottish whisky from the Speyside region, but it’s best known for favouring fruity flavours ahead of anything peaty. Much of the more intense fruit flavours it produces comes from ageing whisky in Sherry casks.
These are often rich, sweet drams ideal for after dinner sipping. But it’s also known for some incredible easy going whiskies, often described as having ‘grassy’ flavours alongside citrus and orchard fruit notes, that are ideal for those making a first foray into the world of single malt.
We’ll cover these styles and more. With so much choice on offer, you could build an entire collection of Speyside whiskies and never get bored…
Best for single malt
Tasting notes: Raisins and butterscotch
Speyside distilleries love getting their hands on Sherry casks to age their whisky in and The GlenAllachie is no exception, gathering oak that has been in contact with a wide range of Sherry styles for some fine expressions. Their multi-award winning 12 year old contains whisky from two different Sherry casks – Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez – along with some virgin oak for good measure.
The results immediately show why it’s such a magnet for awards, from the sherry-soaked raisins and honey on the nose to the chocolate and butterscotch in the taste, and a touch of coffee towards the finish. Unlike some whisky that has seen a lot of Sherry action, this one doesn’t overburden the senses with sweet, vinous flavours – those casks simply complement the spirit and add new layers to an outstanding, sipping whisky.
Best for peated whisky
Tasting notes: Sweet orange and smoke
Although Speyside isn’t known for smoky whiskies, there are a few distilleries that like to work with peated malts. One such is BenRiach whose core range includes 10 and 12 year old whiskies that are both peated and unpeated.
The 12 year old brings together smoke and some classic Sherry-matured whisky flavours in perfect harmony. At first it’s the Sherry that takes centre stage, hitting the palate with sweet, oily orange flavours, but gradually the peat works its magic, charring those orange notes and introducing some deeper flavours of smoke, oak and nutty spice. It’s a sweet, creamy peaty Speyside delight.
Best for value
Tasting notes: Clean, grassy with orchard fruits
Glenfiddich 12 is one of the most popular whiskies around, a staple of bars and drinks cabinets around the world and, for many people, the only whisky they will drink. Some whisky snobs might sniff that it’s a simple spirit, lacking in depth and complexity, but they’re missing the point: its light, unfussy Speyside character is its main appeal – not everyone wants a rich sherry-bomb from every whisky they pour.
Invest in a bottle, take a few sips, and slowly explore its flavour and you’ll also discover there’s more to it than those naysayers will admit. It has a clean, grassy taste that hints at the barley from which its made, while subtle oaky, vanilla spices show off its cask conditioning. There are also orchard fruit flavours to sweeten it up – some juicy pear and crunchy green apples – and, after a short while, you’ll find its mellow character gliding down with ease. Try it with an open mind and you’ll discover why it’s a whisky that is so loved by so many.
Best for: a rich and fruity whisky
Tasting notes: Rich juicy citrus and ginger spice
We wanted to feature one of the Macallan’s very expensive old expressions in this piece, but they get snapped up by collectors as soon as they’re released so you’ll have to make do with this 12 year old expression instead, a mere snip at under £70 (Just a 30ml sample of the 30 year version old will set you back four times that amount).
The Macallan’s whisky is in demand because it’s hand produced in Speyside’s smallest stills and is of consistently excellent quality. Although this whisky has only spent 12 years maturing (the ‘double cask’ refers to American oak and ex-Sherry) it has still taken on loads of rich, fruity flavours. Juicy citrus, warming oak and ginger spices, sweet vanilla and dried fruits all swirl around in a sweet, oily syrup of a drink – enjoy this one and think of the money you’ve saved on their older expressions.
Best for: a Speyside whisky with a twist
Tasting notes: Sweet pastry with some fresh and floral notes
The Balvenie is a much admired distillery, producing popular expressions that we think are at their best when served after dinner, with their Speyside flavours having a fruity pastry character to them. Like most distilleries they also like to mix things up a bit and have recently added whisky matured in French oak casks to its range.
These French casks previously held the aperitif Pineau and they add new layers to those created by the American Oak casks the whisky starts out it. The whisky is honey sweet and cakey, with vanilla, squishy stone fruits and hints of toasted nuts thrown in, but there’s also something a little different – something fresh, bright and floral and too complex to pinpoint exactly. It’s a top notch whisky with a subtly interesting twist.
Best for: aged Speyside whisky
Tasting notes: Boozy fruit cake and dark chocolate
When Speyside whisky spends a long time in Sherry casks it will often transform into something of a boozy, liquid fruit cake. That’s certainly the case with Glenfarclas 25 year old whisky, one of the best examples of an aged whisky you can buy and remarkably good value for one so old.
It’s a pleasure to drink from initial sniff through to the finish, with buttery flavours and textures that coat the palate to make sure you get maximum reward from even the slightest sip. Besides the sherry infused fruit cake ingredients there are also nutty, dark chocolate and roasted coffee flavours to enjoy. It may be a bold and full bodied dram but we think it’s an accessible whisky that everyone can enjoy.
Best: for a cask strength whisky
Tasting notes: Creamy with tropical fruits and cinnamon
Fancy trying a Speyside whisky straight from the barrel? Of course you do. In which case get your hands on a bottle of Aberlour A’Bunadh. That straight-from-the-barrel strength will be around 62% – it’s released in limited run batches so the strength will vary according to exactly which cask it came from. Be brave and have a little sip neat, then add water until it reaches your preferred taste.
The tastes you’ll discover will, like the strength, vary according to release, but they always have lots of flavour and a sumptuous creamy feel to them. The most recent release, Alba, was matured in an American white oak (Latin name Quercas Alba) and to the creaminess you can add tasting notes of tropical fruits, vanilla and warmer cinnamon spice. It’s a delicious whisky, however much you decide to dilute it.
Best for gifting
Tasting notes: a light whisky with toffee sweetness, apples and orange
Speyburn is a very well respected distillery with a wide appeal (particularly in America) yet, somehow, there are still too many people who are unaware of the brand and will overlook its whisky in favour of some of its shoutier neighbours. This is a shame because its sweet, Speyside flavours should please most palates.
The ten year old single malt is matured in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks and it has toffee coated notes of apples, oranges and spice. It all comes together with a lightness of touch, with soft grains chugging along in the background while the sweeter flavours take the lead. It’s broad appeal makes it great for gifting and, if your recipient is one of those drinkers who are unaware of the distillery, they’ll be even more grateful for the introduction.
Best for a bargain
Tasting notes: Light and grassy with honey and citrus
If you’re new to whisky then Glen Moray’s Elgin Classic is a great place to start, not least because it’s a bargain price and available just about everywhere you can buy whisky. The distillery is based in the city of Elgin, capital of the Speyside region, and the bottle that shares its name is typical of the grassy style of whiskies the region produces.
The whisky is aged for around seven years in ex-bourbon casks and, as you sip, you’ll notice a light, easy going citrus fruitiness and some up-front honeyed sweetness. Some spices develop on the palate with the grassy character present throughout. Not only is it a great whisky for beginners, it’s also a bottle worth having for anyone keen to experiment with whisky based cocktails – it won’t overpower the other ingredients in your creations but it will lend them some classic whisky flavour.
Best for: non age statement whisky
Tasting notes: Zesty with creamy chocolate
This whisky is named in honour of George Smith, the man who founded the famous Glenlivet distillery back in 1824. On the label you’ll see that date along with Smith’s portrait and signature. But you won’t see the whisky’s age. That’s because it’s blended from casks that cover a range of ages, just the way Smith did two centuries ago
The whisky carries some sweetness throughout, with bright zesty citrus along with hints of tangier fruit flavours and there’s a creamy smoothness that gradually seems more like milk chocolate the more you sip. At the finish we detect some soft, spicy warmth from the oak that helps it linger for a while.
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