Reviewing the year at Speyside's whisky distilleries

Reviewing the year at Speyside's whisky distilleries

We examine new releases that have sprung forth from Speyside’s distilleries in the past year, and meet fresh faces hoping to make their mark on Scotland’s whisky heartland

Regional Focus | 04 Sep 2023 | Issue 191 | By Mark Jennings

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Although the last 12 months may have seemed tumultuous to many, whisky producers are used to weathering storms – it is in the DNA of a business that must plan not just years but decades ahead.

 

The story since we last visited Speyside for this annual round-up is one of noteworthy releases from the area’s best-known distilleries, some that were perhaps held back by the disruption of the pandemic and have been brought into the market now (given the sheer volume of releases). For others, the last 12 months were more muted, applying the ‘head down, business as usual’ approach that is common in this part of Scotland. There was no small excitement, though, with several distilleries also breaking ground or changing hands – showing that it is not just the past that is traded on in the heartland of Scotch, but gambles placed on a bright future, too.

 

Familiar faces

 

The Balvenie

The Balvenie team had a busy year with new releases, capped with a particularly special one: The Balvenie Sixty. The brand’s oldest whisky release to date, it honoured malt master David C. Stewart’s six decades with the company. Just 71 bottles were available from this single cask laid down in 1962 – a fitting tribute to Stewart’s years of service, which make him the longest-serving malt master in history. The bottle featured a quote from his protégé Kelsey McKechnie, who was also promoted to malt master – connecting Stewart’s legacy to the next generation. Stewart is known for pioneering cask finishes, so it was fitting that three new expressions joined the Balvenie Cask Finishes collection: French Oak 16 Years Old, Madeira Cask 15 Years Old, and Pedro Ximénez 18 Years Old. The Balvenie Stories range received a new addition, too, entitled A Rare Discovery from Distant Shores. This 27-year-old was finished in ex-Caroni rum casks, marking the first release to use this highly regarded Trinidadian distillery’s barrels.   

 

Benriach

New whiskies from Benriach included Malting Season Second Edition (the first expression in a century to be produced entirely using malted barley from its own floor maltings), Smoke Season Second Edition, a foray into the world of NFTs with its Twinsets (The Forty and The Forty Octave Cask Matured), The Sixteen (‘missing’ from its portfolio since 2016), and finally, the Cask Edition Collection 2022, each of the nine expressions in which were chosen by master blender Rachel Barrie to offer an insight into Benriach’s cask styles. Visitors to Speyside will be delighted to know that the Benriach distillery has moved to open seven days a week, offering a range of tours where one may sample its unusual range of unpeated, peated, and triple-distilled whiskies. There were some significant people moves, too. Laura Tolmie, who joined Brown-Forman (Benriach’s parent company, owning The GlenDronach, Benriach and Glenglassaugh distilleries) in 2017, became distilleries manager in 2022, taking over from retiring distillery production manager Alan McConnochie. McConnochie, a veteran of 50 years in the whisky industry, had overseen the re-opening of the Benriach distillery, a move he described as the greatest moment of his career.

 

Benromach

With a triple gold medal win at the International Wine and Spirit Competition (Benromach Organic, Benromach 15 Years Old, and Benromach 10 Years Old) and its Ben 40 winning the San Francisco Best in Show Award, plus its whisky and gin visitor experiences reopening after a period of closure during the Covid-19 pandemic, Benromach had a bumper year. New releases included the ‘London Bartenders Edition’, developed in collaboration with renowned whisky bar Milroy’s of Soho. The Contrasts range was bolstered by a new Triple Distilled expression and Cara Gold (a low-colour roasted caramel malt more commonly found in breweries). The team also released the second edition of the Ben 40. Bottled at 57.6% ABV, this spirit spent more than four decades maturing in sherry casks and is the distillery’s oldest annual release. Partnerships played a big part in the brand’s outreach in the last year, from working with MasterChef 2022 finalist Sarah Rankin to develop a bespoke menu to engaging renowned paper artist Helen Musselwhite to create a sculpture themed around the distillery and its whiskies.

 

GlenAllachie

Master distiller Billy Walker celebrated his 50th year in the whisky industry in 2022, the same year that the GlenAllachie Distillery (built in 1967) celebrated its 55th birthday. The distillery’s visitor centre – named Visitor Attraction of the Year in the Scottish regional round of the Icons of Whisky in 2022 – expanded with the hiring of a visitor centre manager to lead the ‘brand home’, tours, and shop experience. This led to promotions and new hirings – the team has doubled in size over the last 12 months. This expansion enabled an extended tour programme with three tour types, including a more in-depth, two-hour Connoisseurs Tour, plus it is open seven days a week in the peak season. In addition to this, the distillery’s new release output has been prolific in the past year: MacNair’s Lum Reek 10 Years Old Cask Strength Batch 1, GlenAllachie 10 Years Old Cask Strength Batch 7, GlenAllachie Virgin Oak Series, 15 Years Old Scottish Virgin Oak Cask Finish, 10 Years Old French Virgin Oak Cask Finish, 10 Years Old Spanish Virgin Oak Cask Finish, GlenAllachie 8 Years Old (a new addition to the core range), White Heather 15 Years Old (another core-range addition), GlenAllachie Billy Walker 50th Anniversary Trilogy (comprising the Past Edition: 16 Years Old 100% Sherry Cask Matured, Present Edition: 16 Years Old Mizunara Virgin Oak Cask Finish, and Future Edition: 4 Years Old Peated Single Malt, its first-ever peated single malt to be released), GlenAllachie 30 Years Old Cask Strength Batch 2, GlenAllachie 21 Years Old Cask Strength Batch 3… and that is not even the full list. A number of these expressions collected gold medals at the World Whiskies Awards.

 

GlenDronach

The big news at the GlenDronach Distillery was a £30 million investment from its owner Brown-Forman (also owner of Jack Daniel’s). This investment aims to increase production facilities, on the back of global demand for GlenDronach having tripled since 2016. This is the second phase of investment by Brown-Forman in the distillery following renovations to the visitor centre in 2020. New releases in the last 12 months were Cask Strength Batches 10 and 11, The GlenDronach 50 Years Old, GlenDronach Cask Bottling Batch 19, and GlenDronach 28 Years Old Grandeur Batch 11.

 

Glenfarclas

Two highlights of the year for the oldest family-owned distillery in Speyside were the launch of a 50-year-old single malt, and its winning the Icons of Whisky Scotland Distiller of the Year award. The 50-year-old celebrates the 50th anniversary of chairman and family member John Grant starting in the industry. John is the fifth generation of the Grant family to take the helm at Glenfarclas. Bottled at a fitting 50% ABV, it was first laid down during the tenure of John’s father, George Grant.

 

Glenfiddich

A notable recent release from Glenfiddich was the Archive Collection, a limited range consisting of whiskies distilled in 1973, 1984, and 1987. The rarest in the collection was the 1987 Christmas centenary cask, laid down on Christmas Day by the Grant family to celebrate the distillery’s first centenary milestone. Only 75 bottles were produced, which were exclusively available at the distillery shop. In addition was the Glenfiddich Time Re:Imagined Collection including 50-, 40- and 30-year-old whiskies. The 50 Years Old Simultaneous Time used whiskies from three different American oak refill casks, all matured in the same warehouse before being married together and finished in an American oak refill cask for two years. The 40 Years Old Cumulative Time centres on “remnant vatting”, a process where the remnants of the previous batch are carried over each time and married with the casks selected for each subsequent release. Glenfiddich is the only Scotch single malt distillery that uses the remnant vatting process.

 

The Macallan

There have been some notable heavy hitters among The Macallan’s releases in the last 12 months. Chief among these is The Reach, a single malt whisky laid down in 1940 before The Macallan was compelled to close its doors for the first time in its history. Aged to a whopping 81 years in a single sherry-seasoned cask, it is the oldest whisky ever released by the distillery. There was also the eye-catching The Macallan James Bond 60th Anniversary Release, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the James Bond film franchise. The collection comprised six limited-edition single malt whisky bottles, each featuring an original illustrative design and colour to denote the decade it represented. The Macallan also established The Macallan Artisan Apprenticeship Fund in recognition of the need to preserve and safeguard legacy crafts, trades, skills, and values to support employment for generations to come. It also showcased a significant figure in its history with the release of The Spirit of 1926, a short film which focused on former managing director Janet ‘Nettie’ Harbinson (portrayed by actor Emily Mortimer) who in 1926 crafted the most valuable bottle of wine or spirit ever sold at auction.

 

Mortlach

It was business as usual for most of Diageo’s Speyside distilleries in 2022, but a quiet one year on the release front – even its annual Special Releases collection was light on Speyside-distilled expressions.   

Mortlach 30 Years Old was the only substantial release in the last year, but fans of the beloved distillery will surely say this made up for the sparseness. This 30-year-old was aged in refill American and European oak, combined, then split to finish in Bordeaux wine-, Calvados-, and Guatemalan rum-seasoned casks before a final marriage in custom quarter casks.

 

Tamdhu

Tamdhu is closed to the public all year, other than for a handful of ticketed events during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, for which the distillery hosted several behind-the-scenes tours with a tasting element. Those keen to get close to the distillery have an option to do so at the Customs House, the luxury on-site accommodation at the distillery which was used for the first time in 2022. On stays at the four-bedroom house (which are by invitation only), guests can enjoy a sprawling whisky library packed to the rafters with limited-edition expressions and single-cask bottlings. In terms of releases, the Tamdhu 18 Years Old dropped with customary 100 per cent oloroso sherry-seasoned maturation. This was an iconic moment for owner Ian Macleod Distillers – the company has held ambitions of bottling an 18-year-old as part of the Tamdhu range since acquiring the distillery in 2011.

 

Tormore

After a quiet period, focused on producing spirit for use in blends, Tormore suddenly became very noteworthy again when independent whisky specialist Elixir Distillers bought it in 2022. Elixir Distillers is the brainchild of The Whisky Exchange co-founders Rajbir and Sukhinder Singh. The brothers sold The Whisky Exchange (along with its parent company Speciality Drinks) to Pernod Ricard in 2021 and are now throwing their weight behind Elixir Distillers, with a vision to build the venture into a world-leading brand owner, distiller, and independent bottler. Tormore Distillery was built in 1960 and is one of the larger distilleries in Scotland with a capacity of just under five million litres of alcohol per year. The deal with Elixir Distillers includes inventory of aged stock, so look out for distillery releases sooner than a brand-new distillery could provide them. The Singh brothers want Tormore to stand shoulder to shoulder with the biggest names in single malt whisky and to make the distillery a destination for all visitors to Speyside, with a refurbishment of the site and a visitor centre planned.

 

Newcomers

 

The Cairn

Located in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, The Cairn officially opened its doors to the public in October 2022. Owned by spirits merchant Gordon & MacPhail, The Cairn aims to draw on the company’s 100 years of Scotch whisky expertise. It will use unpeated Scottish-grown malt and have an annual capacity of two million litres of alcohol; at the time of opening, the distillery's output was 400,000 litres of alcohol per year. The first whiskies distilled at The Cairn will be available in the 2030s, but in the meantime, visitors can taste the CRN57o range of blended malts that are said to reflect the style and character of The Cairn. Meanwhile, the visitor experience at The Cairn offers tours, tastings, and the opportunity to dine at the distillery’s restaurant, The Gathering, which offers a tapas-style menu with ingredients sourced throughout Scotland. 

 

Dunphail Distillery

Dariusz Plazewski founded Bimber Distillery in London in 2015, which is garnering much praise for its whiskies. But he found that English whisky wasn’t quite enough to scratch his itch, and embarked on a significant project to build his own distillery in Speyside. The Dunphail Distillery aims to open in the first half of 2023 with a maximum annual capacity of 200,000 litres of alcohol. It will use barley sourced from the nearby Altyre Estate, which will be 100 per cent floor malted by hand on site (making Dunphail only Scotland’s second distillery to do this). The malt house and kiln are new (not part of the existing farm steading buildings) but built sympathetically to match the exterior stonework. Spirit production will be both unpeated and peated and the team’s intention is to play around with the peated specification over time to develop a house style, with a few surprises in store for fans in later years. Fermentation will take place in 12 in-house-constructed fir washbacks. These are open topped and thus lead to a secondary malolactic fermentation following the initial alcohol production stages whilst on the yeast. It plans a long fermentation time of six days, and for two of those days the process will be entirely malolactic – this results in high ester formation, so look out for a very fruity spirit. Distillation will take place in a set-up of three pot stills – two wash, one spirit, all at 2,500 litres. These stills are directly fired, causing the Maillard reaction in any unfermentable sugars (particularly in the wash still) which will reinforce the character of the fruity wash and add significant texture and weight to the distillate. Plazewski has been on site physically, leading construction of the distillery. Once fully open, Dunphail Distillery will have distillery tours and tastings. 

 

Other characters

 

The Spirit of Speyside

Last year’s Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival delivered more than 700 events across six days. It saw record ticket sales and attracted visitors from 26 countries, including guests from as far afield as Australia and Singapore. Event venues were as varied as usual: distilleries old and new, charming village halls, local whisky bars, historic castles, old steadings, and the great outdoors. One of the biggest draws was the chance to tramp around usually closed distilleries such as Craigellachie, Dailuaine, Mortlach, Speyburn, and Tamdhu. Festival bottlings from the likes of Glenfiddich, SPEY, and GlenAllachie also generated a buzz.

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