Water through granite

Water through granite

The character of Speyside malts has been forged by geography and geology. Dave Broom looks at how remote glens and freezing water combined to produce consistent quality moonshine.

Production | 12 Jan 1999 | Issue 1 | By Dave Broom

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Speyside is familiar territory. The names of the distilleries trip off the tongue with ease; we think of Dufftown, Rothes and Keith as if they were just up the road. The mind’s image is one not just of countryside, but of familiar, cosy countryside, within easy reach. Yet as anyone who has driven north through Glenshee and over Lecht in winter will appreciate, this is an isolated, hard land. It’s this remoteness which has been the making of Speyside as a whisky region.Now, the issue of regionality in malt whisky is a question that is destined to be debated as long and vigorously as that of who made the first whisky. The anti-regionalists argue that whisky is scientific, a man-made creation which doesn’t play to the same rules as wine. There’s no such thing as terroir at play here. How can there be when issues such as still shapes, the strength and length of the cut, peating levels and wood management play such an important part? Whisky is one step further removed from the earth than wine.In many ways that’s true. With the exception of Macallan and Glengoyne, no distiller believes in the varietal qualities of a specific strain of barley – the bottom line is yield, not nuances of flavour. Whether the barley comes from Moray or Mali doesn’t matter either, as long as the yield is good. The only things which could conceivably link a whisky to its place of birth are peat, water and climate.The fact that Islay’s malts use Islay peat and mature by the sea does give them a broad regional similarity, but how can this apply to Speyside? Here the stills come in every variety of shape and style that you could imagine, the water sources are varied, little peat is used (and not necessarily local peat anyway) and the range of wood types is enormous. But despite all that, you can say the best malts from the region do share a Speyside character, that complex mix of lifted notes and ripe fruitiness which always finishes with a soft, gentle kiss on the back of the palate.The closer you look at the region the more you realise how its geography has impacted not just on flavour, but on the evolution of Speyside industry – and it’s all down to isolation. The Scottish poet Kenneth White argues that the physical environment plays a significant part in people’s intellectual development. Certainly, Speyside’s people and its environment are inextricably linked.To get to the root of it all you must trek to the most remote part of the region – around Tomintoul and the Braes of Glenlivet. This hard, bleak, beautiful landscape produced a people who, used to struggling with the vagaries of an often grim climate, applied the same stubborn resolve when their freedoms were threatened.These Speysiders remained defiantly Catholic when the rest of Scotland was Protestant. Though they kept themselves to themselves during the 1745 Rebellion (and allowed the secret seminary at Scalan to remain open), like any Highland region, the people felt the full force of the backlash after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s defeat. The full-frontal assault on Highland culture simply stiffened their resolve. They might not have been allowed to wear the kilt, but they could continue to make whisky.Here’s where Speyside, and in particular Glenlivet’s, geography comes into play. It may have been poor compared to the more fertile South, but it was self-sufficient in the vital ingredients for making malt – there was peat on the moors, pure water in the burns and barley in the fields. Because of the poor soil, the Glenlivet barley was of lower quality than that from Moray and the Lowlands. This meant that crofters couldn’t command the same price for it at a time when prices were tumbling. Rather than sell it at a loss on the open market, it made more sense to turn it into whisky and make a profit.When the Government began its assault on illegal distilling in the 1780s, Speyside – and Glenlivet in particular – prospered. The physical geography of the region meant that there were plenty of places to hide the small stills. In those days there were no roads into the southern part of Glenlivet, and in the winter it was sealed off completely, giving the illicit distiller a number of advantages.The remoteness meant that it was difficult for the excise men (the gaugers) to catch the illegal distillers in action. It also allowed them to set up almost permanent stills in remote glens with good water, rather than approaching whisky-making like a form of guerrilla warfare – finding a secluded spot, getting the still up and running, making the whisky, dismantling the still and heading off to the next site. This regular switching of location and water source wouldn’t have produced a consistent, quality dram. Because Glenlivet was sealed off at the very time of the year when the best whisky could be made – after the harvest, when the water in the burn was at its coldest – quality was higher than from other parts of the Highlands where distilling had to be a rushed job.‘They must have been born distillers in those days,’ says Alan Winchester, Aberlour’s distillery manager. ‘Because they were using small stills, they could swap the location around until they found the good water.’ The end result was that by the turn of last century, Glenlivet was the whisky-making centre of the Highlands with an estimated 200 illicit stills in operation. The malt would be taken out by drove road to the South and sold on the black market for a higher price than any other malt. It may have been illegal, but it was the grand cru of malts.The landowners turned a blind eye to their tenants’ activities – the sale of the whisky helped pay their rents. In fact, the landowning class in Speyside appears to have been considerably more benign than in most other parts of the Highlands. Rather than clamping down harder on the moonshiners, Speyside’s major landowner the Duke of Gordon lobbied for the legislation that became the 1823 Excise Act. Distilleries would be licensed, small stills permitted, he would still get his rent money, and whisky-making could be legalized.The troubled early days of the legalized Speyside have been well documented, but the newly legal distillers like George Smith at Glenlivet didn’t only have to fight against the remnants of the smuggling gangs but discovered that Speyside’s remoteness which had served it so well during the smuggling era was now counting against it. As Winchester recalls: ‘The old men of the Braes wouldn’t ever touch a drop of Glenlivet, because he was the man who made it all legitimate.’The lack of roads which had kept the gaugers at bay meant that legal distillers like Smith had a tough 35 mile journey to Burghead or Lossiemouth on the coast, or had to cart their whisky down Glenshee to Perth. This meant that though it possessed some of the best water and some of the most experienced distillers, Speyside spluttered into life, rather than leaping fully-formed into the centre of the industry. In the early days of the new blend-dominated industry, the blenders sourced their malts from Perthshire, Islay and Campbeltown simply because communications were easier. When Barnard visited Speyside in the 1870s there were 16 distilleries in Speyside and 21 in Campbeltown. Dufftown, now known as Speyside’s capital, had only one, Mortlach.Speyside only really got going when the railway arrived in Keith and Dufftown in 1854. Seven years later the Strathspey Railway Co. branch line was built, linking Keith with Boat of Garten with stops at Aberlour, Craigellachie, Ballindalloch and Knockando. The Ballindalloch stop probably saved Glenlivet’s bacon and was the spur for John Smith to build a new distillery at Ballindalloch – Cragganmore. ‘We were the first distillery to take advantage of the railway,’ says Mike Gunn, Cragganmore’s manager. ‘John Smith had already run Glenfarclas, Macallan and Glenlivet and he saw the advantage of having a distillery close to the line.’The emergence of Speyside was a bit like the opening of the American West – the railway rolled into town and settlements (or in this case distilleries) sprang up alongside it. ‘The big opening up was down to the railway,’ agrees Winchester. ‘The last distillery on Islay was built in the 1880s, the last one in Campbeltown long before that; now it was Speyside’s turn.’If better communications opened Speyside up to the demands of the blenders at the very time when they were needing better quality and higher volumes of fillings, then it was the geography of the area which made them want the stuff. Logic would dictate that if the blenders wanted any old malt they would either build or source their requirements from distilleries close to their blending labs. Instead they made a bee-line for a region which was still fairly remote. Why? Because it made better, more complex stuff.For starters, as whisky became big business, so the Speyside distilleries needed ample supplies of barley. The first distilleries were either on, or close to, farms, but the mean-spirited lands of the Glenlivet and the Spey couldn’t cope with the increased demand. The fertile soils of the Laich o’ Moray were close, however, and that was ideal barley growing country.Peat was still being cut from the Faemussach Moss, but the blenders were beginning to ask for lighter styles. Though the phenolic level of these old Speysides would have been significantly higher than it is today, it was already lower than the malts from Islay. The railway hadn’t just allowed whisky to be taken out, it had brought coal in to help fuel the kilns.Speyside was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the whisky boom – not only could the whisky get to the blending centres quickly, the first master blenders recognized that it produced hugely impressive malts which gave complexity and added sophistication to a blend. Even today there are few top blends which don’t have a clutch of Speysides at their core.Why is this the case? Ask any distillery manager and he’ll put it down to the water. There’s water rising through the granite bulk of Ben Rinnes, some of it running through peat, and there’s also water rising through limestone. There are minuscule differences between them all: some distillers boast of their source’s purity, others about the hardness, others about the mineral content. What’s certain is that the geology of the region plays a hugely important part in the quality and the flavour of the best malts. It has helped produce water which is ideal for making whisky and the variety of different sources and the tiny variations between them are a fundamental element in establishing the differences between each malt.‘We source from springs that rise through greenstone [a form of granite],’ says Mike Gunn. ‘There’s no peat, though, and I would say that this helps produce a complex flavoured whisky. There’s also a good deal of copper in our water – and the more contact you have with copper in the process the better.’ For Winchester, the purity of his water helps with the estery, fruity aromas – there is little flavour impact from the water, allowing him to produce a purer, cleaner spirit. There again, every distiller will find something positive to say about his water source. The hardness of Glenlivet’s source is said to aid in mashing, when those who source from burns that have risen through peat point to the acidity of their water as being good for ensuring a stable, infection-free ferment. It is, however, these subtle variations in the water that have helped to produce different malts of the same quality.Finally, there’s the climate. Speyside isn’t exactly hot in summer, but it sure is freezing in winter. This means that the production water in the condensers is very cold and helps ensure a slow rate of condensation – another important factor in quality. The cold winters and warm summers also impact on the way the whisky matures. ‘If it’s cold you slow up the rate of maturation, and allow the flavour elements to settle out,’ says Winchester. ‘You get a more even lengthy period of contact between wood, whisky and air. Just think what Aberlour would taste like if I gave it to Jimmy Russell at Wild Turkey for 12 years.’There again, trying to get hold of just what it is that makes each whisky unique is as easy as trying to catch a Spey salmon with your fingers. Better to debate at length over a few drams of the best this region has to offer. You may not come to any conclusion, but you’ll have fun along the way.
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