The wine industries concept of ‘terroir’; the characteristic taste and flavour imparted on a product by the environment in which it is produced, is, generally speaking, not something that directly relates to the scotch whisky industry.
Much of this is due to the fact that whilst a brands marketing will talk about the barley used, a specific water source or even the proximity of the barrel house to the coast, the overriding factor that influences the final taste of a whisky is the oak barrel in which the spirit is matured within.
That being said, the location where a whisky is made does have a guiding impact on its flavour, as each of the official whisky producing regions tend to display a particular style developed over centuries as a product of natural resources, production practices and local ‘consumer’ preferences. An overview of these distinct styles can be found in our previous article ‘the guide to gifting whisky’, but we digress, for today we would like to honour the start of the Australian spring by talking all things Speyside, the undisputed king of the whisky producing regions.
Now before all the Islay peat-monsters and Highland honey-eaters cause an uproar let us provide some facts behind our bestowing of such a moniker upon the orchard fruit and floral driven region nestled on and around the banks of the river Spey.
- Despite the region itself being much smaller per square KM, Speyside distilleries account for 65% of all Single Malt whisky production
- There are over 50 active distilleries in the Speyside region compared to 36 in the Highlands and 10 on Islay
- Dufftown alone has 6 working distilleries with an annual capacity of 40.4 million litres of spirit.
- It is home to the worlds top three single malt brands Macallan, Glenfiddich & Glenlivet as well as the acclaimed distilleries of Mortlach, Cragganmore and Cardhu.
- Interestingly, despite its notoriety, Speyside was technically considered a subregion of the Highlands until it received protected status within The Scotch Whisky regulations of 2009.
So how did such a small pocket of Scotland become the epicentre of the production of its most famous commodity?
Location, Location, Location
Historically speaking, it was the combination of a dry & warm climate, ready access to locally grown barley and the soft water of the river Spey which attracted so many to set up shop in the area.
Further to this abundance of natural resources, the inaccessibility of its deep valleys also provided the sort of seclusion coveted by distillers trying to avoid visits from the infamous ‘gaugers’ sent by the government to collect excise taxes.
Legend has it that Elizabeth Cumming, the woman credited with pioneering the growth of the iconic Cardhu distillery would play an important role by inviting the tax men into her home and plying them with old fashioned Scottish hospitality. Little did they know she had raised a flag above her distillery to raise the alarm regarding their presence in order to give distillers time to hide as much of their inventory as possible.
Now, when you’re onto a good thing and global demand continues to increase it’s counter productive to try remain incognito therefore it soon became critical to utilise the newly expanded Strathspey railway to connect with the economic centres of Glasgow, Edinburgh and, London.
John Smith, who founded Cragganmore was one of the first in the region to take advantage of this innovation, with the distillery the first in Speyside to be built in close proximity to the Railway, boasting its own siding from Ballindalloch station. In fact, the current house label features an etching of a steam train, commemorating the first ever Whisky Special which carried 16,000 gallons of whisky out of Ballindalloch in 1887.
With all that said it becomes abundantly clear just how Speyside came to account for so much of the annual production of whisky in comparison to other regions, 65% to be precise.
Phew, all this writing has made us thirsty, surely it's time to sample some of the wares we’ve been discussing. To assist you we’ve listed the below links which take you directly to some of our favourite Speyside whiskies available for purchase at www.thewhiskymill.com.au. Go on, you’ve earned it.