The spiritual home of Scotch whisky. As Champagne is to sparkling wine, Modena to vinegar, or Cuba to tobacco; such is Speyside for single malt Scotch. Of the 100-plus distilleries currently active in Scotland, more than half are located in this relatively small region, following the course of the River Spey from its source high in the Cairngorms to where it meets the sea near Buckie. At some parts of the river, the concentration of distilleries is so close that distances between them are best measured in metres, with the greatest cluster at the region’s whisky-producing capital, long a centre of distilling excellence: in the words of the local saying, “Rome was built on seven hills, and Dufftown stands on seven stills.”
Many of the best-known names in single malt are found in Speyside: Glenfiddich, the best-selling malt in the world; Glenlivet, its closest competitor; Macallan, the Rolls Royce of the whisky world; Scottish and European favourites Balvenie, Aberlour, Glen Grant and Cardhu. But the region is also home to some of the most innovative and exciting of all distilleries (BenRiach, Benromach), as well as numerous hidden gems whose whiskies may only be freed from blending stocks by the more adventurous of independent bottlers.
Unlike wine-producing regions in France or Spain, there is no great agreement across the board when it comes to Scotch whisky regions. The geographical boundaries of “Speyside” vary according to who you ask, and the matter is not helped by some brands who eschew the very term in favour of the better-recognised “Highland” label. Stylistically, too, there is huge variation within Speyside: from the fresh, woody malt of bourbon maturation to the dried fruits and dark chocolate of the intense “sherry bombs” that are among the most richly flavoured of all aged spirits.