The toposcope at the summit of Ben Rinnes provides the location of many Speyside distilleries.

The Spirit of Speyside

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The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, held annually as April turns to May, offers a a chance for in-depth visits to distilleries (normally off-limits to the public) in this small northeast corner of Britain that is home to over half the distilleries in Scotland. The high concentration of smokestacks in a relatively circumscribed area was due, in part, to the commercial expansion of the British Empire and the engineering expansion of Scotland's railways.

However, there was another less foreseeable historical event that allowed for the whisky boom of the late 19th Century, a black swan set against a sea of white. The vineyard blight of phylloxera brought over a decade of significantly smaller grape harvests and provided an opening for the Scottish dram, which had long lived in the commercial shadow of European brandies. The Great Whisky Boom of the 1890s had begun.

The boom spurred competition, followed by a search for differentiation. It was no longer sufficient for a distillery to claim a unique water source or locally grown barley as the factors that set their spirit apart. Thankfully, distillation is a process that allows for a great many variations that can lead to a wide range of spirits.

Although choice of barley, choice of yeast, length and temperature of fermentation, and above all cask selection are responsible for most of a whisky’s aromatic profile, the still house and the spirit run remain key determinants of a new make spirit’s qualities. Each distillation or spirit run is divided into foreshots, heads, hearts, and tails, with the heart or middle cut being the most prized and utilized for the new make spirit (the recently distilled and unaged spirit). Speyside is the perfect setting to explore how variations in distillation can give rise to distinctive and memorable drams.

Beginning with our first Speysider, Craigellachie is located just south of Rothes, near the Victorian-era Craigellachie Hotel with its renowned Scotch Bar, the Quaich. Adding to the attraction of Craigellachie is nearby Speyside Cooperage, the only cooperage in Britain open to visitors. The distillery dates back to the Great Whisky Boom of the 1890s and it retains worm tubs, once the industry standard, now rarely seen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Worm tubs are long copper tubes sitting, typically, in cold water, as shown in the small model above. Lyne arms (long, elevated, slender tubing pictured below) join the stills to the worm tubs, which are used to condense the vaporized spirit back to liquid form. The effects on a whisky's profile will vary based on the length, the diameter, and the number of turns of the tubes, as well as the temperature of the water. Generally speaking, worm tubs offer less copper contact than modern condensers, so the new make spirit tends to be heavier and meatier.

There are only about ten distilleries in Scotland that still use worm tubs. Benrinnes adds a wrinkle to the copper play by employing the even rarer technique of partial triple distillation, whereby at least some part of the spirit run is triple distilled. There are many possible variations to a partial triple, but Benrinnes’ version focuses on the feints or the tail end of the spirit run. The feints' copper contact is increased, resulting in a new make spirit that is a bit of a chameleon, exhibiting both finer and floral aromas, in addition to meatier, almost charcuterie-like scents.

In southern Speyside (at the foot of the Cromdale Hills and near one of the few remaining beds of freshwater pearl mussels on the River Spey) stands the Tormore distillery, which uses purifiers that allow the heavier spirits to float back down from the lyne arm to the still and give the new make spirit a refined character.

Onto a relative newbie distillery, starting produciton in 1960, Glen Keith can be found about 15 kilometers inland from Spey bay on the Moray Firth. Its stills are noteworthy for their long, slender, and slightly upward angled lyne arms (pictured below). The upward angled lyne arms reduce the amount of heavier spirits that pass onto the condenser and result in a lighter, but more concentrated new make spirit.

 

Finally, one of life’s rare pleasures, three precious bottles from the now silent Imperial distillery have made their way to our shelves. Originally built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, its new make spirit was known for being among the most cream soda-like and floral in Scotland. Imperial was mothballed in 1999 and demolished in 2013. However, a new distillery, Dalmunach, opened on the same site in 2014; its elegant stills (pictured below) were inspired by Imperial's.

History has come round and we stand at the beginning of a new golden for Scotch whisky. In the following bottles, the inventiveness and the stylistic range of Speyside are on full display. It’s been a real treat to bring them together.

David Salinas

 

 

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Craigellachie 13 year old Single Malt Scotch Whisky Spey Edward and Mackie

Craigellachie's famed worm tubs stand at the center of this seldom seen single malt. The reduced copper contact of worm tubs versus modern condensers gives the new make spirit a slightly sulfury and meaty profile that raises the stakes for cask selection. This 13-year bottling has been admirably aged and bottled without coloring or chill-filtration. Deeply golden in color, the nose begins with aromas of Christmas cake, sponge cake, and black licorice that give way to sultanas, rosemary, nutmeg and spearmint. The palate offers a fine and settled opening that crests with notes of star anise, black licorice, and bitter orange marmalade before a rounded finish of brown sugar, cardamom, and sultanas. A show of power and finesse! David Salinas

  • Out of Stock
  • scotch malt whisky
  • 0 in stock
  • no discount
  • $49.99

Benrinnes 1997 (Aged 17 Years) Single Malt Scotch Whisky Signatory Natural Color

Before successive prehistoric glaciations, Scotland's mountains were among the tallest on earth. Climb to the summit of Ben Rinnes and look out over the many distilleries visible along the River Spey and you'll see why this remains one of the central pillars of the whisky world. A few kilometers to the north, lies the Benrinnes distillery, rebuilt no less than three times since 1826, it stands today as a testament to Scottish resilience. The distillery is also notable for its partial triple distillation, whereby the weak feints from all distillations are redistilled in the low wines still and the first part of that is included in the spirit run. In addition, Benrinnes is one of the few distilleries in Scotland that still uses worm tub condensers. Prized by blenders, Benrinnes is rarely seen as a stand-alone single malt. Signatory, a top class independent bottler, has delivered this staff favorite 17-year Speyside. Distilled in 1997 and aged in a single Hogshead barrel, this dram is reassuringly naturally light golden in color and offers an absolutely transfixing nose of cinnamon sticks, black pudding, sourwood honey, peppermint, bacon, and nutmeg. The palate is pure, intense, and lifted with notes of apricot, sage honey, and the darkest black licorice before a sweet and savory finish that simply powers on beyond all expectations. Recommendable without reservation (Cask No. 2130). David Salinas

  • Out of Stock
  • scotch malt whisky
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  • no discount
  • $84.99

Tormore 1995 (Aged 17 Years) Single Malt Scotch Whisky Signatory Natural Color

This bottling was distilled in 1995 and matured by Signatory in Hogshead caks for 17 years. Naturally rich golden in color, and offering a real kaleidoscope of aromas from the meaty and malty to undertones of cream, star anise, spearmint, cinnamon, warm salted butter, juniper, and pumpkin spice. The palate is slightly oily and mouth-coating with aromas of fresh melon, lemon grass, and allspice, leading up to a gripping and lengthy finish. This has become a staff favorite and the preferred gift bottle for visiting wine growers (Cask No. 3880). David Salinas

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  • scotch malt whisky
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  • no discount
  • $88.99

Glen Keith 1995 (Aged 15 Years) Single Malt Scotch Whisky Signatory Un-Chillfiltered

One of the first distilleries to be built in Scotland after the Great Whisky Boom of the 19th century, Glen Keith was originally set up with three stills for triple distillation, however production swtiched over to double distillation in the 1980s. The new make spirit retains a certain lightness thanks to slender and slightly upward angled lyne arms. This particular Signatory bottling was distilled in 1995 and matured in Hogshead casks for 15 years. Naturally bright straw yellow in color and un-chillfiltered, the aromas are flowers and spices with highlights of lavender, fresh cut rose stems, nutmeg, candied Meyer lemon, and beeswax. The palate is subtle, rounded, and lifted by notes of green plums, sea salt, and lemon zest that continues through to a savory and smoky finish (Cask No. 171183). David Salinas

  • Out of Stock
  • scotch malt whisky
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  • no discount
  • $94.99