A Guide to Scotch Whisky Regions - Speyside

by Matt Chambers
at Whisky for Everyone
11.5.23 12:17

The Speyside whisky region is home to some of Scotland’s most famous and recognisable whisky names.

Of the six Scotch whisky regions – Campbeltown, Highlands, Islands, Islay, Lowlands, and Speyside – it is arguably the most important. Speyside whisky is the heartbeat of the industry with over 50 of Scotland’s 140+ distilleries calling it home. 


Each of these Scotch whisky regions have traditionally been known for each having a particular style. Speyside whiskies are renowned for their soft, gentle, and fruity style. This makes them accessible and approachable, probably more than any other whiskies of Scotland. This wide appeal is what has made Speyside whiskies so popular.


Where is Speyside?

Speyside is a sub region of the Scottish Highlands and covers a relatively small geographical area. The region encapsulates much of the River Spey’s water course including its numerous streams, burns and tributaries. 

The whisky region stretches from the Cairngorm mountains in the south to the North Sea coast and offers several different environments for whisky making. The western edge is close to the town of Nairn near Inverness with the eastern border near Huntly, which is towards Aberdeen.


The capital of Speyside

Dufftown is the unofficial capital of Speyside. The small town is in the centre of the whisky region and is home to six distilleries – Balvenie, Dufftown, Glendullan, Glenfiddich, Kininvie and Mortlach. It has historically been a hotbed for distilling and is a classic case of a town growing around its major industry.

Other names from Dufftown’s past include Convalmore and Pittyvaich, which closed in 1985 and 1993 respectively, and Parkmore, which ceased production in the 1920s but whose buildings can still be seen.


Why So Many Distilleries in the Region?

To make whisky you need a plentiful and consistent supply of two main ingredients – water and barley. The high density of distilleries in the region exists due to Speyside having both. Rainwater and snow melt flow down the many burns and tributaries and into the River Spey, which cuts its way through several glens until it reaches the sea at Spey Bay.


Some of Scotland’s finest barley growing areas are also located nearby. The fields wrap around the eastern edge of Speyside and stretch from north of Aberdeen, down the east coast to the Central Belt. The proximity of local resources simplified the transportation of barley before the road and railway networks started being upgraded in the mid-1800s.

What are the Characteristics of Speyside Whiskies?

What does Speyside Scotch taste like? Speyside whisky is known for its soft, sweet, and fruity style. These can be categorised into lighter or richer. 

Lighter whiskies tend to be predominantly matured in ex-bourbon casks and give notes of green orchard fruit (apple and pear), honey, vanilla, butterscotch, and chocolate. Fine examples include Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glen Moray and Linkwood.

Those in the richer style show a heavy percentage of ex-sherry cask maturation and go in a darker and more complex direction. Expect notes of toffee and caramel with dark dried fruits such as raisins and sultanas, plus candied orange peel and warming baking spices. Good examples include Aberlour, Glenfarclas, Macallan and Mortlach.



The Big Five Distilleries of Speyside

Speyside whisky is some of the best-selling Scotch in the world. The Speyside whisky region is home to household names. The ‘big five’ Speyside distilleries of Aberlour, Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and Macallan all sit within the Top 10 for Scotch single malt sales. They produce a staggering 68 million litres between them each year. 

Glenfiddich and Glenlivet regularly swap positions in first and second place at the top of the leader board, with both boasting an annual production capacity of 21 million litres. Both are known for their sweet, soft, gentle, and fruity style. Macallan sits in third place and presents a bolder and richer offering. It is particularly well known for its use of ex-sherry casks for maturation.

Aberlour and Balvenie are both significantly smaller but consistently sell well around the world and populate the lower reaches of the Scotch single malt Top 10. Like Macallan, Aberlour is known to be another fine exponent of ex-sherry casks, which are sourced from Jerez in the south of Spain. 

Balvenie is multi award-winning and highly regarded and was one of the pioneers of finishing in the 1980s. This technique sees whisky matured in one cask type, usually ex-bourbon, for most of its life before being transferred to another for a shorter ‘finishing period’.


The Speyside Region’s Hidden Gems

Looking for a whisky that is a little less well known? Then the Speyside region is littered with hidden or undiscovered whisky gems. Not only can these offer exceptional quality but also great value for money with purchasing bottles or investing in casks.

Big, bold choices such as Benrinnes and Mortlach sit alongside elegant and uplifting whiskies such as those from Glenburgie. Other interesting whiskies include Tamdhu and the independently owned Glenallachie.

Benrinnes and Mortlach are both known for their heavy and savoury qualities and are highly sought after by Master Blenders and whisky connoisseurs alike. The unusual style is particularly expressive and robust.

Glenallachie and Tamdhu are both known for the celebration of ex-sherry casks. These former blending workhorses have finally got their opportunity to shine as single malts thanks to the outlook of different ownership. 

Glenburgie is a classic Speyside unsung hero. It is predominantly used within the popular Ballantine’s blends, but when found on the market is exquisite. This is especially true when of decent age with maturation in ex-bourbon casks.


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