The Distillery That Time Forgot

First Society bottling in 1990.

Even before my first visit to Speyburn, I had often noticed the distillery nestled in a little glen below the road from Elgin as it descends into Rothes. It is a particularly striking sight that turns my head every time I travel that road. The tall nineteenth century buildings, specifically designed to fit the narrow valley, are etched against the dark green of the fir trees rising behind them.

I first met Graham MacWilliam, Speyburn's distillery manager, at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute where we both spent a week at the Whisky Evaluation Course. Before I flew home to America, I had a day to drive to Speyside; and, at his insistence, I stopped to see his distillery between an early breakfast and the first appointment of the day.

It was the first of several more leisurely visits that followed. When I began visiting the Spey River Valley back in 1981, very few visitors' centres existed at any of the distilleries. A visit to a distillery usually meant ringing the manager who later showed me around. But the best part of the visit was always the time spent nosing samples and talking about whisky and the industry. The fact that we nosed whisky (often from the manager's decanter) in a small office with a warm fire in the grate and the distillery cat as a companion only seemed to add to the education, the experience, and most certainly, the memory.

My visits to Speyburn are still like my early visits to other distilleries. Although managers' decanters no longer exist and Speyburn claims a distillery dog, rather than a cat, I can always find good talk and good whisky and a glowing fire. Here, the hospitality is warm, honest, and welcoming. Indeed, everything about this distillery, its buildings, and its distillation methods, remains true to its nineteenth century roots.

Speyburn Distillery was constructed in 1897, in a pragmatic and simple design, using stones pulled from the former bed of the Spey River. The buildings were built two and three storeys high to accommodate the hilly land so that the entire distillery stretches upwards instead of outwards. The nearby Granty Burn provided a pure source of water and the railway line, located within a few feet, provided access to the South and Aberdeen.

The distillery was to be operational by November 1897 so that the first fillings could bear the date of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. During a major snowstorm in the region, Speyburn finally began production, but not until the last week in December. The still house had no doors or windows fitted, and the men worked in biting cold in order to fill just one cask with the 1897 'Diamond Jubilee' date.

Most significantly, the distillery was fitted out with the most modern production equipment of its time. It was the first malt distillery to have 'pneumatic' drum maltings which replaced the labour intensive hand turning of the barley on the malt floor. At the time of its construction, Speyburn was one of the most modern and technologically advanced distilleries; today it remains anchored in its Victorian heritage and traditions.

At a time when other distilleries have modernized and computerized, Speyburn relies on historical precedence and the skill of the mashman and stillman. Graham MacWilliam has remarked that "Speyburn, in its snug little glen, has become the distillery that time forgot." On one recent trip to Scotland I had, as usual, set aside some time to stop at Speyburn. But on this particular visit, Graham MacWilliam and, the now retired Group Distilleries Director, Stuart Robertson decided that there was more to a whisky education than nosing and touring - this time they were handing me over to the mashman, Sandy Reid, and the stillman, Harry Mellis, to work a distillery shift. I might not have to sing for my whisky, but I was certainly going to have to work for it.

I met Sandy in the mill room where he was milling malt through the old Boby Mill. When Inver House bought Speybum from United Distillers in 1992, they made the decision to slow the milling process in order to produce a better grist for mashing. After the grist is added to the first water in the stainless steel mash tun, the final success of the mash depends on Sandy's skill and subtle manipulation of gauges and valves. Slowly, using his eyesight and judgement rather than sensors on the side of the mash tun, he tops off the mash with water.

So much of good mashing is about time and temperature, and Sandy spends part of his shift making little adjustments to regulate the temperature at a steady 65 degrees Centigrade. Unlike many other distilleries, Speybum does not stir the mash with a rake. Instead, they make whisky much as people make a cup of tea, by infusion. The grist simply sits in the hot water which extracts almost 90 percent of the sugar from the barley. Because of the careful milling done previously to produce the right proportion of grist to husks, the mash finds its own level instead of settling to the bottom in a great lump.

This careful attention to milling and mashing allows a good extraction of sugar from the barley and creates a better fermentation in the washbacks. After the second and third waters have extracted the last of the sugar from the mash, Sandy sends the mash onto the Tun Room to begin the fermentation and sends me to watch the loading of the used grist (the draff) into the trucks.

This is no idle mission - if the draff peaks very nicely so it looks like sand, all of the sugary wort has been drained completely out of the mash tun. It if lies flat, the drainage is poor and too much of the sweet wort has been left behind with the grist. Today, it is perfect. I report to Sandy that the draff looks like the sand dunes of the Sahara. In the tun room, the sweet wort from the most recent mash is filling one of the larch washbacks while earlier fermentations continue in the other five.

The contents of some of the washbacks are quite volatile lids flap up and down and the occasional foam spits over the edge of the wooden washback. Others sit quietly, having finished the fermentation process and wait for their transferral to the copper stills. Sandy moves among the washbacks, adding yeast to the mash we have just completed to begin the fermentation. He draws samples from the other washbacks, checking the specific gravity of each one to see if it is dropping, an indication that alcohol is being produced. One of the washbacks contains wash that has been fermenting for two days and is ready to be moved to the wash still for the first distillation.

The still room contains only two stills, each one a tall elegant matron with a thick neck and gently sloping shoulders, but with no visible waist. Harry Mellis works in a little confined still room and doesn't cover the distance between the mill room, mash room and tun room that Sandy does, but he engages in the same tinkering of valves and levers.

The first distillation is run through the wash still as quickly as possible because the character develops most significantly during the second distillation in the spirit still. As it flows through the spirit safe, he begins the centre cut or spirit run when the whisky reaches 71 percent alcohol and ends it when it drops to 56 percent. These percentages are historical figures that have been determined, by trial and error, to be the range where the character of Speyburn single malt is formed. One of the most distinctive features of distillation at Speyburn is the use of copper condensing worms (each 104 meters long) instead of the upright condensers favoured by many other distilleries. As the spirit travels along the length of the worm, it stays in contact with the copper for a longer period of time and the distillation is slowly teased out. It takes time, a gentle touch and more than a little finesse, but produces a true hand finished product, which is matured in refill sherry and a small portion of bourbon casks.

The end result is usually aged for 10 years and produces a Speybum that is distinctly herbal on the nose with a background sweetness of 'bubble gum.' The flavours are light fruits, like pears, apples, kiwis and melons with a dry, gentle finish. Distillation at Speyburn still requires an attention to traditional skills to gently draw the whisky from the barley. Although the drum maltings at Speyburn were retired in the 1960's, they still sit beautifully and silently in the malt barn with the old 1897 date clearly marked above their cast iron doors.

Not much else about Speyburn has changed - the distillery still uses wooden malt storage bins and washbacks, a wooden spirit receiver, a traditional mash tun, and copper condensing worms. And most of the distillation process still operates much as it did a hundred years ago. No part of the distillation is computer controlled, and the process is carried out by aligning marks made on slides and valves during the last century.

There is a definite pride among the people at Speybum, not only for the whisky that is produced here, but also for the safe keeping of traditional skills used to produce it. MacWilliam, who is given to drawing analogies, suggests that the making of Speyburn is similar to flying a Sopwith Camel - it always requires a lot of attention to the details with a little tweaking of valves and an absolute knowledge of the product. The little Speyburn distillery will always remain a biplane in a world of jumbo jets.