It struck me as little surprise when Speyside Distillery’s owners decided to relaunch their whisky to simply ‘Spey’ back in 2012. The choice of distillery name is so obviously ill-advised from a positioning point of view that even the owners have spent a number of years bottling their products under a wide range of different brands – Drumguich, Glentromie, Skara Brae, Loch Dhu (replaced by Cu Dubh and sadly best avoided), Beinn Dubh…the list goes on. But, there’s the problem - and it’s akin to a wine producer calling themselves ‘Bordeaux’- by naming yourself so broadly rather than capitalising on general consumer interest you simply cause confusion.
I visited the distillery last year – it is attractively nestled along the banks of the River Tromie (which unsurprisingly provides the site with its water source). It’s rather the quiet and unassuming site – a single pair of rather small steam heated stills, four steel washbacks and a semi-lauter mash tun. With an output of 600,000 litres per annum, this puts it firmly at the smaller end of the Scottish distilleries. Led round by affable Distillery Manager Sandy Jamieson, whilst my tasting was exceedingly generous (I’m certainly glad I wasn’t driving that day), I couldn’t help but to find it rather confused at the same time.
The ‘Spey from Speyside Distillery’ range (see what they did there) is certainly diverse, but there’s no obvious progressive – no clear evolution from the entry point ‘Chairman’s Choice’ through the range. There’s little here which gives me a firm steer as to what the identity of Speyside Distillery and the Spey range actually is. I detect no real attempt at creating a ‘house style’ - more a box ticking exercise. There’s a light fruity whisky, a heavier ore robust whisky, a sherried whisky, a port-cask whisky, a peated expression and a single 18 year old age-statement. But, sadly, little to my mind which binds these together in terms of their character and style.
Whilst the ‘Spey’ name and the particularly tall and thin glassware seem an improvement from the genericness of the distillery’s first releases in the early 90’s (the site taking an inordinate amount of time to come to fruition since its founding in 1976), there’s still to my mind an identity crisis when it comes to the actual spirit character of the distillery once it’s been fully matured. With high competition across the market – particularly in the crowded Speyside region, it’s next to impossible to be all things to all people.
Today’s Speyside Distillery offering comes from Whiskybroker. The Creetown based indy has bottled a variety of expressions form the distillery over the past four years. This one, drawn from a single sherry butt (#31) which produced 437 bottles at 53.1%. Of note here is the typically competitive pricing from Whiskybroker - £58 for a 22 year old whisky. Pretty staggering stuff when compared to many of the companies peers.
Nose: Terry’s Chocolate Orange – part bright, juicy and confectionary, part dusty, musty and oddly vegetal – soils, moss, pine resin, ozone and rotten leaves. It’s a strange combination and not one which feels cohesive. Given a bit of time, this opens more intensely with rye bread, cinnamon spices, chocolate sauce – fresher, and generally more appealing. The addition of water reinforces the bready notes with newly baked oven loaves, malty beer ferment and a good handful of macadamia nuts.
Taste: The arrival delivers spice and oak – plenty of both. Pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg alongside creosote, PVA glue and chilli pepper. Again, there’s something green and eccentric at the heart of this spirit – fermenting cabbage, leaf mulch, wallpaper paste. Hmmmm. The mid-palate feels more ‘normal’ and reflective of the cask – chocolate and tanned leather alongside, cough syrup and malty bread. Dilution reduces some of the acerbic bite – revealing a much fruiter outlook – tangerine and mandarin peels alongside a scattering of red and black berries.
Finish: Medium, quite dry, quite beer-like – stale hops?! and yeasty malts with cinnamon allspice.
Given the exceptional price point I want to like this 22 year old Speyside Distillery bottling much more than I actually do - but, it’s something of an odd duck. The combination of bright, rich and sweet sherry notes fights with the rather peculiar underlying vegetalness – neither really comes out on top. There’s certainly aged character here, but it’s wrapped up in a fusty and musty wet blanket. Similarly, the balance between sweetness and bitterness is not totally successful – moving too jarringly between saccharine sherry and acerbic cask elements. There’s undoubtedly character here – this certainly doesn’t present as generic and boring. But, at the same time, there's something of a crisis of identity here.