On the edge of the Cairngorms, close to where the river Spey flows towards the last whisky distillery which uses its waters, we discovered a hidden gem – the Speyside distillery. Coming from the south, the easiest way to reach the distillery is to take the Kingussie exit on the A9, drive through the village towards the Osprey hotel, and turn left onto the B970 until you think you are lost and find yourself asking directions to one of the locals. From the north, you can take the same exit from the A9, but a more adventurous and most definitely more beautiful route is to take the B970 from where it starts, close to Grantown-on-Spey, driving slowly to avoid collision with a suddenly crossing deer or a family of squirrels on a camping trip, but most of all to take in the scenery and enjoy it thoroughly.
Either way, the postcode covers a large area and most digital maps point towards a farm yard as the proposedly correct destination. Which it is not, convincingly pointed out by the barking dogs at the yard. We are sure to have driven past the gates of the distillery more than once, but since the gates were invitingly opened, the sign was impossible to read. Hitting several roads that were designed for Bulky British Land Rovers and not our Feminine French Renault, testing her shock absorbers on several occasions. On a certain moment, we were definitely at the point to discuss our strategy when we had just stopped at the Ruthven Barracks, which incidentally, is a nice spot to stretch your legs if you are not getting late for your appointment with the secretive distillery. Asking the locals, we were directed back where we came from, driving really slow as to not miss any tell tale signs of pagoda chimneys, warehouses or colourful painted casks, we finally spotted the sign on the gate across the dead-end road to Drumguish, assuring us the small hidden farmhouse in the forest at the end of the track, with the picturesque bridge over the burn, without any of the mentioned signs, was the distillery we were looking for.*
When the building reveals itself after 200 metres or so, we parked our car in the carpark and reported fashionably late in the office, where distillery manager Sandy Jamieson welcomed us as the first guests for today’s tour, confirming we were not the only ones having trouble finding the place and giving us a little time to walk around the place in the early-May sun to take some pictures of the exterior of the distillery and the picture-perfect scenery at the banks of the river Tromie, one of the many sources of water that flow into the river Spey. When everybody had arrived, Sandy informed us the name of the distillery originated from a distillery originally built in 1895 in Kingussie, but was closed and demolished as early as 1911. The buildings of the current distillery are erected from an old barley mill originating from the 1700’s, which were closed as such in 1965. In the years after, George P. Christie slowly transferred the buildings into the distillery we find today, with its first spirit flowing on Christmas Day 1990.
After successfully turning the Spey brand into the third best selling Scotch in Taiwan, John Harvey McDonough returned home and purchased the distillery in 2012, thus bringing back his Grandfather’s wish to return the family in the distilling business. John is a direct descendant on his mother’s side from the family relating back to the whisky trading and distilling business as early as the 1770’s, founding the Glaswegian Yorker and Dundashill distilleries, and generations later in 1881, the Bruichladdich distillery on Islay. The Speyside distillery, with the hills and mountains of the Cairngorms as a backdrop, the fields of daffodils all around the buildings with hanging baskets filled with floral stuff, the scent of freshly cut grass and recently ground barley, the crackling sound of the meandering creeks and the waves breaking on the river rocks, the location of the old mill with its still operational waterwheel is idyllic to say the least, and we already feel we have found a chest of gold at the end of a treasure hunt. John Harvey McDonough has chosen a fantastic location to continue and grow the family heritage.
Starting the tour in the old millhouse, where the distillery manager’s offices are nowadays vested, we saw the gears of the milling stone, which are still operable by the water wheel outside, but are no longer in operation. In a smaller room next door, a more modern but still a century old four roller Boby mill has adopted this function to grind the Concerto barley from Crisp Maltings, turning the grey slated roof white from the escaping flower out of the chimney. A conveyer system connects the milling building to what used to be a storage barn, but houses now the rest of the distillery.
We bumped into the bottom of the semi lauter stainless steel mashtun before we climbed the stairs to the top, where the four tonnes barley and clear water, taken directly from the river Tromie, are mashed for about six hours, producing circa 20.000 litres of clear wort. Slowly pumped into one of the four (approximately) 27.000 litre stainless steel washbacks, the wort is agitated with 60kg dried Mauri yeast, and left alone for a period between 60 and 100 hours. The longer fermentation times are done over the weekends, when the distillery is closed for operation.
When fermenting is done, the wash is transferred into the barely fitting wash still, which was salvaged from the demolished Lochside distillery, together with the spirit still. Both had to be remodelled in order to fit their compact new accommodation, and with the 16 runs per week they produce about 600.000 litres per year. What then drew our immediate attention, is that there is no warehousing on site, so everything is tankered away to mature in warehousing facilities elsewhere, except a handful octaves, tucked away in a small shed, where we also saw a (locked, sadly) cabinet filled with an old whisky selection.
Onward to the tasting room, we were presented with a good introduction to the range of Spey whiskies, including the Beinn Dubh, the distillery’s homage to the discontinued Cu Dubh and the nearby black mountain. We started chatting with managing director Patricia Dillon, who, after a lengthy chat, introduced us to John Harvey McDonough with whom the conversation was directed from the different expressions of their whisky, via our photography hobby to the drawings seen around the distillery. Pen and ink artwork made by the artist in residence; John’s wife Joanne, who we met in the cottage across the square, which doubles as the Speyside Distillery Gallery.
The distillery is a little out of the way of what normally is considered the Speyside area, but is certainly worth a visit when you are driving up there. During the Spirit of Speyside festival they normally have a spot in the festival programme, and if you would be in the area outside of the festival period, there are possibilities to contact the distillery and make an appointment for a visit.
Thomas & Ansgar
More photos of this distillery and road trip can be found on our Facebook page
*Meanwhile, Google Maps has been updated and points to the correct location. Less adventurous, but very convenient.