A Slice of Speyside

6 October 2014

By Joel Harrison

As a whisky writer, I spend a large chunk of my time visiting Scotland and her various distilleries, but there is one area that I never tire of visiting: Speyside.

Hidden away between Aberdeen and Inverness, Speyside is considered to be the beating heart of the Scotch whisky industry, transforming the local water with the help of barley, yeast, heat and copper, into the superhero version of its former self: aqua vitae.

It is this supercharged spirit, which, having slumbered in oak casks, emerges as Scotch whisky. But not just any whisky; Speyside whisky. So good it attracts visitors from across the world to this small part of Scotland.

The journey of the barrels from Kelvin Cooperage, Kentucky to Speyside, Scotland takes around five weeks. With its vistas of rolling hills and lush green forests stretching up into the bright blue sky, I cannot help but think how Speyside is almost the exact opposite to the vast openness that is Kentucky, the birthplace to the stars of our story, American white oak casks.

Founded in 1817, Dufftown is considered very much the home of whisky in Speyside, maybe even in the whole of Scotland. And on Christmas Day 1887, Dufftown found itself with a proud new distillery when the first spirit ran from William Grant’s distillery, Glenfiddich.

Today, the processes employed by William Grant on that very first day have changed little. As ever the key to the spirits’ flavor comes from the large copper pot still which transforms the local water, taken from the Robbie Dhu spring, into whisky spirit.

Once the spirit has been distilled it is filled, as it would have been on that Christmas Day in 1887, into oak casks, coopered on site at the distillery.

Traditionally, the oak casks arriving at Glenfiddich would have been broken down, for ease of transport, and rebuilt either back into barrels or into what are known as Hogsheads; slightly larger in circumference to a barrel, the Hogshead (or ‘hoggy’ as it is known) is a neat way for a skilled Cooper to enlarge a barrel, using the same staves but increasing capacity from 200 litres to 250 litres.

The current crop of Coopers (and their apprentices, too), dressed in white shirts and leather aprons, work hard to make sure that each and every cask that arrives is fit for purpose, whisky-tight and ready to linger in one of the many on-site warehouses, hiding away for a minimum of 12 years, until the whisky inside is deemed perfect to fill a bottle marked ‘Glenfiddich’.

Joel Harrison, co-founder of the whisky blog Cask Strength, recently set out to immerse himself in the journey of the world’s most awarded single malt. Over the next few weeks, follow his pursuit, from the forests of Kentucky to the depths of the Glenfiddich warehouses, as he delves into what makes our scotch unique.  The Journey Begins marks the first of Joel’s four contributions to our Ambassadors Blog, which culminate with the exciting new release of Glenfiddich 26 Year Old Excellence.