The year 1897 saw Queen Victoria celebrate her 60th year on the throne with a lavish ‘Festival of the British Empire’. By all accounts, the Queen herself had to be persuaded that such extreme and un-British celebrations were appropriate, though her majesty seemingly enjoyed the affair in retrospect.
Unbeknownst to the Queen however, there was a man some 600 miles away preparing to mark the occasion in his own unique way. John Hopkins lived in the village of Rothes in Speyside and had long been planning to establish a new distillery in the local area. Hopkins bragged to colleagues that he would complete the job before the year was out, ensuring that his first casks would be stamped with the year of Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee.
Using stone hauled from the riverbed of the mighty Spey, Hopkins built his distillery on the banks of the Granty Burn with the assistance of renowned distillery architect Charles Doig, the man made famous by his invention of the pagoda-style roof which had already come to crown many a distillery.
Despite mounting costs totaling around £17,000 however, Hopkins’ distillery had yet to be completed by November. With each and every test run of the equipment uncovering new issues and delaying the project further, day after day was lost to repair work and it must have seemed to all the world that Speyburn distillery would never produce spirit before the year’s end.
Hopkins was not so easily defeated however. Late December brought an almighty snow storm which made local roads impassable and left the distillery largely cut off from the outside world. Under the founders watchful eye, distillery manager John Smith and his team of dedicated staff worked through the night in an unfinished still-house which remained open to the elements. Dressed in overcoats and mufflers to protect them from the arctic winds the men managed to get the stills running through sheer grit and determination. The trickle of the first spirit came on Christmas Day and on the 31st of December a single butt was filled and stored in the warehouse, proudly stamped with the year ‘1897’. Hopkins had done it.
Like many distilleries, Speyburn has changed hands many times over the years and has seen its fair share of closures. Since 1991 however, the distillery has remained under the ownership of Inver House Distillers, although the parent company itself has changed owner two or three times since. Today, the Speyburn brand is largely known as a budget-friendly single malt which sells particularly well in the United States. Despite strong sales however, the malt doesn’t enjoy the strongest of reputations…
The Speyburn 10 year old is bottled at 40% alcohol by volume and retails for around £30 a bottle.
Smell: Grassy & Herbal with Green Fruits, Butterscotch, Heather Honey and Oatcakes with a light dusting of Sawdust.
Taste: Heather Honey, Apple and Pear, Lemongrass and Barley Sugar. Slightly Nutty with gentle Spice.
Value for Money: Speyburn is one of the most affordable single malts on the market and has perhaps been a little unfairly stigmatised as a result. It’s a light and delicate dram, so perhaps won’t appeal if you like them big and bold. Nevertheless, for the money, it is of decent, if not exceptional, quality.
If I’m being honest, I rather like a dram to slap me around the face with flavour, rather than gently slipping onto the palette. Having said that, I’m aware that others enjoy an altogether more subtle experience and it seems to me that this Speyburn, priced at just £30 a bottle, would be a sensible option. It’s lightweight and a little restrained but given time to open up, I soon found myself rather enjoying it. Perhaps not one I would reach for again in a hurry. but it certainly has its place and I can see it appealing to fans of Glenmorangie and Glenlivet who are used to a more delicate flavour profile.
For more on Speyburn, click here.