QUEEN VICTORIA liked a drink. Indeed, she was rather partial to a good Scotch, which she inexplicably mixed with red wine.
Such was Her Majesty’s fondness for whisky that it inspired a Mr John Hopkins to build a new distillery in rural Speyside, Scotland to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
Hopkins’ ambitions were admirable but his admin was somewhat lacking; construction was delayed with the first spirit running on Christmas Day that year.
Battling with a violent snowstorm, Hopkins’ men saw the very first cask of Speyburn Single Malt - pleasingly stencilled with the year 1897 - laid down for ageing on the very last day of the year.
It’s not known whether Victoria sampled the end result, nor whether she resisted contaminating it with claret, but Hopkins’ new distillery was a roaring success and survives today.
For the first time in its history, it is now open to the public. We caught up with the man tasked with carrying on Hopkins’ legacy, Distillery Manager Euan Henderson.
Your father managed Laphroaig, one of Scotland's most iconic distilleries, and you grew up in the whisky trade. Was it inevitable that you would join it, too?
My father spent nearly 40 years in the industry, having managed Laphroaig but also Glenlivet, Ardbeg, Bladnoch, Edradour and St George's Distillery in Norfolk, to name but a few.
Distilleries were literally my playground growing up and every aspect of life was touched by the Scotch trade in one way or another. I’d often wake to him dashing out the house on an early hours call-out to fix a bit of equipment, or to give the boys on site a hand when things were stretched.
But, I didn’t think I would follow his footsteps. I drew a lot when I was younger and always thought I'd be an architect. Time and circumstance meant that it never happened and I suppose I came round to the notion of carrying on his legacy, to speak.
After learning the ropes at Balvenie and Kinninvie distilleries, amongst others, you landed the top job at Speyburn, a distillery that even whisky nerds know little of. What tempted you up to Speyburn?
Distillery Managers are often industry ‘lifers’ who stay in their post for years, if not decades. So, those jobs don’t come up very often and taking the reins of a distillery – with everything that comes with it - is not a decision you take lightly.
But when I was given the chance to run Speyburn, it was a pretty easy one to take. I had been around it many years back and remember it as this wee quaint site that was tucked away and seemingly rather enjoyed its relative obscurity in the trade.
The chance to drag it out of that obscurity and to show people what we do here was too good to pass up.
Laphroaig was my father’s blank canvas on which he made his mark and was where he really created something special, and Speyburn is mine.
You’ve opened Speyburn up to the public for the first time in its 125 year history. As a working distillery, presumably a bit of work was needed before the coaches arrived?
Indeed. We undertook a major upgrade to increase production capacity a few years back. Whilst the site closed, the stillmen and warehouseman here took it upon themselves to tidy things up.
Reclaimed roof tiles from our old warehouses became flooded, and much of the stone walling was taken back to its original state. They also converted our old cooperage – where barrels were once hand crafted and repaired on site – to a tasting room in which we could actually share the spirit we make here.
I should add that no one asked them to do any of that. They’re all practical lads and just wanted Speyburn to look her best.
As for the whisky itself, what is Speyburn’s ‘house style’, so to speak?
Light, fruity, and well-balanced.
Our spirit stills have old-school ‘worm tub’ condensers in which the spirit vapour runs through a long, wrapped coil of copper pipework. Compared to new style condensers, they limit the copper contact the vapour has which leaves a bit of ‘heft’ in the spirit.
They’re scarcely used in the trade nowadays, and they’re not the easiest to work with, but they’re indispensable to the spirit style we’re known for.
And how does that carry through into maturation? What cask types suit that house style?
Our raw [unaged], ‘new make’ spirit may be light but it is weighty enough to mature in quite punchy wood types, including ex-sherry casks which impart big, fruity notes without drawing out the underlying spirit.
We often marry that type of stock with ex-American bourbon barrel matured spirit to bring in sweet toffee and vanilla driven notes, too.
Favourite all-time bottling of Speyburn?
The 18-year-old Speyburn has to be the favourite. It's full bodied and loaded with sweet toffee, big tropical fruits, and dark chocolate, with a touch of citrus and a slight bittersweet note to it, too.
It encapsulates everything that Speyburn is all about: the character, the history, the passion, and the people who make it.