Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dufftown - The whisky capital of Speyside

The Clock Tower, Dufftown
We recently visited the Spirit of Speyside festival, which is an event that celebrates whisky from the famous region at the beginning of May each year. We stayed in Dufftown, a town widely regarded as the whisky capital of the Speyside region. The reason being is that it is home to six working distilleries and a number of others that are now closed. Only the whisky island of Islay, well known and loved for the smoky style of whisky and home to eight distilleries, can rival Dufftown in the ‘Whisky Capital of Scotland’ stakes.

Here, we take a brief tour of the town and look at its history and the history of its whisky distilleries ...

Dufftown in a nutshell

Dufftown, and the area surrounding it, has been a site of human settlement for over 2,000 years. The earliest clues are a series of Pictish stones located in the Fiddich glen that are still able to be visited today, including an impressive six foot high stone cross. In 566AD, the Mortlach church was built by a group of Christians and this too is still standing today. It is one of the oldest remaining Christian settlements in Scotland and is located between the Dufftown and Mortlach distilleries. Another building of historical importance is Balvenie Castle, which was built in the 13th century by the Earl of Buchan. It has had famous visitors such as King Edward I and Mary Queen of Scots.

Balvenie Castle and Glenfiddich distillery

Dufftown as we know it today was founded in 1817 by James Duff, who was the 4th Earl of Fife. It was built to home those returning to the area from the Napoleonic Wars. The most recognisable building of this era is the clock tower, which was completed in 1839. It was originally built to be the town jail but today is the tourist information office. Interestingly, the clock itself was not part of the original building, but came from a similar building in the town of Banff. Over time, numerous whisky companies began to populate the town and build distilleries. This was due to the abundant water supply in the Fiddich glen and surrounding hills. As a result, Dufftown now raises more capital per head of population than any other place in the UK.

The distilleries

The Balvenie single malts are among some of the best selling in the world. The distillery was built in 1892 by William Grant, who was the owner of the neighbouring Glenfiddich distillery. The first spirit flowed from the stills in May 1893. Balvenie is almost unique in that all stages of the whisky making process still take place there. This includes even growing some of their own barley on nearby land and being one of only a few distilleries left in Scotland to practice their own floor malting – this is where the barley is laid out on a floor and turned regularly while germination takes place. It has a current annual capacity of 5.6 million litres and remains under the ownership of William Grant & Sons. The first Balvenie single malt hit the market in 1973 and the brand has gone from strength to strength since.

The Dufftown distillery was founded in 1895 by a group of four gentlemen – Peter MacKenzie, Charles MacPherson, Richard Stackpole and John Symon. The site was formerly a mill - this was converted and the first spirit flowed off their stills in November 1896. Dufftown is currently owned by multi national drinks company Diageo, who took control in 1997, and is their second largest distillery behind the recently opened monster at Roseisle. The annual capacity in 5.8 million litres and most of the whisky produced goes in to Diageo’s range of blends, especially Bell’s. A couple of single malts are available – the increasingly popular Singleton of Dufftown 12 years old and a travel retail exclusive 15 years old version.

The Glendullan distillery was founded in 1897 by William Williams & Sons. It was the last of the original seven distilleries from the 1800s to be opened and sits right down in the Fiddich glen, next to the River Fiddich. It is currently owned by Diageo and has an annual capacity of 3.3 million litres. The whisky is produced in a large still house, which was built in the 1972 and stands next to the old distillery. This old part of the distillery is now used for warehousing and training by Diageo. Single malts releases from Glendullan are scarce – the only one at present is a US exclusive Singleton of Glendullan 12 years old - and as a result the distillery is little known to a wider audience. Most of the whisky goes in to Diageo blends.

The iconic distillery of Glenfiddich is the most famous and largest of Dufftown's distilleries.  It is the biggest selling single malt whisky brand in the world and is the largest single malt distillery in Scotland with a current annual production capacity of 12 million litres.  Glenfiddich was founded in 1886 by William Grant and was constructed with the help of his nine children.  It remains owned by William Grant & Sons today and is one of the last remaining family owned distilleries in Scotland.  The pioneering range of whiskies is extensive and can be found in most countries around the world. It was the first single malt brand to ever be sold in the travel retail sector and also the first distillery to ever open a visitors centre in 1969.

The Kininvie distillery was built in 1990 by William Grant & Sons as the ‘little’ sister to Balvenie and Glenfiddich. It is located within the same property as its two more famous siblings and has an annual capacity of 4.8 million litres. The still house is the only true part of the distillery, as the mashing and fermentation takes place within Balvenie. Kininvie was built solely to produce whisky for the popular Grant’s range of blends, and more recently has been used in their Monkey Shoulder brand. Single malt releases from Kininvie are almost non-existent and when they do appear, they are named as Hazelwood. To date only a couple of very limited editions of Hazelwood have been released – one in 2006 and another in 2008.

Mortlach was the first whisky distillery to be established in Dufftown. It was founded in 1823 by James Findlater, shortly after the Customs & Excise Act was passed by the UK Government. The distillery sits in a hollow beneath the town, close to the River Fiddich and the ancient Mortlach church. It is also Dufftown’s smallest distillery in terms of annual production – 2.9 million litres. Mortlach is currently owned by Diageo and is used prominently in the popular Johnnie Walker range of blended whiskies - it has been used since 1923 when John Walker & Sons purchased the distillery. Only one single malt is currently available – the fabled 16 years old – and even this is sporadic, due to the Johnnie Walker blending contracts.


There are three other distilleries that can still be seen in some form or another in Dufftown – Convalmore, Parkmore and Pittyvaich. These distilleries are no longer in operation but have all contributed to the whisky history of the town.

Convalmore is located at the northern point of Dufftown and the buildings are now owned by William Grant & Sons, forming part of their massive site that includes Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininvie. It was founded in 1894 and closed in 1985, making whiskies from Convalmore now extremely rare.

Parkmore was opened in 1894 and closed in 1931 due to a contaminated water supply. The distillery’s equipment was removed shortly after, but the buildings and warehouses remain to this day. They are in amazingly good condition and are currently owned and being used by Diageo for maturation and storage.

Pittyvaich (pronounced pitty-vek) was built in 1974 and had a short-lived production life. It closed in 1993 and its buildings demolished in 2002. All that remains is a rather unattractive square patch of dirt where the distillery once stood and the very occasional single malt release.

1 comment:

Rick Duff said...

Very nice summary of the town and distilleries!