Its history is storied; its legends are true, and the remarkable lineage of the Glenlivet is one that has shaped the landscapes of Scotland and created what are known today as whisky’s most treasured isles.
As one of the world’s most popular single malt Scotch, The Glenlivet can often be found in restaurants and bars across much of Singapore and the rest of the world. To those of you who love whisky, you would understand why it is not so hard to drop some cash on your Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Lagavulin and Talisker.
With fifteen copper pot stills, The Glenlivet produces an astounding six million bottles of whisky each annum breaking the records for the largest output of whisky in the world.
The Illustrious History of The Glenlivet
Like a historical period piece or an epic theatrical release, the story of The Glenlivet is rife with every facet one seeks in an entertaining tale. Prior to the Excise Act of 1823, distilleries throughout Scotland were mostly unlawful until the Excise Act was passed allowing legal distilleries to be formed provided they held the required license. A forerunner of the act was a Scot named Alexander Gordon, the fourth Duke of Gordon, who had a tenant named George Smith, who produced illicit whisky until the act was initiated. Once the legislation passed, Smith became the first person in Glenlivet, Scotland to apply for and be granted a license allowing him to legally set up shop.
This is how The Glenlivet came to be, but it wasn’t without its fair share of controversy. Since most of the whisky producers at the time were still operating illegally, they harboured resentment against Smith as support of the new law meant that it would be that much harder to repeal it. Threats were made against Smith, and his landlord gave him two pistols to defend himself and the distillery against the tyrants. He succeeded and within a year, he opened The Glenlivet Distillery in Upper Drumin with his youngest son, John Gordon Smith.
Business boomed and by the middle of the century, Smith was running beyond full capacity and had to open a second distillery that he named the Cairngorm-Delnabo Distillery. Despite increasing production, within five years both distilleries were at full capacity and having difficulty meeting the demands. Realising the expense of running two separate distilleries, Smith hired an architect to draft plans for a state-of-the-art facility that was far larger, but still offered room to grow into. Without space at either facility, they moved down the hill to Minmore and construction began after a fire ripped through the old Upper Drumin distillery in 1858. As a cost savings alternative, they salvaged as much of the equipment as they could from the burned distillery. The Delnabo distillery was subsequently shut down, and all the equipment was transferred to the new plant at Minmore. By 1859, production began at the new distillery, and the name of the company was changed to George & J.G. Smith, Ltd.
John Takes Over & Defends The Brand
Following the death of George Smith in 1871, his son John inherited the distillery. Since the senior Smith was such a prominent name and the quality of their whisky was so exemplary, many of the local competition began to rename their products, branding them as “Glenlivet”. This infuriated J.G. Smith and he took immediate action to claim ownership of the name “Glenlivet” in the court of law. Despite only being somewhat successful, the verdict did force the other distilleries to cease the use of the name and gave Smith the sole and exclusive rights to use it as their brand. However, it also stipulated that other distilleries in the Glenlivet region could continue to use the term “Glenlivet” in a hyphenated name such as the Speyside based Glen Moray-Glenlivet Distillery.
Production Stop During WWII
Despite this legal loophole, The Glenlivet still managed to successfully differentiate itself from its competitors and was even able to remain in business throughout the Great Depression which saw many distilleries close its doors. In fact, unlike many distilleries, the only hiccup in production was during World War II when the distillery was forced to cease operations by Government decree.
However, following the war, Britain was in such massive debt that the distillery was able to almost immediately reopen for business since they needed to export as many goods as possible to obtain foreign revenue from the United States of America as well as other countries from the four corners of the globe. Since whisky was in such demand overseas, The Glenlivet proved to be almost an immediate success, rocketing it back to its previous levels of full capacity. The restrictions placed on distilleries began to be lifted, and when resources ran short, the government imposed bread rationing throughout the United Kingdom to ensure that The Glenlivet had enough grain to produce its whiskies.
The Valley of the Livet
The Glenlivet, roughly translated from Gaelic means ‘Valley of the Livet’. It is most notable for its exceptionally smooth taste and finish and is commonly regarded as a perfect dram for the novice drinker.
The smooth taste of The Glenlivet whiskies is due largely in part to the distillation and maturation process. The distillery uses large copper pot stills that resemble lanterns. They were originally developed by George Smith and are still designed in the same way today. Due to the width of the necks, the whisky receives maximum contact with the copper and the incredible height of the still ensures that only the lightest vapor reaches the top where it cools, condenses and becomes the beginning of what we enjoy from the bottle.
Of course, another big part of the smooth flavor profile is the water that comes from the renowned Josie’s Well, capable of producing 3500 gallons of pure, cold water every hour. Supplemented by the Blairfindy Well, the water source’s purity mixed with barley from Crisp Maltings in Portgordon helps to ensure a consistently smooth taste from one bottle to the next.
The fifteen copper pot stills in the expansive distillery manage to produce some of the finest bottlings of Scotch that much of the world enjoys.
The Production Process
Surprising to many, is that the initial stages of making The Glenlivet take place outside the distillery where master maltsters soak the hand-selected barley in the distillery’s water source for a number of days. Once it’s beginning to germinate, and shoots begin to appear, they heat and dry the barley without the use of peat to ensure that the barley’s natural aroma and flavor profiles remain.
At this point, the dried malt is carted to the distillery where it’s ran in batches through the grinding mill to create the grist. The grist is then introduced to hot spring water in one of the distillery’s mash tuns that use mechanical arms that stir the mixture. As the starches convert to sugar, the wort is transferred to a wooden wash back to cool, and yeast is introduced to it. After two days, the wash is usually about 8 or 9% alcohol. The wash is poured into the copper pot still and heated until the alcohol evaporates. As the light vapor begin to reach the top, they cool and condense into low wine that has an ABV of about 21%.
The Glenlivet has never and probably will never be one of my favourite distillers in the world, let alone in Scotland. However, the fact is that it’s one of the most popular. Now, let’s be clear, I in no way harbor any resentment for their drams and, in fact, I enjoyed a dram of their 12 years just last week. However, it’s not my first pick when it comes to selecting a whisky for myself, but is almost always on the top 5 list when I’m suggesting one for a novice. It’s a great introduction to Scotch and doesn’t have the “harshness” so many people speak of when referring to whiskies like Lagavulin of Laphroaig. If you’re looking for a basic dram to keep in your bar for guests, try the 15 or 18 years. For newbies consider the 12. I promise you won’t be disappointed if you follow that advice and for the price, you just can’t go wrong.