The Grand Tale of The Glenlivet

The Glenlivet — “The single malt that started it all,” says the tagline. Indeed, the label goes as far back as 1824. Established in Moray, Scotland, the Glenlivet distillery has been operating almost continuously since its inception, through the Great Depression of the 1930s and interrupted only by World War II in 1939. However, it emerged after the war even stronger, and grew to become the second largest selling single malt brand in the world. In the United States, it is the biggest selling brand of single malt whisky.   

A Speyside distillery, “Glenlivet” (or Gleann Lìobhait in Scottish Gaelic) when translated, means “valley of the smooth-flowing one.” This is because the River Livet flows through it in the Scottish Highlands. Today, although the name is recognized and extolled by whisky lovers worldwide, few are aware of its colorful history.

Scotland was checkered with a spate of illegal distilleries in the early 19th century. Illicit breweries thrived due to the significant demand for moonshine and whisky that existed among the people. Even echelon members of society, such as King George, who made a trip to the country during the period, requested the famous regional liquor.

However, in 1823, the Excise Act, which allowed distillers to obtain legal licenses to operate, came into place. George Smith, a businessman, applied for one such license, and went on to open the Glenlivet Distillery. His venture was incredibly successful, and he continued to operate freely. This irked the ire of several existing whisky smugglers and illegal distillers, who wanted the Act to be repealed. It soon became commonplace for Smith to receive regular threats from them. Undeterred, he acquired a pair of hair-trigger pistols, a gift from his landlord, the Laird of Aberlour. He went to sleep with these under his pillow every night, and carried on with his business, which flourished immensely. By mid-century, operations stretched beyond maximum capacity, and Smith had to open a second distillery in a bid to meet the booming demand. This was called Cairngorm-Delnabo Distillery. Within five years, both distilleries were running at full capacity. However, despite doubling the scale of production, market demand was still unmet. Smith then continued expansion, building a large state-of-the-art plant that accommodated production while offering room to grow into. In 1858, this had to be shut down along with the original distillery, which burnt down to the ground in a fire. After salvaging as much equipment as possible, he shifted production to a new distillery in Minmore, and changed the name of the company to George & J.G. Smith, Ltd.

Upon George Smith’s death in 1871, the distillery was passed on to his youngest son, John Gordon Smith, whose first challenge was to safeguard the family’s legacy. Smugglers were purloining away several casks across the seas, and rivalling distillers were freely labelling their whisky bottles with the Glenlivet name.

Five long years after taking over, John Gordon managed to garner a trademark for the label. This finally put an end to such malpractices, catapulting Glenlivet to phenomenal heights of success and leading it to indeed become “the single malt that started it all.”

The Glenlivet Single Malt Whisky is made using only the finest barley from Crisp Maltings in Portgordon, a village in Moray. The barley is malted, mashed, and left to ferment in wooden washbacks for about two days. Most other Scottish distilleries commonly use stainless steel washbacks, which are far easier to source and maintain. It is these rare wooden washbacks that serve to impart The Glenlivet whisky with its distinctive earthy and floral quality.

After the barley has been fermented completely, it is distilled twice— once through the wash still, and then through the spirits still. The copper-pot still had been designed by George Smith himself, and is uniquely shaped like a lantern, which spurs maximal contact between the whisky and the copper. It is this copper that strips the whisky of its impurities, lending it a lighter, cleaner flavour.

The distilled whisky is aged in a variety of casks, including Orloroso and French sherry, as well as American oak. We are then blessed with the final product— a robust and incredibly delicious The Glenlivet whisky.