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The Glenlivet Whisky

The Glenlivet rather grandly styles itself as “the single malt that started it all” but there’s more than a grain of truth to its claim. In the early 18th and 19th century most Highland malt whisky was distilled illegally. Despite its shady beginnings, Glenlivet had a reputation that reached as far as London. Indeed when George IV visited the region in 1822, he wanted to try the fabled Glenlivet and was given something that was described as “whisky long in wood, long in uncorked bottles, mild as milk, and the true contraband gout in it.”

The man behind that famed dram was George Smith, a tenant farmer on land belonging to Alexander Gordon, Duke of Gordon. The Duke, not surprisingly, was a great advocate for reforming the draconian legislation around distilling so that he could commercialise it. 1823 saw the passing of the Excise Act which liberalised distilling but also provided more resources and power to excise officers. One of the first people to take advantage of the new laws was George Smith who built a new distillery at Glenlivet in the Highlands on what was once a farm distillery called Upper Drummin.

Threats were made on George Smith’s life by smugglers and the story goes that he took to carrying a pair of pistols to protect himself against those who stood to lose their livelihoods but he held firm. In this he was backed by government legislation and a sympathetic landlord. The statistics tell the story: 14000 illicit distilling activities were uncovered in 1823, but by 1834 it was down to 692. Illicit distillation never became a major problem again.

In just two years after the act, the number of licensed distilleries doubled and legal whisky production rose from two million to six million gallons a year. Glenlivet was so prestigious that it gave its name to the whole region, now known as Speyside. To help preserve his brand, George Smith’s son, John Gordon Smith, applied for sole rights to the name, which were granted in 1884 but allowed other producers to hyphenate it with their own names eg. Glenfarclas-Glenlivet, which is still seen today, though very rarely. Which is why the original is known grandly as THE Glenlivet to differentiate itself from all those hyphenated Glenlivets.

Glenlivet made a different style of whisky to that which was current in the region, producing a lighter fruitier new make, something that has continued to this day. The whisky was such a success that he built another distillery in 1850 at Delnabo which never really functioned properly due to problems with the water supply. There were further problems when the original distillery burned down in 1858, something of a perennial problem in the whisky business. In 1859, he opened a new distillery near Ballindalloch where it remains to this day.

As well as being sold as a single malt, Glenlivet was much in demand by blenders. Blended whisky was taking off in the 19th century, most notably by Edinburg merchant Andrew Usher with his OVG (Old Vatted Glenlivet) which was launched in 1852 and had The Glenlivet as a principle component in the blend. By the 20th century the vast majority of the distillery’s production was going for fillings but in the 1970s Glenlivet once again began to market itself as a single malt, especially in the lucrative US market.

The distillery remained in family hands until in 1952, when it merged with Glen Grant and eventually formed a small group with Longmorn and Benriach distilleries, and the firm of blenders Hill, Thompson & Co. Then, in 1978, Canadian multinational Seagram took a £46 million controlling stake in the business and The Glenlivet became part of the Chivas Brothers portfolio. When Seagram collapsed in 2001, Pernod Ricard took over Chivas Brothers. Under this new ownership, as part of a £10 million investment, an extension with an additional mash tun, eight washbacks and six stills was opened by the Prince of Wales on 5 June 2010, with the capacity of the distillery increased by 75%, to 10.5 million litres per year.

Today the set-up consists of two 13.5 ton mash tuns with 16 Oregon pine and 16 stainless steel washbacks. Distillation takes place in 14 lamp-glass copper stills. The distillery uses unpeated malt and according to former master distiller Alan Winchester still carries the DNA of George Smith’s mid 19th century Glenlivet. The range stretches from the sweet honeyed Founder’s Reserve, through classic age statements like the 12 and 18 year olds, takes in cask finishes like the rum barrel Caribbean Reserve, and goes up to stratospherically expensive very old releases. The Glenlivet is the best-selling single malt in America and the second best-selling in the world.

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