The Story of Glenlivet
The Story of Glenlivet
Glenlivet is one of the best selling single malt brands in the world.
They are known for their light, easy drinking style. Better than any other whisky, Glenlivet typifies the flavour profile that has made Speyside into the most popular whisky region in the world. Whilst the brand and dram is well known, fewer know the story of Glenlivet - the mother of Speyside whisky.
It all goes back to 1824 when George Smith, one of the many illicit moonshiners of the time, made Glenlivet the very first legal whisky distillery in Speyside. In doing so he immediately made enemies of his former colleagues and bootleggers, and had to spend the next several years armed at all times. However, his success soon convinced the others to ‘go legal’ and beckoned in a new age for whisky.
Prior to the 1820s, the vast majority of whisky made in Scotland came from illicit stills. Distilling at the time was fraught with danger. The illicit distillers and the excise men, whose role it was to track them down, fought a daily and occasionally deadly, battle - with both groups heavily armed.
The distillery in Glenlivet has a natural advantage in that it is extremely remote. The excise officers responsible for finding and punishing illicit spirit production had to brave a 20 mile hike through treacherous terrain in order to get to the Glen. Beyond the isolation, the terrain is barren. The distillers were able to see the excise officers from a long way off, giving them time to deconstruct and hide their small stills until the danger had passed.
Another great advantage Glenlivet has is that their water source, a key ingredient in whisky, is exceptionally pure. So much so, that the illicit whisky being made in the region was seen as far superior to the whisky produced by the much larger, legal, Lowland distilleries.
King George IV went so far as to request a glass of Glenlivet during his visit to Edinburgh in 1823 - despite it being illegal. Clearly he was taken with the spirit as later that year, the Excise Act, legalising smaller scale distilleries and lowering the tax came into effect.
George Smith, who ran the distillery at Glenlivet, was the first Speyside distiller to take advantage of this change, applying for a licence in 1824 and taking his operation legal.
This move was immediately seen as a betrayal by every other whisky maker in the region. For years it had been an ‘us versus them’ mentality with the excise men, and by going legal George and his distillery were immediately made a target for retribution.
Speaking years later, George Smith described the danger involved: 'I was warned by my civil neighbours that they meant to burn the new distillery to the ground and me in the heart of it. The laird of Aberlour had presented me with a pair of hair trigger pistols worth ten guineas, and they were never out of my belt for years'.
However, the risks turned out to be worthwhile with Glenlivet exploding in popularity. The advantages of going legal were so evident, that the other former illicit distillers became fully licenced, effectively putting illegal whisky making out of business.
Glenlivet was going from strength to strength. Their agent in Edinburgh, Andrew Usher, created one of the very first blended whiskies, ‘Usher’s Old Vatted Glenlivet’ - which quickly became hugely popular.
By 1858, they’d built a new distillery to keep up with the demand. At this point Glenlivet were so popular that their biggest challenge was around keeping a lid on the volume of imitator brands using the name ‘Glenlivet’ to try and profit off their success. There were so many smaller brands trying to pass themselves off their whisky as ‘Glenlivet’, that it was soon known as the ‘longest glen in Scotland’.
Eventually, in 1884, the brand won the legal right to be known as ‘The’ Glenlivet, although others were still allowed to use Glenlivet as part of a longer title. Many brands continued to do so well into the 20th century - notably Macallan-Glenlivet.
Following the Prohibition in the 1930s, Glenlivet was one of the first whiskies to be imported back into the US. This first cemented them as one of the most popular Scotch whiskies in America. Their popularity has shown little sign of dimming in the US, and they are still the country's biggest selling single malt.
Ultimately, Pernod Ricard bought Glenlivet in 2001, with an aim of building them from America’s best selling single malt, to the world’s best selling single malt. They are getting there. Currently sat at the number two spot, behind Glenfiddich, the brand has put out a host of interesting releases over the past few years, most recently a first of its kind 23 year old bottling. With both the liquid and a pedigree of this quality - few would bet against them taking the no. 1 spot soon.