History in a Glenlivet Bottle

Watching the centuries-old process of turning grain into a barrel of fine scotch whisky at the 193-year-old distillery in Scotland.  
History in a Glenlivet Bottle 3
When visiting The Glenlivet distillery, pick up a map from the visitor’s centre for the ‘Smugglers’ Trails’ which traces back routes followed by illicit whisky makers of yore. Photo by: Robert Holmes/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

Towards the end of a five-hour-long drive from Edinburgh, the GPS has taken us off the A95 highway and onto a narrower, winding road that’s even more scenic than the last 250 kilometres that we’ve covered. We are in Speyside’s famous whisky district, driving past one historic Scottish distillery after another—the goosebumps have less to do with the lovely nip in the air than the thought of getting closer to that golden dram of Scotch. There’s not a soul (or car) in sight in this largely pastoral setting—rolling green hills dotted with woolly sheep and cows juxtaposed against a blue sky. As we turn into the driveway leading up to stone-and-glass structure of The Glenlivet distillery, it’s hard to imagine that the idyllic stone brick-walled structure houses one of the world’s largest whisky production centres. There’s no rush of men or machines to disturb the quiet. Stepping out of our rented sedan, my companion and I walk quickly towards the visitor centre. It is almost 4 p.m. and the last distillery tour is at 4.30 p.m. Since we haven’t pre-booked a tour (recommended in the high season), we join a group of visitors waiting for the tour to start.

As one of the larger distilleries in the area, the 193-year-old Glenlivet offers round-the-clock guided tours and has a well-stocked gift centre with everything from whisky shortbreads to tartan souvenirs as well as a café. A tall spiral installation lined with (presumably, empty) bottles of their whisky is the centrepiece of the visitor’s centre, and rows of photographs and information about the brand’s evolution and the Speyside region are displayed on the walls. Our guide arrives in 15 minutes, and we troop behind him to the first stop on our tour, the milling room. It is a small space and we huddle around our guide as he talks about the room’s traditional malt mill through which the dried malt is run to form coarse flour called grist. Interestingly, the first step of making Scotch does not take place here but outside the distillery walls. Professional maltsters soak locally grown barley in water for several days, allowing it to germinate. Once the shoots appear, the barley is heated and dried, to create malt. The Glenlivet’s maltsters don’t use peat during the drying process which is why the whisky doesn’t have that smoky aftertaste associated with many Highland malts.

The copper stills, originally designed by George Smith, are unique to The Glenlivet. Their design encourages maximum contact with the purifying copper and ensures only the lightest vapours reach the top to condense and become ‘low wines,’ with an alcohol content of approximately 20-22 per cent. Photo courtesy: The Glenlivet Distillery

The copper stills, originally designed by George Smith, are unique to The Glenlivet. Their design encourages maximum contact with the purifying copper and ensures only the lightest vapours reach the top to condense and become ‘low wines,’ with an alcohol content of approximately 20-22 per cent. Photo courtesy: The Glenlivet Distillery

One of the members of our group wonders aloud how fascinating it is that prized single malts are the product of three humble ingredients: barley, yeast and water. As we chew on this, the guide leads us upstairs where—judging by the strong aroma—some interesting stuff happens. He explains that here, the grist goes through a mashing process where the starch in the malt is turned into a clear sugary liquid which is later transferred to giant wooden tubs or washbacks. At this point, yeast is added to the mix and voila, after two days, there’s alcohol. At least some form of it. Known as the wash, it is like a frothy beer with alcohol strength of eight to nine per cent. Even though the distillery is shut for maintenance during our visit, the smell of alcohol hangs in the air. As our guide lifts the lid of one of the empty washbacks, everyone takes a deep breath. It’s enough to feel a bit woozy. Unlike many other distilleries in the area, The Glenlivet hasn’t switched to stainless steel washbacks, opting instead for Oregon pine ones for that additional flavour and aroma. Perhaps, it makes sense for I can’t imagine feeling lightheaded sniffing into a sterile steel tub.

The piece de résistance, however, is the distillation room down a flight of stairs. I am awed, like I would be when looking at a beautiful work of art, when I see the ceiling-high shiny lantern-shaped copper stills that were designed by George Smith, the founder of The Glenlivet. Our guide outlines the process for us through a rather detailed technical explanation. The wash is heated from the base to a point where the alcohol evaporates to condense at the narrow end of the still. These ‘low wines’ are then double-distilled in a spirits still. This is followed by a double-distillation in a safe, a retro-style minilab fitted with glass goblets and whatnot, where the alcohol is divided into three parts. Only the ‘heart’ (the desirable liquid of appropriate strength and quality) is collected for maturing. The rest, known as ‘head’ and ‘tail’, is further combined with new low wines and distilled again, a process known as recycling. Our last stop before the whisky tasting is a warehouse opposite the distillation unit.

Josie's Well (top left), a natural spring outside the distillery, was one of the reasons why founder George Smith (right) chose to build the distillery here. Smith, born in 1792 in the parish of Glenlivet, came from a long line of illicit distillers, and in 1824 he became the first licensed distiller in the parish; It is estimated that The Glenlivet sold 56,800 cases in India last year, each containing 12 bottles or nine litres of whisky (bottom left). Photo Courtesy: The Glenlivet Distillery (Well & Portrait), Photo by: Rosn123/Shutterstock (Barrels)

Josie’s Well (top left), a natural spring outside the distillery, was one of the reasons why founder George Smith (right) chose to build the distillery here. Smith, born in 1792 in the parish of Glenlivet, came from a long line of illicit distillers, and in 1824 he became the first licensed distiller in the parish; It is estimated that The Glenlivet sold 56,800 cases in India last year, each containing 12 bottles or nine litres of whisky (bottom left). Photo Courtesy: The Glenlivet Distillery (Well & Portrait), Photo by: Rosn123/Shutterstock (Barrels)

Inside the warehouse, it’s the enticing aroma of millions of litres of whisky delicately ageing in oaken casks that hits us. It’s heady, addictive and transcendent all at once. This is where science meets art to create a new kind of alchemy. It may seem like there’s nothing much to see here but then reams have been written on the effect of wood on alcohol. As the spirit sits in the casks made from European and American oak, it diffuses into the porous wood leading to all sorts of chemical reactions that influence taste, aroma, colour and mouthfeel. As per the law of the land, whiskies must mature in oak for a minimum of three years but most distilleries age their single malts much longer. Here, 12 years is the minimum period. The mind boggles at the thought that the single malt you are drinking today was maturing in a Scottish distillery for the last dozen or more years, all the while changing, evolving and maturing like the world around us. There are special reserves that are aged for 25 years or more and it is incredible to think that the master distiller, who worked on the malt, may not even be around to taste the fruits of his labour. On our way out, the tour guide points to a barrel of whisky that has been set aside to mature and is to be gifted to Prince Charles who had visited the distillery during its expansion in 2010.

At the tasting room, there is a slightly solemn sense of ceremony as we are asked to choose any two whiskies to taste from a collection of the 12-Year-Old, 15-Year-Old, 18-Year-Old and 21-Year-Old. Everyone is presented with a “wee dram” of the chosen whisky. The light fruity flavour of the 12-Year-Old is a foil to the richness of the 18-Year-Old and I can’t help thinking that it’s a better choice for a tropical country like ours.

The oak casks highly influence the flavour of whiskies, and hence Glenlivet master distiller, Alan Winchester does regular taste tests of the distillery’s single malts. Photo courtesy: The Glenlivet Distillery

The oak casks highly influence the flavour of whiskies, and hence Glenlivet master distiller, Alan Winchester does regular taste tests of the distillery’s single malts. Photo courtesy: The Glenlivet Distillery

Since the café is closed by the time we finish our 45-minute tour, I wander around the visitor’s centre reading up on the history of the distillery while my travel companion decides on which whiskies to haul back to India. To my surprise, I discover that founder George Smith was one of first to legitimise his business in 1824 after an excise act was passed in 1823. This created considerable resentment against the Scotsman among other illegal distillers in the area. To defend himself, Smith was given two pistols by his landlord, Alexander Gordon, the fourth Duke of Gordon. “George only ever needed to fire his pistols once (though we can’t say the same for his guards). On his way home from making a delivery with his pockets full of cash, he stopped in a tavern, where some men were ready to corner any rich people who dared to pass through. As the situation escalated, George drew one of his pistols and fired it straight into the fireplace. The thieves left him to finish his drink,” goes one historical anecdote.

It’s hard to imagine this Wild-West-like scenario unfolding in these serene hills but the drama does add to the intriguing history of this distillery. Walking back to the car to continue our journey to Inverness, there’s a feeling of warmth and contentment. This is partly due to the superb Scotch we just tasted but largely, I think it had to do with connecting with an intrinsic part of Scottish life. This is a place where history lies at the bottom of an ageing whisky barrel.

Essentials

Getting There The Glenlivet distillery in Speyside is about a four-hour drive from Edinburgh. Enter AB37 9DB on your GPS for exact location. There are trains to Elgin, about 42 km/40 min north of The Glenlivet distillery, but it is best to hire a car as there’s limited public transport options to the interiors of Speyside.

Stay The town of Inverness, about 80 km/1.5 hr northwest, has several B&B and hotel options. For other options, visit www.visitscotland.com.

Tour The Glenlivet distillery is open for tours from 13 March to 10 November every year between 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.daily (last tour begins at 4.40 p.m.). Guided tours start at £10/Rs850 per person and can be booked on www.maltwhiskydistilleries.com

  • Shivani Kagti is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer who has previously worked with publications such as Midday, People magazine and Bangalore Mirror. Having grown up with a view of the Himalayan foothills from her farmhouse in upper Assam, she's always on the lookout for wilder horizons.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?