Whisky from the wild side (Glenlivet)
The spirit of innovation has always been a part of distilling at Glenlivet. Dave Broom charts ahistory shot through with passion, rebellion and imagination.
And in the Highlands the A939, Cockbridge to Tomintoul, is blocked. This was the way that the onset of winter was traditionally announced in Scotland.
Travel this road and you can see why this would be the first place to be snowbound. The pine forests and fast running waters of gentle Deeside have been left behind as you suddenly veer into the Grampian massif. Trees disappear, grouse peek out from the side of the road and make suicidal dashes under the car wheels. As you travel up the impossibly steep hill from the austere Corgarff castle you enter a different land. A hard, high land of heather, rough pasture and plenty of weather. There is a sense of isolation, space and loneliness.
According to the whisky maps, this is Speyside but it isn’t the Speyside of popular imagination. This is Glenlivet. The coachloads of tourists wending their way from Dufftown in the north to The Glenlivet distillery must wonder at times if their driver has made a mistake. This is not what Speyside is meant to look like. But then Glenlivet has always been slightly different to its neighbours. After all, when people wanted high-class whisky in the 19th century they did not ask for a Speyside, they called for Glenlivet.
To be strictly accurate they wouldn’t have called for it, because the stuff that had made that long trek south over those remote, snow-filled winter passes was technically illegal. That did not stop them paying a premium for it. In the 1820s, illegally produced Glenlivet was fetching £6 per 10-gallon cask (£1 more than normal). It was regarded as the finest whisky in the country. Not surprisingly, when King George IV came to Edinburgh in 1822 he demanded a dram of Glenlivet. The fact that his Lord Chamberlain found a stash without any problem indicates that the great and the good, while locking up smugglers and distillers during the day, were not averse to a drop of the moonshine when they retired for the evening.
Some of the illicit hooch that poured south came from the farm of one George Smith who, like most of his neighbours, had started producing illegal whisky in the first two decades of the 19th century. The Smiths had leased Upper Drumin farm from the Duke of Gordon in 1715 and though the relationship between tenant and landowner was to become even closer in a few years time, initially Smith behaved like the rest of the tenants in the glen, he farmed during the day and made whisky at night.
Today’s visitor to The Glenlivet will find a large, rather brutal looking distillery complex, but in those days the smoke from peat fires would have snaked out of bothies, caves and farm buildings, the clear spirit would have flowed from tiny stills which were easy to hide. But why were they doing it? If you walk up the hill behind the distillery and look around, you will see. Though you are surrounded by farmland, it is not the lushly fertile coastal plain. Cattle mooch around on the grass, sheep nibble on the higher slopes. Crops are nowhere to be seen.
In Smith’s time, any Glenlivet-grown grain would have fetched a lower price than that from the coast. It therefore made more sense for farmers to distil it and make more money that way. When duties were raised in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and the clampdown on illegal production started, suddenly this poor quality barley, from a remote area that was difficult to patrol, became a prize asset. Glenlivet, for centuries a remote backwater, suddenly became the heart of a massive illegal operation.
It all sounds wonderfully romantic. The defiant Highlander standing his ground against the forces of government. In some ways that was true. The people had had their language, religion, dress all forcibly removed. In a few years the mass Clearances would start. The people of Glenlivet, always noted as a breed of rebel mountain men and women who had frequently defied the government, needed no invitation to stick two fingers up to authority.
What is often overlooked, however, is that farmers like George Smith were virtually forced into distilling. Within a few years whisky making was the only thing he could do in order to pay his rent and stay on his land. The population was effectively criminalised. There were licensed distilleries in the Highlands at that time. Brackla, Strathisla and Teaninich were all sitting on huge quantities of legally made whisky. The fact was, they just could not sell it. The smuggled stuff was cheaper and of better quality. Demand rose as did the price of distilling barley ... and the rents.
The end result was that farmers like Smith were caught between a rock and a hard place. Not that this bothered them. At one point there were allegedly 200 illegal operations in this one small glen alone making the premier cru of moonshine and they were making sufficient money to be able to buy off the badly paid and demoralised gaugers [excise men] who were not just pitted against a few lawbreakers, but an entire
Smith’s landowner, Alexander, Duke of Gordon, saw the dilemma. The courts were full of illegal distillers, the magistrates were often farmers themselves who supplied barley to the distillers, troops were being diverted from other duties to help the gaugers, while as a landowner he needed the rent but the only way the people could pay him was by making whisky! In addition, the duty rates were a mess and actively worked against quality. His conclusion was that by reducing duty and permitting stills of 40 gallons for the payment of a licence the illegal activity would be wiped out. A good enough theory, but illegal production was relatively big business by this stage. There was a network of organised crime that started in the farms and bothies but then involved smuggling gangs, distributors and salesmen and these guys weren’t going to give up without a fight. What Gordon needed was someone to make a stand on his behalf
The birth of The Glenlivet distillery is a bit like a western with George Smith played by Jimmy Stewart, as the law-abiding rancher who decides to settle down and make his living in a lawless part of the country patrolled by outlaw gangs. In November 1824 the Duke’s agent James Skinner convinced Smith to give up the old ways, to convert one of his out-ouildings into a legal distillery and take out one of the new licences. When he signed a new era started. The smugglers weren’t happy. Smith, and the others who jumped ship, were attacked, had their distilleries burned down and were put under immense pressure to give up. Smith started travelling with two loaded pistols. He was not afraid of using them either. Most of the others simply gave up. It was not only dangerous to set up, but expensive as well. Smith was on the verge of bankruptcy and the scheme on the brink of failure when the Duke stepped in with a £600 loan to help him pay off his debts and get some working capital. In 1827 the cavalry arrived at Corgarff, swept up the glen and cleared the renegades out of their illegal bothies. By 1834, Smith was the only distiller left in the best-known whisky glen in Scotland.
This thread of innovation runs through the story of The Glenlivet. It has played a central role in each era of whisky’s evolution. Not just the first to take out a new licence, but in time the first named whisky at the heart of a new style of dram. Smith, like the other legal producers, sold his whisky in barrels to merchants and grocers across Britain, including Andrew Usher of Leith who, in 1853, released a brand called Old Vatted Glenlivet — a blend of several Smith’s Glenlivet and other malts. It was the start of blended whisky. With the arrival of the railway in Ballindalloch in 1863, production increased dramatically with most of the whisky being sold as fillings for blends.
Although Glenlivet was a pioneering single malt it was not bottled until 1934 when Bill Smith Grant targeted the thirsty post-Prohibition America and found a ready market for his malt’s gentle, floral style. The boom in blends post-1945 triggered a new age of prosperity. These were the days when whisky was still part of a local community, the days before the multinationals had taken over. With the exception of DCL, most distilleries were independent or part of small groups. In 1952 G & J G Smith had merged with J &J Grant of Glen Grant to form The Glenlivet & Glen Grant Distilleries. (Longmorn was added in 1970, and the group was bought by Seagram in 1978).
The owners were local landowners, the workers their tenants Things had not changed that much since the early days. Whisky ran in the community’s veins, and so did that streak of rebelliousness. The Glenlivet men may have no longer been the moonshiners of old, but they were still good Highland renegades and you mess with them at your peril... as one new manager found out.
For years the local blacksmith had had a sign advertising The Glenlivet in his field. The rent was couple of bottles of whisky a year. The new manager, wanting to make his mark, decided that this practice of bribing the locals with free whisky was to stop. Not long after he was driving down the road where the sign was, but instead of seeing the sign advertising his whisky all he could see was a huge pile of horse shit. The next day he went up the road and delivered the yearly rent as per usual!
Whether that practice still carries on is unclear. That incident happened when The Glenlivet employed over 50 people. It was a time when it malted its own barely, cut peats from the nearby Faemussach Moss, carted the full barrels by horse-drawn dray to the station and carried malt and coal back up. Today the bustle in the courtyard comes from tourists. The maltings closed down in 1966, the direct fires in the stills have long gone. Inside it is the epitome of a modern malt distillery. The impressive visitor’s centre is the most contemporary- looking in the business, the whole plant gleams and hums in a rather discreet fashion. Whisky making these days is a quiet operation. You will see more computer screens than people and though the care and attention remains the same there is a strange emptiness about the place. There again, everything about whisky-making is in constant flux and innovation has run through the history of the plant.
What is clear is that the spirit coming off the 17 foot high stills has retained that signature mix of flowers and soft fruit. That character is at the core of an ever-expanding range, an unchanging marker in a selection which shows different facets of the distillery’s history and style.
Like most malts, The Glenlivet has lightened in style in recent years. The charming, floral 12-year-old is a fine everyday dram, maybe not in the premier league of malts but a sound team player. There is a fantastic, silky 15-year-old (formerly called Archive) which mixes wholemeal bread, heather, ginger, butterscotch, dried mushroom and ripe quince, but if you want to discover the true heart of The Glenlivet, go for the 18-year-old. There is a hint of peat, there is good use of sherry casks, in fact there is everything you don’t expect in a Glenlivet if you have only ever drunk the 12-year-old. Aromatic, with hints of demerara sugar, flowers, pear/apple, anise, sandalwood and gentle peat smoke, it is a long, complex, fruit-filled dram that harks back to the days when the malt was still peated. While the 21-year-old (now called Archive) has yet to find its feet, the two finishes have great style. The lean, lightly smoked, spicily fruity French Wood Finish brings out the drier side of the distillery style while the newest arrival, an American Oak Finish, is a lush, creamy mouthful with a sweet citrus/apple crumble nose and a creamy vanilla/butter and apricot palate. The spirit of innovation continues.