The single malt that started it all

The splendid story of Scotland’s first licensed distillery, the Glenlivet

I met Glenlivet’s Global Brand Ambassador, Ian Logan, at The Park Hyatt, Chennai, where we had a rather long conversation over some of Glenlivet’s finest whiskies [LM1] (including two of my personal favourites, the 15 and the 18-year-olds).

We spoke of some fascinating whisky trivia — I learnt that whisky was predominantly bottled in green bottles because these were cheaper than clear glass bottles. Another interesting fact was that single malts don’t refer to whiskeys from a single production batch, but a single distillery.

I also learned that the age on the bottle (say, 12-year-old) refers to the youngest whisky in the bottle and that there could be older whiskies in the same bottle. But what I really enjoyed that evening, almost as much as the whisky, was listening to the story of Glenlivet’s origins.

The Edinburgh experience

This conversation acted as the final push in my planning a visit to Scotland. My first stop in Scotland was Edinburgh, and it took me only 15 minutes to rank Edinburgh among my most favourite cities in Europe. It’s easy to fall in love with this city full of Gothic architecture, and my love affair with Edinburgh probably began at the city’s historic castle.

The castle’s imposing architecture and the sweeping views from atop the castle are truly a sight to behold. However, this is not the only vantage point in the city — the Scott Memorial, built in memory of one of Scotland’s most prolific writers, Sir Walter Scott, also has incredible views, albeit a testing climb.

Edinburgh might be some distance from the region’s distilleries, but the city’s Scotch Whisky Experience is a clever solution for whisky aficionados who are on a tight schedule. It’s only a walking distance from the station and is essentially a replica of a distillery. It offers visitors a quick overview of the distilling process and a wide array of brands in its well-stocked store. Most serious connoisseurs, however, will tell you that you need to make the trek to Speyside to truly come to terms with Scotland’s fascinating whisky legacy.

Exploring Speyside

Many whisky trails use Huntly as a base to explore Speyside. My base was the Castle Hotel, a family establishment run by a chatty couple who included Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka among their favourite destinations. This 18th Century mansion that has been converted into a boutique hotel is also home to one of the largest whisky cellars in the region.

The bar at the Castle hotel is every whisky connoisseur’s dream, and it’s not just because of the exhaustive list of fine whiskies, but also because you can have conversations with fellow aficionados, and exchange notes from their whisky trails in the region.

A group of Americans shared their discoveries at the Cardhu and Arbelour distilleries with me. The Castle Hotel, however, is not the oldest building in the vicinity. That is an honour, which belongs to the 14th Century Huntly Castle located next door.

One of Logan’s most interesting tales was about King George IV’s visit to Speyside almost two centuries ago.

It wasn’t just the Scottish scenery that brought him here; it was also the whisky. He surprised crown officials when he asked them to pour him a dram (the local expression for a small drink) of Glenlivet. In the 1820s, Speyside was a dangerous place — Bootleggers held sway and the whisky trade was, in fact, illegal. The whisky though was terrific, and distillers decided to operate clandestinely to avoid paying taxes to the crown.

George Smith was one such distiller, who saw King George IV’s request as an opportunity, and quickly went legitimate. In 1824, his distillery, Glenlivet, became the first to be licensed in Speyside.

Smith and the single malt

This is why Glenlivet can claim to be the single malt that started it all. Smith’s move to turn a new leaf had other distillers in the region baying for his blood, to the point where Smith kept two guns with him at all times. These guns are now prize exhibits at the Glenlivet distillery. The whisky tours are always laced with legends about their founder George Smith, and about how he kept smugglers at bay and enjoyed a healthy lifestyle despite drinking multiples glasses of his distillery’s produce every day.

The drive through the rolling glens (the local word for high valleys) is idyllic, and Glenlivet’s 90-minute tour is not very different from standard distillery tours, except that the guides here make an extra effort to keep visitors engaged. Barley, water, and yeast are all it takes to make a Glenlivet. It begins with the malting process where the barley is allowed to germinate before it is heated and dried.

Glenlivet doesn't use peat during the drying process, and so, their whiskies end up being less smoky and peaty compared to their competition. The malt is then milled and mashed with waters from Josie’s Well, a natural spring.

The whisky is then matured in oak casks, after fermentation and distillation. The only changes at Glenlivet over the years have been the equipment and the ever-expanding volumes. The six-stage process has remained virtually unchanged from its inception.

The tour ends with a whisky flight in their visitor’s centre, but for most visitors, this is only the beginning of a fascinating journey into the Scottish whisky legacy. Almost every turn along Speyside’s winding roads and rolling glens have their share of fascinating tales, but most people come back for the whisky. Understandably.

The writer, a consultant for a global brand services firm, writes extensively on travel, food and technology

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