How A Famous Whisky Nearly Never Made It

Until 1823 across the Speyside district of Scotland, you would easily have been able to come across illegal distilleries as they were very commonplace. However, all that changed in 1823 with the passing of the Excise Act. The big change was that, thanks to this act, legal distilleries could be set up, given that the owner was in possession of a license to produce.

It is not entirely clear, but it is believed, that Alexander Gordon the 4th Duke of Gordon was the key player and protagonist in getting this legislation successfully passed. George Smith who was the Duke of Gordon’s tenant is believed to have been involved in passing of the legislation, although there is no written evidence to support this.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Smith was already operating his own illicit distillery at that time. It was he who applied for first and then obtained the first license to produce whisky legally in Glenlivet. Not unsurprisingly, other illicit producers were very unhappy about this and pushed hard to get the Excise Bill overturned so that they could return peacefully to their previous work. However as enough distillers across Scotland accepted the legislation, their hopes were dashed.

Serious threats were made against George Smith, so alarmed was the Duke of Gordon that he gave George Smith two pistols to protect himself as well as his distillery. Fortunately for whisky lovers the world over, Smith survived and in 1824, together with his son John Gordon Smith, started production at the Upper Drumin Distillery which is still operational today.

Producing single malt whisky at Glenlivet

Single malt scotch needs to be produced using careful and traditional methods to guarantee that the end result is an excellent product. Each stage in the production of Glenlivet Whisky has been carefully refined and is practiced in ways using techniques and ingredients that will not be used in blended whisky production.

1.The malting

The initial step is the malting process of Glenlivet whisky actually takes place off site. Rich Scottish barley, that has been carefully selected, is carefully soaked by professional maltsters. After leaving it soaking for several days it germinates. The moment the shoots emerge the barley is cooked and dried and this produces the malt that is the key ingredient for the whisky. A curious fact is that Glenlivet does not use peat while the barley is drying, unlike Islay malts, and so it retains its finer flavors and aromas.

2.The milling

The dried malt is returned to the distillery so that it can be run through the malt mill in batches. The mill produces coarse flour that is known as “grist”. The hard barley husks are split open and removed like a sweet wrapper to reveal the granules of starch inside.

3.The mashing

Hot spring water is used to mash the grist in a receptacle called a mash tun; it is device with rotating arms that stirs up the mixture. An important natural process is the development of enzymes, these convert the starch contained in the malt into sugar. This sugary liquid is called “wort” and having been mashed it is clear in color.


Now yeast is added to wort and this solution converts the sugars into alcohol. It would be tasteless were it not for the impurities called “congeners” that give the whisky its particular flavor. Washbacks are used that are big vessels. After 2 days, the wort is converted to wash; it seems like a very frothy beer with strength of about 8%-9% proof. Glenlivet uses wood washbacks rather than steel ones.


Glenlivet uses copper pot stills, inside them in the first phase of distillation, the wash is heated so that the alcohol evaporates from the water. The lantern shape stills, that are still in use today, that George Smith designed himself are unique to Glenlivet. The advantage of the necks is that their width allows the alcohol vapour to get maximum contact with the copper that purifies it. Being high only the lightest vapours reach the top, they cool and when condensing become “low wines” the alcohol content now is about 20% to 22%.

Now a second stage distillation allows the low wines in the spirit still. On cooling the remaining liquid is divided into 3 separate cuts by a person called the stillman. He uses a spirit safe to divide the high alcohol liquid which emerges first “head” from the “heart” which is the second type of liquid to emerge. The last liquid is unusable and is recycled together with the head and goes into the spirit receiver.


Whisky casks are now filled at the town of Keith which is found nearby to Glenlivet, the alcohol is reduced a little. The maturation period is from between 12 to 25 years, sometimes even longer. A little known fact is the whisky continues to evaporate, even if this is just a little. This evaporation is known as the “Angels Share” and actually accounts for many thousands of gallons each year, but the manufacturers reckon it’s worthwhile to keep the whisky gods happy!