My Whisky Trail: Hunting Down Glenlivet, the Original Single Malt
The drive through the rolling glens (the local word for high valleys) in Scotland is idyllic.
The drive through the rolling glens (the local word for high valleys) in Scotland is idyllic.(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

My Whisky Trail: Hunting Down Glenlivet, the Original Single Malt

I’m driving though Speyside, one of Scotland’s most scenic corners – and the inevitable happens. I quickly jump off the car to snap a few photos and flood my Instagram account.

Almost two centuries ago, King George IV made a few stops around the same area. Of course, he didn't stop for pictures; he had more important things on his agenda. The crown officials were stunned when he asked for a dram (the Scottish expression for a small drink) of Glenlivet. Back in 1822, Glenlivet and the Speyside region was bootlegger paradise. The whisky was fantastic but technically it was illicit; distillers chose stealth mode to avoid paying taxes to the crown.

Tales of Smugglers and Many, Many Glasses of Whisky

George Smith was one of those illicit distillers and he seized the opportunity.

At the Glenlivet tasting room.
At the Glenlivet tasting room.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

In 1824, his distillery became the first licensed distiller in Glenlivet. It’s why almost 200 years later Glenlivet can claim to be the Single Malt that started it all. The drive through the rolling glens (the local word for high valleys) is idyllic.

But back in 1824 this was a dangerous place. Smith’s decision to go legit didn’t go down well with the other distilleries in the region and he needed two guns with him at all times to keep them at bay!

These are now on display at the Glenlivet distillery where you will hear tales about the brand’s legendary founder who survived (until 1871) the smugglers and drank multiple glasses of whisky every day. I first heard these stories from Ian Logan, Glenlivet’s Global brand ambassador over a few drams in Chennai, but to see it first hand at the distillery – you can even go down the smuggler’s trail near the distillery – is special for a self-confessed whisky aficionado.

 Glenlivet distillery.
Glenlivet distillery.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

It’s impossible to stay clear of whisky from the moment you arrive in Scotland.

My first stop in Edinburgh was ‘The Scotch Whisky Experience’ – walking distance from the station and next door to the city’s popular landmark, The Edinburgh Castle. It’s designed as a replica of a distillery for travellers who don't have time for the three-hour journey from Edinburgh to the country’s iconic distilleries. But if you’re serious about your Scotch, you will probably make the trek to Speyside where there are multiple distilleries in the vicinity.

Huntly, a tiny village not far from Aberdeen is the perfect base to explore Speyside. It’s home to the ruins of a 14th century castle and a charming 18th century mansion that is now the Castle Hotel – a family run establishment with a never ending list of whiskies in their cellar.

Huntly Castle. 
Huntly Castle. 
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

I met quite a few whisky enthusiasts at the hotel’s bar exchanging notes from their day’s discoveries at Speyside that included distillery stops at Arbelour and Cardhu.

Most distillery tours follow a similar format.

I found Glenlivet’s 90-minute tour very absorbing, for instance. A lot rests with the tour guide, and it helps that most of these guides have thousands of tours under their belt and their insights are always laced with the customary Scottish humour!

The Experience of Sampling Whisky at Source...

The six stage process hasn't changed much since 1824, except for the production volumes and more modern equipment. It takes just three ingredients – barley, water and yeast – 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; their whiskies end up being less smoky and peaty compared to some of their competition. This malt is then milled and mashed with their legendary waters from Josie’s Well, a natural spring. The whisky is matured in oak casks after fermentation and distillation.

Speyside region with the Glenlivet distillery in the background.
Speyside region with the Glenlivet distillery in the background.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

The tour makes a stop at one of their large warehouses where you can sample one of Glenlivet’s single malts and where the guide also pulls out a ‘dipping dog’, a copper tube that was once used by distillery workers to ‘liberate’ whisky from casks and dodge excise men.

The tour ends with a whisky flight in their visitor centre where quite a few myths around whisky are busted. For instance, single malts don’t refer to whiskies from a single production batch but a single distillery and that the age on the bottle (say 12 Year Old) refers to the youngest whisky in the bottle, there could be older whiskies in that bottle.

Speyside’s landscapes combine with local tales to create a fascinating experience. It’s one thing to sit in your favourite bar or your den and pour yourself a rare single malt but it’s another experience to sample your favourite whisky at source with fellow whisky fans you’ve just met from different corners of the world....

The dipping dog.
The dipping dog.
(Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

Getting there and around: Glenlivet (www.glenlivet.com) and other Speyside distilleries are all about three and a half hours away from Edinburgh by road. There are trains but it’s best to hire a car. Spirit of Speyside (www.spiritofspeyside.com) has information on the major distilleries in the region.

Accommodation: The Castle Hotel in Huntly (www.castlehotel.uk.com) is one hour away from Glenlivet and other major distillers in Speyside.

Good to know: Glenlivet has drivers’ tasting kits; these reusable kits allow you to nose the whiskies and then decant them into 5 small bottles in a carry bag to enjoy later.

(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, one of India’s only cross cultural trainers and a consultant for a global brand services firm. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends)

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