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The Glenlivet distillery is the oldest “legal” distillery in the parish of Glenlivet and home to the famous scotch whisky of the same name. The Livet glen was once home to dozens of stills, producing whisky that was traded all over Scotland and beyond, such was its reputation for quality. When the government decided they had had enough of such things however, the Excise Act of 1823 was passed, in the hopes that it would encourage many distillers to purchase an official license and become good tax-paying citizens – crucial for a country recovering from the cost of war with Napoleon.
Though the act would ultimately be successful, its impact was slow. The Caledonian Mercury reported on Saturday 24 January 1824 that an exciseman by the name MacTavish made a “seizure of smuggled whisky of unusual magnitude”. Their rather sanctimonious report stated that Glenlivet was the only district left in the Highlands where this “illicit and demoralising system is carried on to any great extent” and that “the joint fruits of the smugglers’ labour were conveyed to different parts of the low country, by bands of people far too numerous and powerful for any attempt at seizure by a single officer.” MacTavish it seems, was a wily sort however, and he chose instead to tail one such band until they stopped for the night. When the smugglers woke in the morning, they “found themselves minus 20 Scots ankers of pure Glenlivet”.
George Smith was one of the many who operated a still in the Glen and it was he who saw the writing on the wall for the old way of life and decided to acquire a license. Unsurprisingly, his decision did not go over well with his fellow distillers. Smith is often portrayed as the courageous hero in this story, defending himself with a pair of pistols against the ruffians who wished to carry on with their illicit deeds. There are two sides to every story though and it is perhaps understandable that some would be furious at the man who broke with history and tradition and bent the knee to what many viewed as a foreign government. Then on top of being an early form of a scab, he went on to claim ownership of the Glenlivet name!
Smith would be proved right in the end of course, with his Upper Drumin distillery enjoying dramatic success. So much so, he was forced to build a second premises in order to keep up with demand but even with both sites at full tilt, he was falling short. Eventually a much larger enterprise would be constructed at Minmore, where the current distillery remains today. Construction was almost complete on this new building when Smith’s original distillery at Drumin Farm was burned to the ground. Was this a rebellious act by disgruntled smugglers perhaps?
The Glenlivet would go on to become one of the most successful of Scottish distilleries, with their 12 year old in particular one of the most recognisable single malts in the world. In one of the most bizarre and unpopular decisions of recent times however, current owners Pernod Ricard decided in 2015 to remove the 12 year old from many international markets, including in its homeland of Scotland and the UK. In its place was the Founder’s Reserve, a no-age-statement, presumably younger malt of lesser character. In honesty, it was a poor replacement and angered many loyal fans.
Fortunately the 12 year old has since returned to our shelves, bearing the sub-heading of “Double Oak”. Bottled at 40%, it retails for around £35.
Smell: Malt and cereal. Buttery biscuit. Fresh apple and lemon. Honey and vanilla fudge. Fresh cut grass.
Taste: Vanilla and honey. Buttered toast. Lots of apple and a touch of citrus. Caramel. Malty finish with some dry woody spice.
Thoughts: The Glenlivet has never really been a favourite of mine, although I did go through a few bottles of the 12 year old in the early days of my whisky adventure. There’s decent quality here and it’s light years ahead of the Founder’s Reserve offering that replaced it for a while. You can’t really complain at £35 for a product 12 years in the making, especially when you’d pay the same for gins and vodkas that were churned out in a few hours.
I’ve no idea whether their sales were impacted (probably not), but the reputation of The Glenlivet seemed to take a bit of a hit when the 12 year old was pulled. It was easily the most high-profile example of a brand binning age statements in favour of younger whisky. Now that the 12 has returned to its native shores however, I’m pleased to find that it still lives up to its famous name. It’s gentle and inoffensive yes, but there will always be a place for that in the market – people rarely arrive to the whisky scene with their palates fine-tuned to the wonders of Springbank, for example. We all have to start somewhere and entry level has to be two things – affordable and pleasantly drinkable. In my opinion the Glenlivet 12 checks both of those boxes.
For more on The Glenlivet, visit here.