What's in a name? Sometimes a name can be very important indeed. Glenlivet Distillery is home to The Glenlivet. The "The" is significant because since a legal case in 1884 only whisky produced by Glenlivet Distillery has had the right to call itself "The Glenlivet". At that time, Glenlivet had become so successful that many other distilleries had taken to attaching the name Glenlivet to their labels in addition to their own, and as a result the name of one company's product was in danger of becoming a generic term for an entire type of product.
While this might be regarded as the most sincere form of flattery, and while the presence of a glen called Glenlivet through which the River Livet flows meant that a few distilleries could legitimately claim to use Glenlivet as a geographical designation, such was the high reputation of Glenlivet whisky that many distilleries adding the designation to their labels were located nowhere near the glen of that name: it almost became an alternative for "Speyside". At the time it was joked that "Glenlivet" translated as "Long Glen" because it seemed to pass so many distilleries. The 1884 legal case resolved matters, though "Glenlivet", without the "The" can still be found on vintage bottles of whisky produced elsewhere in Speyside.
Today's Glenlivet Distillery offers the visitor just about everything they could be looking for in a distillery visit. The visitor centre is modern, large, and extremely good; and the new distillery extension, which visitors now visit, has at its heart a huge space that is highly impressive, and accessible to an unusual degree. Tie this in with a warm welcome and a comprehensive tour and Glenlivet should be on anyone's list of "must visit" distilleries.
Glenlivet stands at a height of over 800ft on the north eastern slopes of Carn Liath, a 549m (or nearly 1,800ft) mountain to the south. These slopes forms a north pointing spur between the River Livet to the east and the River Avon to the west. Most visitors approach Glenlivet Distillery along a minor road from the north, and following signs within the extensive complex brings you to the visitors' car park.
The visitor centre is in a traditional stone finished building that looks as if it previously housed part of the maltings. On entering you find yourself in the reception area. From here you can proceed on the same level to the unusually well stocked and beautifully atmospheric shop, complete with some tempting and unusual products including, when we visited, Scottish raspberries in The Glenlivet. A walkway on the same level leads to the attractive coffee shop, which serves refreshments and light meals. Not far from the reception, a hidden door leads to the Guardians' Library, a room that may be accessed by appointment by The Guardians of The Glenlivet.
Much of the lower floor of the visitor centre is given over to an effective exhibition about the story of The Glenlivet. There are some especially nice touches, such as the huge print of the local Ordnance Survey map on part of the floor, and viewers showing the surrounding countryside. An obvious feature as you enter the exhibition area is a fine sculpture in the form of a DNA-like spiral made up of orange and green whisky bottles, while nearby is a barred door through which you can view The Glenlivet Cellar Collection, representing a more traditional form of warehousing than you will see later in your visit.
The process at Glenlivet begins with milling the malted barley after it arrives on site. The active malt mill is not part of the tour: you are instead offered a better alternative, a traditional Porteus malt mill with sections cut away and covers removed to allow what for many visitors will be the first real understanding of what a malt mill actually does and how it does it.
There is no simulation or substitute for the rest of your tour. Glenlivet Distillery underwent a major expansion which was formally opened by Prince Charles on 4 June 2010. This comprises a completely new building housing an additional chunk of production, which significantly increased the overall capacity of the distillery. Your first sight of the interior of the new building is, without exaggeration, breathtaking. What has been produced is nothing short of a cathedral for the distillers' art, a huge space in which a new production stream could be laid out in the most effective way possible.
The first thing you see on entering the end of this building nearest the visitor centre is a truly enormous mash tun, which some think might be larger than the previous holder of the title for Speyside's largest, at Glenfarclas Distillery. More impressive than its size, however, is its shape, which is more like a UFO than anything you are ever likely to see at Bonnybridge, reputed to be Scotland's UFO capital. Beyond the mash tun a large platform extends out to offer fine views over the six stills in the building. These are in addition to the eight stills which continue to produce The Glenlivet elsewhere in the distillery. Sharing part of this platform is the control desk for the new expansion.
Off to one side is the tun room, housing a row of washbacks made from wood that looks and smells amazingly fresh. What is nice is that the mesh floor and the lighting below means that it is easy to appreciate the true height of the washbacks. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process. From the far end of the tun room you return to the main still house, though this time at the end with a floor to ceiling window: and early impressions about the grandeur of the building are simply reconfirmed. The floor below gives a very clear view of the bases of the stills, again set within an unusually generous space.
The tour then moves on to one of the racked warehouses on site, which helps give a clear idea of the sheer scale of the warehousing operation. It then concludes back in a room in an arm of the visitor centre where you can sample the product.
Until it became possible to run a licenced distillery in 1823, the area was home to a number of illegal stills. George Smith, a long established illegal distiller, broke the mould when he applied for a licence in 1824 and went legitimate: a move so unpopular with his neighbours (who saw it as unfair competition) that he was obliged to keep a pair of loaded pistols with him at all times. His initial distillery was a mile to the north of the current location, not far from the ruin of Drumin Castle, but such was the success of The Glenlivet that George & J.G. Smith & Co. relocated to the current site in 1859 to allow expansion. The later success of The Glenlivet can be charted by the increase in its number of stills: from four to six in 1973; to eight in 1978; and to fourteen in 2010. In terms of ownership, Glenlivet merged with Glen Grant, in 1972, and over the years since has become part of first Seagrams and then Chivas Brothers, which is itself now part of Pernod Ricard.