A pair of pistols, a fortuitous location, and a wee bit of luck all once conspired to transform an illicit pot still on an expansive glade overlooking Scotland’s River Livet into the producer of the best-selling single-malt whisky in America. And indeed, for many whisky fanciers, the Glenlivet is the very embodiment of the Scottish spirit in its purest—and most literal—form.
The man behind the brand was a determined distiller named George Smith, who first came to this gently sloping, grassy glen in 1817 to continue the trade his father had taught him. In the early 19th century, private distillation of whisky was illegal, and Smith was part of a vast community of rogue distillers who thrived in the rugged Scottish Highlands. The Banffshire area of Glenlivet—a popular whisky-producing location—was a favorite safe harbor for Scottish bootleggers, more than 200 of whom plied their trade there at the time.
In addition to the subterranean springs that produce semihard water rich in calcium and magnesium, the Highland remoteness of the glen appealed to whisky makers, for they could easily spot the King’s soldiers and excise officers as they approached, allowing them ample time to pack up their pot stills and vanish into the surrounding forests. Fortunately, this arrangement also permitted Glenlivet’s bootleggers to take a bit more time in distilling their spirits, enhancing the quality of the finished product.
Smith set up distilling operations at Upper Drumin, which afforded a sweeping view across the glen all the way to Ben Rinnes, the highest mountain in Banffshire. Smith situated his still in a locale 850 feet above sea level, which cooled his distillate faster and slowed the aging process—both critical factors in making above-average whisky. Smith’s distillery also boasted a convenient source of water known as Josie’s Well, where an underground spring bubbled to the surface.
Thanks to these advantages, whisky from this area amassed such a reputation that, in 1822, during a visit to Edinburgh, King George IV specifically asked for Glenlivet by name, knowing full well his own laws proscribed it. The King’s ongoing and somewhat vain battle against bootlegging—combined with the growing prestige of the whisky—very likely led to the passage of the Excise Act in 1823, which allowed private distillers like Smith to practice their trade by lowering the cost of a license to £10 and by reducing the legal size of stills from 400 gallons to a more manageable 40.
Being an independent lot, the Highlanders resisted their sudden legitimate status as government-licensed distillers, which was tantamount to siding with the enemy. Smith, however, did not suffer from this particular prejudice, and so he was the first of the bootleggers to be officially licensed. Smith may have shared similar sentiments, but the Duke of Gordon, who was chairman of the parliamentary committee that introduced the excise tax legislation, also happened to be one of his creditors, having once lent the young distiller money when he teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. Whether to make good on his debt to the duke or in response to the latter’s urging (the duke had given the young man advance notice of the pending change in the law), George Smith, in 1824—a date still embossed on every bottle of the Glenlivet—became the first and consequently the only distiller who could legally refer to his whisky as The Glenlivet.
Smith’s legitimacy did not endear him to his neighbors, who soon began to threaten his distillery and his life. The situation finally became so intense that the Laird of Aberlour gave Smith a cased pair of flintlock pistols with which to defend himself, and the distiller often walked the grounds with these duelers tucked in his belt.
On one occasion, while transporting his fabled Glenlivet whisky to a nearby town, Smith’s wagon was stopped by a group of smugglers. He offered them each a dram if they would let him pass, but they wanted the whole wagonload. Smith responded by firing one of his pistols at the gang’s leader, then leveled the second cocked gun at the rest of the pack.
“I let it be known everywhere that I would fight for my place to the last shot,” he said years later in an 1868 interview with The London Scotsman. Smith’s temperament was by no means as subtle as his whisky. His pistols are now on display at the distillery.
Smith and Sons
by 1827, the lowering of whisky taxes led to an overabundance of product, and George Smith found himself in financially choppy waters. Once again, the Duke of Gordon came to his aid by secretly agreeing to honor his debts. But by selling his cattle and some of his land, Smith paid back the duke and kept his stills operating, while others were forced to close their distilleries.
Soon Smith’s fortunes improved to such an extent that, in 1830, he brought his eldest son, William, into the business, which he moved to nearby Minmore, a farming area just 350 yards below Upper Drumin. William remained Glenlivet’s master distiller until his untimely death in 1846 from tuberculosis. His younger brother, John Gordon Smith, cut short a budding law career in Edinburgh to be at William’s side during his
final days. He then took over as the Glenlivet’s master distiller, a position he held until 1857.
In 1858, the ever-increasing fame of the Glenlivet forced the Smith family to again face the decision of either expanding their distillery or moving it. They decided to rebuild farther down the glen, on a site where their distillery stands today, using many of the original stones from Minmore. To mark the event, a new company, George & J.G. (John Gordon) Smith, was established.
The One and Only
by this time, the Glenlivet whisky had achieved such fame that other distilleries were taking advantage of the appellation, claiming it was an area rather than a single malt. Finally, in 1883, John Gordon, calling upon his knowledge of law, in a series of court cases established once and for all that the distillery started by his father was the only one that could call itself The Glenlivet. All others were reduced to hyphenates of that famous name, a practice that continued until fairly recently. One still finds warehoused barrels stenciled with double-barreled monikers like Macallan-Glenlivet, Glenrothes-Glenlivet, and Aberlour-Glenlivet.
when the first World War and Prohibition in the U.S. stifled Scotch whisky consumption, a group of malt whisky owners, the Distillers Co. Ltd., proposed shutting down all operations for the 1932 and ’33 seasons to cut costs and bring supply more in line with demand. Always independent, the Glenlivet refused to cooperate with the production halt. As a result, when the 18th Amendment was repealed, the Glenlivet—under the leadership of Bill Smith Grant, John Gordon’s great-nephew—stood poised to fill the long-empty glasses of a thirsty America.
An Era of Change
the glenlivet distillery remained in the founding family’s hands until 1975, with the death of William Henry Smith Grant, fourth-generation descendant of George Smith. Three years later, the distillery was acquired by Seagram, whose prized Chivas Regal blend incorporated a goodly amount of Glenlivet in its blend. In January 2002, the Glenlivet distillery was again sold, this time to beverage industry giant Pernod Ricard. Buoyed by the marketing might of its new owner, the Glenlivet has emerged as the second-best-selling single malt in the world (Glenfiddich remains in first place).
For all its changes of ownership, the Glenlivet has never lost the famous spicy, floral character that first curried favor with King George. Though the current copper stills date from 1978, like those before them, they mirror the narrow shoulders and bulging necks of George Smith’s original pot stills. And, of course, Josie’s Well—now fenced in for protection—continues to bubble forth with the same clear, mineral-rich water that has defined the Glenlivet for nearly two centuries.