Ever since the first illicit stills began producing whisky in the Grampian Highlands more than 200 years ago, a cachet has been attached to the name Glenlivet. Even distilleries far from the glen of the river Livet would add “Glenlivet” to their names, just as cigar makers today employ the word “Havana,” regardless of whether their cigars are rolled in Cuba. But there was good reason for the distillers’ infatuation with the Glenlivet appellation.
This rugged, mountainous terrain was ideal for whisky production; when private distillation of whisky was illegal, the remoteness of the glen made it a perfect hideout for bootleg distillers. With one main road leading through the glen, customs and excise officers could easily be spotted well before they arrived, giving the distillers ample time to spread the warning, pack their equipment, and vanish into the nearby forests and canyons.
In addition, the water from the deep underground springs bubbled to the surface of the glen through a filter of massive subterranean limestone shelf. This semi-hard water was rich in calcium and magnesium, which produced a uniquely floral taste for whiskies. Glenlivet spirits became so renowned that when King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, he specifically requested Glenlivet whisky, knowing full well it was being distilled illegally.
One of the more than 200 illicit whisky makers inhabiting the Glenlivet area during this period was George Smith, who operated his still at Upper Drumin, high on a slope overlooking the valley and near a cold and constant water source, Josie’s Well. From this vantage point he could spy any of the king’s soldiers as they approached the glen.
This benefit of Smith’s location became irrelevant in 1823, when the Excise Act was passed, legalizing whisky-making for private citizens. A key player in the passage of the act was the Duke of Gordon, Smith’s landlord. Armed with advance information and through a bit of political maneuvering, Smith became the first legalized distiller in Glenlivet in 1824 (the date now embossed on Glenlivet bottles) and, consequently, the only one permitted to call his whisky The Glenlivet. Others could only hyphenate their names with the coveted moniker—Macallan-Glenlivet, Aberlour-Glenlivet, and Dufftown-Glenlivet—a practice that continued until fairly recently. Although location remains important, today’s increased competition has prompted distillers to focus more on their individual brand names.
Smith’s whisky-making neighbors were not thrilled with his seizure of the Glenlivet name, nor with his decision to become legitimate, which they interpreted as consorting with the enemy because it welcomed the king’s excise collectors into the glen. Numerous threats were issued against Smith, and many attempts were made to burn down his distillery. In fact, the Laird of Aberlour gave Smith a pair of flintlock pistols with which to defend himself, and the distiller often walked the grounds with these pistols tucked in his belt. Returning from Perth one night after delivering a wagonload of his famous single malt, Smith was attacked in an inn and, according to an official distillery account, “. . . leveled one (of his pistols) at his enemies and fired the other up the chimney, creating so much noise and dust that the conspirators fled in panic.”
The pistols are now on display at the present Glenlivet distillery, which Smith built in 1858. Although the operation has been expanded and modernized, many of the Victorian buildings are still used. The ruins of Smith’s original distilleries remain visible high on the glen, and Josie’s Well is now surrounded by a white picket fence in a field that looks as it did in George Smith’s day. The precious unpeated water continues to bubble up through ancient rocks and is still used in The Glenlivet.
Today, the distillery’s flagship single malts are the 80 proof Glenlivet 12 Year Old and the slightly more pronounced 86 proof 18 Year Old, both of which have been aged in sherry and bourbon casks. Because of its characteristically delicate sweet floral-fruitiness, Glenlivet has become the best-selling whisky in the United States.
In recent years this taste has been expanded with limited editions, including Glenlivet French Oak Finish, in which the whisky has been additionally aged in French Limousin oak, giving it licorice and vanillin undertones. The 21 Year Old Archive is a buttery enhancement of the Glenlivet style, with honeyed cherries and marzipan in the sherried finish.
Most notable is the Glenlivet Cellar Collection, comprising whiskies with a minimum age of 20 years that the master distiller finds extraordinary. First was the 1967 vintage, with its fruit-laced flavors of peaches and plums. Then came 400 bottles of cask-strength 1959 Glenlivet, with its candied fruit, lemon, and oak. Only 100 bottles were shipped to the United States, and each was reserved for charity auctions, where a bottle recently fetched $6,000. Next was the creamy strawberries and grapes of the 33 Year Old, which was never exported to America.
September brings the most complex Glenlivet to date, the limited edition 1983 French Oak Finish Cellar Collection. This bourbon-and-sherry-barreled aged whisky was distilled in 1983 and set aside because of its intense and spicy character, which strays slightly from the traditional Glenlivet path. After 17 years, the best of these spirits were transferred into lightly toasted French Limousin new oak (rather than previously filled cognac barrels) for three additional years of finishing. After that, the most flavorful of these French oak-finished whiskies were selected for the 1983 Cellar Collection. Only 8,000 bottles were produced, with the first 3,000 destined for American shores this month.
Because of its complexity, the 1983 Cellar Collection was bottled at higher-than-normal 92 proof to capture the intensity of flavors. This allowed the French oak characteristics of lemon and vanilla to come through, carried by a crescendo of cherries, marzipan, and plump juicy berries.
The 1983 Cellar Collection is a clear indication why, after 179 years, The Glenlivet is still one of the most coveted names in Scotland.
Single Malts For The Ages
As any aficionado of Scotland’s uisge beatha (Gaelic for “water of life”) will attest, there are no bad single-malt whiskies; some are just better than others—better in terms of aroma, color, flavor, body, and finish.
Although the Scots were distilling spirits as early as the 15th century, single malts were not embraced by the masses until the 1750s, by which time the distiller’s art had been perfected and malt whisky had assumed prominence not only as a drink but also as a form of revenue. They remained popular until the latter part of the Victorian era, when blends—being a mixture of grain whiskies and single malts—caught on with Americans who were clamoring for lighter fare. While single malts remained the drink of choice for distillers, they fell by the mass market wayside until the 1970s, when connoisseurs discovered what distillers had known all along: Nothing is as individualistic as a snifter of single-malt Scotch. Here, then, are some of the best.
ABERLOUR A’BUNADH This uncut, unfiltered (it will cloud if water is added) whisky is what many Scots were drinking 100 years ago. In fact, the bottle is patterned after the glass flasks locals used to collect their “wee dram” from the Aberlour distillery in the 1880s. The dark amber whisky exhibits a buttery-smooth character filled with apples, citrus, and sweet chocolate that can sneak up on you because of its 119.2 proof.
ARDBEG PROVENANCE Ardbeg is the smokiest of all Islay whiskies, and this limited edition 1974 vintage upholds that tradition. Sweet and smoky, Ardbeg Provenance is wonderfully floral and complex in spite of its cask-strength 111.2-proof alcoholic bite.
BALVENIE 25 YEAR OLD One of the last and best bottlings of the 20th century from this family-owned Speyside distillery, this 93.4-proof elixir explodes with honey, cherries, green apples, and white bread, followed by a long, slightly smoky finish.
BOWMORE 25 YEAR OLD This sherry-casked Islay whisky is laced with heather and peat, with a dry, slightly salty finish. It is made by one of the few distilleries that still does its own maltings.
DALMORE 21 YEAR OLD STILLMAN’S DRAM Often bypassed by those more enamored with the Dalmore 30 Year Old, this dram is much more refined because of its all-bourbon-barrel aging.
GLENFIDDICH 12 YEAR OLD Although a bottle from 1930 recently fetched £1600 ($2,610) at auction, and each of the 61 bottles of the currently available 1937 Vintage Reserve lists for $16,500, it is the universally available classic light and mellow 12 Year Old that has made Glenfiddich the most popular single malt in the world.
GLENMORANGIE 10 YEAR OLD Its spicy, honeyed peat is delicate enough for lunch yet holds up well after dinner. This is a universally appealing malt whisky that has become, understandably, the most popular single malt in the United Kingdom.
GLENMORANGIE PORT WOOD FINISH This coastal distillery has been experimenting with wood finishes for decades. The Port Wood exhibits a richness in color and spicy complexity that others now try to emulate.
THE GLENLIVET 12 YEAR OLD This perfect mid-strength Highland dram is a carefully honed nectar of soft, gentle plums, peaches, flowers, and honey.
LAGAVULIN 16 YEAR OLD A dark amber whisky, slightly sweet and immensely smoky, it is reminiscent of burnt pumpkins with secondary characteristics of roses, oak, and a touch of sea mist. Unfortunately, much of it has been sold for blending, and it is now in short supply. Collectors might want to stock up while bottles are still available. To compensate for this shortage, Lagavulin is releasing a 12-year-old cask-strength whisky.
LAPHROAIG 10 YEAR OLD The most individualistic of Islay whiskies, its sharp, medicinal taste makes identification easy in blind tastings. It is rich, smoky, and laced with sea-salt iodine from waves that lap at the aging warehouse at high tide.
LAPHROAIG 30 YEAR OLD It is amazing what an extra
20 years in the barrel can do. The peat is not nearly as heavy as the
10 Year Old, the iodine has been subdued, and the formerly thick
seaweed characteristic is now a strand. It is still rambunctious by any other whisky’s standards, but subdued by Laphroaig’s. Floral bouquets are blanketed by a whiff of sweet peat and sea spray; it is like sipping velvet smoke.
THE MACALLAN 18 YEAR OLD This is the benchmark for a heavily sherried Highland whisky. It is dark golden amber in color, and rich and syrupy in taste, highlighted by thick citrus and dried fruit, with a spicy finish that lasts until dawn.
THE MACALLAN 1979 GRAN RESERVA A more intense version of The Macallan 18 Year Old, its color is amber-mahogany, and its flavor is thick sweet caramel with a spicy resinous character interlaced with citrus, nutmeg, and a lightly peated finish. Although a 1980 and 1981 Gran Reserva have been released, the 1979 vintage stands out.
MORTLACH 21 YEAR OLD A hearty and robust yet civilized Highlands whisky, it is full-favored with prominent peat that comes more from the water than the barley, and offers a lingering sherried finish.
ROSEBANK 12 YEAR OLD Unique in its triple distillation and light, floral bouquet, this is the ultimate Lowland single malt.
ROYAL LOCHNAGAR SELECTED RESERVE This has been one of the best-kept secrets among whisky connoisseurs since its appearance in the late 1980s. The Selected Reserve has no age statement but represents the best of the oldest sherry-barreled whiskies handpicked by the distillery manager. It is also used in Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Fewer than 300 cases of Royal Lochnagar are shipped to the United States each year.
SPRINGBANK 21 YEAR OLD One of the last of Campbeltown’s “homemade” whiskies, each of its ingredients came from within seven miles of the distillery. Smooth and creamy, Springbank 21 Year Old has the character of wet heather, thick with essences of dandelions, leather, and honey. It is the definitive example of what a Campbeltown whisky once was.