Founded: 1824 (although production moved to the current site at Minmore Farm in 1858)
Water Source: Josie’s Well
Stills: 7 Wash. 7 Spirit
Capacity: 10.5 Million litres
Owners: Pernod Ricard
1900s-1960s: Fame from the start.
Glenlivet was one of the first malts to be made widely available as a single malt, it was also one of the first to be exported in large quantities. Official bottlings were exported to the states as early as the 1930s. During these pre-war days the whisky being produced was a very old style example of malt whisky. All the classical hallmarks were in place, steady and unhurried production with long fermentations, coal fired distillations, worm tubs, floor maltings and stunning sherry casks. Any Glenlivets you will find from these early years carry an extraordinary combination of dry, herbaceous, metallic and subtly phenolic qualities with layers of complex fruit characters and quite a noticeable grassiness. It is a style no longer produced, that of an old style Speysider, elegant yet often oily and gently smoky or phenolic due to the peat used in the malt kilns. Needless to say expressions from these years are now exceptionally rare and very expensive but they certainly still exist if you have the time to dig around for them.
This style of Glenlivet was continuously produced up until the early sixties when the hands of modernisation began to grasp hold of the distillery. However the style would evolve into something less noticeably peaty in the post war years due to the increasing use of coke and anthracite in the malt kilns. Examples from the late forties and fifties onwards still display a stunning oily, herbaceous combo but often with more overt fruity and metallic qualities in place of the smoky aspects from the pre-war years. There are several official examples from these times that can be found, although again, rarity and expense are to be expected.
Throughout the 1960s production at Glenlivet expanded rapidly to meet growing international demand. Although the distillery remained the same and did not expand during this time the speeding up of the production process arrested some of the old style qualities in the distillate. This is evident in many of the independent and official Glenlivets that have been bottled from stock distilled in these years. While still beautiful whisky showing distinctly lush fruit characters and a wonderful grassy, waxy spiciness, the spirit is a lot more settled and 'classically’ speyside in style. In 1966 the floor maltings at Glenlivet were discontinued in favour of using more fiscally practical commercial malt and this further contributed to the move into more modern flavour territory.
1970s-1980s: Demand and Expansion
By the early seventies Glenlivet was already a well established and major name in malt whisky and to meet forecast demands further expansion at Glenlivet was undertaken. In 1972 the four stills were converted from coal firing to direct gas firing, this created greater consistency and contributed to a lighter style of Glenlivet. Distillations from this time reveal much of the citrusy, buttery and grassy elements with which Glenlivet has become so closely associated with in recent decades. The following year in 1973 a new pair of stills was added expanding the total to six and dramatically increasing the potential production capacity.
Production capacity was again expanded at Glenlivet in 1978, with the addition of another pair of stills, the year after it was sold to Seagrams, the forerunner of Pernod Ricard. Although this was an increasingly difficult time for the whisky industry, as the bubble slowly burst around them and the whisky loch of the eighties loomed on the horizon, Glenlivet continued to do well as a promoted brand in its own right. Between 1981 and 1986 all the stills were converted to internal steam heating thus completing the transition to a truly modern plant. The spirit produced since has settled into the modern style of Glenlivet, a very floral, elegant, buttery and easy going profile. It displays lots of fresh fruit characters such as pears and green apples with a little wood spice, caramel sweetness and a fleck of smoke here and there. Bottlings in the 1990s of the 12yo and various other expressions were often lacking something and could appear spirity, overly youthful and thin. This was almost certainly due to some reckless cask selection and vatting inconsistency.
1990-Present: Consolidation and World Domination (almost)
Bottlings of Glenlivet have picked up in consistency and quality quite dramatically in the past decade. The 12yo is now a soft, complex and eminently drinkable dram, a perfect representation of the softer, modern style of Glenlivet and the wider classical Speyside profile it displays.
The distillery has consolidated itself very well as a world leading single malt brand and balances a mass produced flagship range with a steady backlog of more premium aged releases. Many of the bottlings in their cellar collection range are fairly stunning (if a little on the expensive side). They have also vastly improved their wood policy with a good mix of European sherry and American Bourbon casks being filled. The 'Nadurra’ 16yo is one of the better examples of a modern, sweeter, bourbon heavy profile and has proven very successful.
The Glenlivet remains one of the few distilleries to manage the tightrope of being a massive global brand while retaining an air of respectability and some excellent, unpretentious bottlings to boot. Hopefully it can retain this balance in future and continue to offer excellent quality not only in its premium releases but also in its great 12yo.