When King George IV visited Scotland in 1822, whisky was as much part of
Scottish society and culture as it is today. Strictly speaking, producing and
selling whisky was illegal - but it still happened everywhere in Scotland.
To get some control over the situation, the government introduced a
system of rules and customs in 1823 and lowered the price of a license.
Thanks to the reduced licensing costs, the small illegal distillers in the
Highlands were now also able to obtain a license. One of the first distillers
to step forward was George Smith who rented a small farm from the
Duke of Richmond and Gordon.
George Smith was a farmer, but a scholar of latin and architecture too.
He had actually started distilling whisky when it was still illegal. This was
a 'cottage industry' though; he managed to produce only 50 gallons
(200 liters) of whisky each week.
The decision to apply for a license was viewed as treacherous by
George's illegal neighbours - or at least a form of unfair competition.
Consequentially, George Smith actually received numerous threats
from his disgruntled neighbours.
Later he wrote about this early period of Glenlivet: "I was warned before I began by my civil neighbours that they
meant to burn my new distillery to the ground, and me in the heart of it". But that didn't stop him... The first few
years were difficult, but George Smith managed to survive - perhaps partly thanks to a pair of 'hair trigger pistols'
that he carried with him night and day. It seems that arsonists were suitably deterred...
The pistols were a personal gift from the Laird of Aberlour who was impressed with the perseverance
of George Smith. Glenlivet still honours its founder; the aforementioned pistols are exhibited at the
distillery and the name of George Smith can still be found on the labels. The fact that he was a man
of vision was proven by the fact that a mere ten years after the Glenlivet distillery received its license
in 1824, all illegal competition in the Glen Livet valley had been eradicated.
But this didn't mean that Glenlivet wouldn't have any more competing neighbours...
The fame of the Glen Livet valley had already widely spread at the time of the visit of King George IV
to Edinburgh; some people claim he actually asked for it by name. Because the name of the 'terroir'
became very well known, more and more distilleries in the area added 'Glenlivet' to their own name.
A joke from those days was that 'Glenlivet' meant 'The long Valley' - because so many distilleries
were located there. Until 1984, many distillers still put 'Glenlivet' behind their name on their labels.
After a many legal battles in, only the Glenlivet distillery is allowed to use the name THE Glenlivet.
Even after the court's decision some other distilleries and bottlers
bravely continued to use the name 'Glenlivet' on their labels. Many
of the old Cadenhead's bottlings from the 1980's still have the word
'Glenlivet' printed boldly behind the name of the distillery. In fact,
even in the third millennium their range included bottlings like
Aultmore-Glenlivet, Balmenach-Glenlivet, Balvenie-Glenlivet,
As far as official bottlings are concerned: a Balmenach-Glenlivet 14yo OB was
bottled in the 1970's and I have a wonderful 'kitsch' bottle of 'Tomintoul Glenlivet'
from the 1980's on my shelves when I write this. (It looks more like a perfume bottle.)
Another legendary antique bottling came from a distillery that's actually
located some 20 kilometres to the North of the Glenlivet distillery; the
legendary 'Aberlour Glenlivet' 8 years old. Some batches prove that
a malt whisky doesn't really need 20 or 30 years of ageing to get good.
Some of these bottles from the 1970s earned scores above 90 points.
When I write this, the Glenlivet distillery is able to produce over eight million litres of alcohol per year.
That's quite a bit more than the circa 10,000 litres that George Smith was able to produce each year
less than two centuries ago. The brand is available in more than a hundred different countries, so
it's safe to say that Glenlivet is still breathing down the neck of Glenfiddich in the ongoing race for
the title of biggest selling malt whisky in the world.
One thing I’ve learned about Glenlivet is that independent bottlings are generally better than the
official bottlings. Even older OB’s generally struggle to reach the 80’s, which means that I would not
really recommend a lot of them. At the same time, some of the (older) IB’s approach the 90’s.
Just like the name of the distillery suggests,
Glenlivet is located in the ‘Livet’ area within
the wider Speyside region in Scotland.
Most distilleries don’t make such a big deal
about their water source as they did in the
late 20th century, but Josie’s Well is still an
attraction that can be included in a distillery
tour. It even has a white picket fence an all...
Distillery tours used to be free at many malt whisky distilleries, but these days most distilleries charge money.
Glenlivet is an exception; although longer paid tours are available, they offer a 45 minute free tour as well.
1) If the name 'Glenlivet' appears on an older bottle of
malt whisky that was released in the 1970's or 1980's, that
doesn't necessarily mean it contains malt whisky distilled at
Glenlivet. In the past it has been used as a name for the
'terroir' in the Speyside region. So, it's possible to find
bottles of Macallan-Glenlivet, Balvenie-Glenlivet, etc.
2) The site of the first Glenlivet distillery was at George
Smith's own farm at Upper Drumin, a little over a mile North
of the current site at Minmore . As production expanded,
George Smith and his son John Gordon built the current
Glenlivet distillery at the site of Minmore Farm in 1858.
3) Almost half of all the Glenlivet whisky that is bottled
as a single malt is sold in the USA.
4) The fermentation time at the Glenlivet distillery is 50 hours...
5) In 2008 Chivas Brothers announced that they are planning to further expand their Glenlivet distillery.
They decided to add a new mash tun, six stills and eight washbacks so they can produce more whisky.
2001 - Seagram Spirit & Wine (and their subsidiary Chivas
Brothers) are bought by Diageo and Pernod Ricard. The
Chivas Group which owns Glenlivet (along with Aberlour,
Longmorn and a bunch of other distilleries) ended up in the
'stable' of Pernod Ricard eventually. The Glen Keith
distillery was also acquired, but mothballed right away.
2005 - The first Glenlivet 'Nadurra' bottling is released;
dozens will follow in later years.
2009 - Four more pot stlls are installed, increasing the production capacity to 8,500,000 litres per year.
2010 - Two extra stills are installed, which increases the capacity further to 10,500,000 litres per year.
2004 - A Glenlivet 15yo 'French Oak' official bottling
is introduced to replace the old 12 years old version.
2013 - In Holland, Glenlivet has adopted the slogan 'Discover the single malt that started it all'.
That's exactly the sort of half-truth that you can expect from advertising people. The only thing that Glenlivet
started was the facilitation of tax collection for your whisky. A distillery with the name Glenlivet was founded in 1924
as the first LEGAL malt whisky distillery, but the illegal (and untaxed) production of malt whisky had already been a
popular pastime in Scotland for a long time before that. Furthermore, the current Glenlivet distillery (which was
constructed in 1858) is a different one from the one that was built in 1824.
2018 - The latest in a long line of ‘no age statement’ bottlings is released; the ‘Captain’s Reserve’. This cognac
finished bottling is presented as a tribute to Captain William Smith Grant (a great-grandson of George Smith)
Glenlivet 12yo 1997/2010 (54%, Exclusive Malts, First fill sherry butt c#100288, 388 Bts.)
Nose: Oy, this is a weird one… It feels pressure cooked (boiled pears?) like a finished whisky. Alcoholic.
This one feels "dirty" - but not in a good way. It settles down on a more mainstream style after 5 minutes.
Taste: Fruity and a little smoky in the background. Like the nose, it feels a little forced. Sweet tannins.
Score: 78 points - because it's a balance between some nasty rough edges and some unique elements.
Glenlivet 18yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2010)
Nose: Poilished, malty with hints of apples and other fruits. A bashful sweetness with a whiff of dust.
After some breathing a whiff of manure and other farmy smells and spices emerged. Too little, too late...
Taste: Not as polished as the nose, I'm afraid. Fairly gritty and nondescript with a dry, inexpressive finish.
Score: 79 points - with this latest batch the Glenlivet 18 drops out of the recommendable bracket.
Glenlivet 1991/2010 'Nadurra' (48%, OB, Batch 0310B, Bottled +/- 2010)
Nose: Doesn't really seem to be picking any obvious sides. Whiffs of rubber, sulphur and hydro dioxide?
I added a modest splash of water, but that didn't seem to have a lot of effect. It remains restrained.
Taste: Rough and fairly dry. Touches of aniseed and liquorice. Pleasant but very strong tannins in the finish.
Score: 81 points - actually, the nose isn't very expressive, but the tannins in the finish are just brilliant!
Glenlivet 35yo 1975/2010 (55%, Wilson & Morgan Barrel Selection, Rossi Import, Sherry C#10862)
Nose: Tea and smoke initially, sweetening out after a few seconds. Maybe the faintest whiff of sulphur?
With a few drops of water more spices emerge. Much more fruit as well; raisins, raspberries, kiwi's.
Taste: Woody start with fruit and smoke in the background. It grows INCREDIBLY smoky in the finish.
The fruity component grows stronger over time. Opens up further after I added some water. Sweeter too.
Score: 89 points - it comes VERY close to the 90's, but in the end it was just a smidgen too extreme for me...
Glenlivet 35yo 1975/2010 (55%, Signatory Cask Strength Collection, Sherry Butt, C#10863, 489 Bts.)
Nose: Typically sherried start with more smoke and tea emerging after a few seconds. Speculaas spices.
Other spices merge as well a little later - and it grows sweeter too. Sellery? Maggi? Sweeter with some water.
Taste: Hot and fairly gritty start. Not very 'outspoken' at cask strength, but hugely enjoyable. Great tannins.
Score: 88 points - it's very close in style to Wilson & Morgan's 'sister cask' 10862, but it feels a little harsh.
Glenlivet 1973/2010 'Founder's Reserve 1824' (55.6%, OB, 1824 Bts.)
Nose: Polished. Cinnamon. Black berries. The woody notes come forward after a few drops of water.
Taste: Very powerful fruits. No sweetness at all initially, but after a while there are some great raisiny notes.
Not an especially broad spectrum of tastes & sensations, but very complex nonetheless. Dry, but great tannins.
Score: 88 points - another fine example of an old, finely aged malt whisky with a smidgen TOO much wood.
Glenlivet 15yo 'French Oak Reserve' (40%, OB, Bottled +/- 2009)
Nose: Lovely rich fruits for a minute, but it flattens out after a few minutes. Sweet with a hint of sulphur.
Honey dew? Lighter fruits after breathing. The nose is fairly complex, but you have to work very hard at it.
Taste: Sweet, smooth and fruity start. Slightly weak centre. Harsher and drier in the finish; touch of smoke.
Score: 81 points - this Glenlivet is a very nice summer whisky, although the flat finish doesn't do it justice.
Glenlivet 1991/2009 'Nadurra' (48%, OB, Triumph barley varietal, Batch #0809A)
Nose: Sweet and mellow. Drops off quite quickly. Not terribly expressive, keeps it from reaching the upper 80's.
Well, at least for the first few minutes. It gradually grows maltier and opens up with growing complexity.
Taste: Quick development with the fruity start and centre giving way to very pleasant tannins after seconds.
It has quite a punch in the start as well. A solid, potent mouth feel. Earns most points on the palate actually.
Score: 84 points - a little more potent than the regular eighteen years old expression.
Glenlivet 16yo 'Nadurra' (57.7%, OB, Batch #1007D, Bottled 2007)
Nose: Fragrant and pleasant, but hard to describe. Spicier than the 18yo & 21yo OB's, which gives it an edge.
It mellows out over time. Adding lots of water improves the palate, but it does little for the nose I'm afraid.
Taste: Big, powerful fruits. Oatmeal? The centre with concentrated fruits lasts VERY long. And of course it's hot!
A hint of beer in the finish. This whisky grows MUCH smoother and maltier with a big splash of water.
Score: 84 points - but be careful not to add too much water to this Glenlivet...
Glenlivet 12yo (40%, OB, LH10593, 100cl, Bottled +/- 2001)
Nose: Sweet, malty and fruity. Some gentle organics as well - that's surprising.
It actually seems to be a little more expressive in the nose than previous batches.
Taste: Not as sweet as the nose. Feels very rough on the palate. Loses points here.
Score: 75 points - not a bad malt whisky, but not nearly characteristic enough for me.
No obvious 'faults', but nothing to fall in love with either. So far, Glenlivets seem to need at least two decades (preferably three) before they reach their full potential - but when they do, watch out.
Glenlivet 26yo 1976/2002 (59.7%, Signatory Vintage for La Maison du Whisky, Sherry cask #4309, 794 Bts.)
Nose: Aaah... Big, smooth and sherried with a hint of polished oak. Wonderful!
Spices and organics. Smoke? Macallanish. Old rotting fruit - which is a good thing...
Palate: Sweet, fruity and very powerful. Dried apples. Clean and smooth. Pinch of salt?
Hot. With a splash of water the smoke comes to the front. Pleasant dry fruitiness.
Score: 88 points - it might be just a tad too extreme for some, but I love it. A gentle sherry monster...
Glenlivet 18yo (43%, OB, LN10322, Bottled +/- 2003)
Nose: Gentle, malty with a whiff of citrus. Other fruits as well. Sweet. Accessible.
Grows more complex with time. Organics in the background. Very classy but fairly MOTR.
Palate: Smooth, but it lacks substance. Hint of sherry in the sweet centre. Grows hot.
Fairly gritty finish with a slightly bitter twang at the end. Clean and not too long.
Score: 80 points - Solid craftsmanship. There's little else I can say about this Glenlivet.
Glenlivet 36yo 1968/2005 (48.6%, Duncan Taylor, Sherry cask #6195, 136 bottles)
Nose: Rich. Mocca. Sweet coffee. Hint of old smoke. The nose drops off fairly quickly, though.
Hoo-aah!. Brilliant spices and organics - dirty dishes the morning after an Indonesian meal.
Sherry. Then fruits, mocca and coffee. It smells cold, if that makes any sense... Smoky and a little metallic.
Taste: Brilliant mouth feel. Touch of rubber. Very hot. Lovely tannins. Some old, sweet coffee again.
Score: 88 points - which might turn out to be a conservative score. I think I've just burnt my nose...
Glenlivet 1975/2006 (54%, Berry Bros, Cask #10846)
Nose: Sweet, fruity and polished in the nose. A tad nutty? I forgot to make further notes.
Taste: Quite sherried on the palate with a hint of smoke - and quite a few tannins in the finish.
Score: 87 points - a very pleasant Glenlivet, but it's a little too tannic to reach the 90's in my book.
Glenlivet 30yo 1975/2007 (55.2%, The Whisky Exchange Anniversary, Sherry Butt, 375 Bts.)
Nose: Coffee - or Buysman burnt caramel? Old and fruity. Beautiful stuff. Balanced but not very expressive.
Taste: Slightly smoky, big, woody and fruity. Big wood in the finish too - making it a little harsh.
Score: 87 points - a tad too heavy on the wood on the palate to earn a gold medal in the MM Awards 2007.
Glenlivet 21yo 'Archive' (43%, OB, Batch #0209C, Bottled +/- 2009)
Nose: A very polished and accessible profile. Sherried with some organics in the background. Marzipan.
The fruits dominate the bouquet. Initially I could have gone for 82 or 83 points, but the nose drops off quickly.
Taste: Feels slightly gritty and chalky. More fruits and other sherry influences after a few minutes. Dry finish.
Score: 80 points - which means that I actually prefer the 18yo over this older expression - which is unusual.
Could it be that Glenlivet had some difficult years during the late 1980's during which they filled lesser casks?
Glenlivet 1965/2007 (46%, Gordon & MacPhail, Cask #6733)
Nose: Light & floral. Nice but not very complex. Quite sharp. Opens up over time.
Taste: Something perfumy perhaps? Solid sweet centre. Leather? Again, heavy tannins in the finish.
Score: 83 points - which wasn't enough to make a very big impression on me in the MM Awards 2007.
My own tasting notes for some expressions of Glenlivet malt whisky are collected on this distillery profile.
Those were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Glenlivet I've tried over the years, but the notes should
convey how I felt about those whiskies. However, these tasting notes only reflect my purely personal opinion.
Your tastes might be different from mine - so it would be prudent to check out some other opinions as well.
Serge Valentin’s Whiskyfun website offers tasting notes on thousands of whisky bottlings, including Glenlivet.
The Malt Maniacs Monitor provides opinions of several other aficionados on over 15,000 different whiskies.
But perhaps you'd like to read a little bit more about whisky in general or single malt Scotch whisky in particular?
In that case, you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky - 10 chapters filled with (almost)
everything you need to know in order to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky. Or, if you’d like
to dig a little deeper, the Whisky Lexicon offers more detailed information on a bunch of whisky-related topics.