Whisky Travel

The braes of Glenlivet


To many, Glenlivet is the cradle of Scotch whisky, a remote and isolated glen that was teeming with sma’ stills in the lawless days that preceded licensed distillation. Tom Bruce-Gardyne takes a walk on the wild side.

Glenlivet distillery in winter
In from the cold: George Smith took out a licence for The Glenlivet in 1824

Alfred Barnard was ‘a man with a mission – and a tape measure,’ wrote Richard Joynson in his foreword to the centenary edition of the book by the great Victorian bagger of distilleries, first published in 1887. However, sometimes Barnard’s obsession with measuring every mash tun and counting every rivet was swept aside by the sheer beauty of the landscape…

We shall never forget our ride of 20 miles…’ he wrote. ‘We proceeded by the Spey side, one of the most rapid and beautiful rivers in Scotland, through the plantations and copses of Ballindalloch, up mountain roads, across highland moors, and past old Benrinnes, standing out like a mighty giant against the clear sky, the scene changing at every turn of the road like a bit of fairyland, until at last we came in sight of Glenlivet.

Early this autumn, when the trees were just starting to turn, I retraced his steps, stopping first by the river, upstream of Ballindalloch. There was a lone fisherman out in the middle, casting his fly to the far side.

‘Any joy?’ I asked the ghillie watching from the bank. He shook his head. The water was low, the sun too bright and there were ‘nae fush’. So, not like the 19th century when, according to legend, the Spey was stiff with salmon.

It was through hunting, shooting and fishing that many a Victorian gent from the south got his first taste of whisky, a taste that was later acquired back home through Scotch and soda.

Back on the A95, the main drag through Speyside, there is no escaping Tormore as it looms up beside the roadside with its granite, whitewashed bulk, towering chimney stack and topiary hedges.

Built in 1960 as the first Scotch distillery that century, it encapsulates an incredible post-war optimism that was not to last. By the early 1980s, the talk within the industry was all about closures, mothballs and three-day weeks.

A few miles on and somewhat smaller in scale is the brand-new Ballindalloch distillery, whose name is splashed across the front in block caps as though it were on Islay, if you think of Laphroaig or Ardbeg, for example.

This is followed by its claim to fame, that it is a ‘single estate distillery’, that of the MacPherson-Grants. It only fired up its stills last September, but already feels part of the landscape as if it were yet another survivor of Speyside’s late Victorian whisky bonanza.

Converted from an old farm steading with a traditional wooden worm tub poking out on one side, all that is missing is a pagoda roof. Sadly, the distillery was shut, so I drove on to Glenlivet.

Glenlivet scenery

'Like a bit of fairyland': Alfred Barnard was enchanted by the Glenlivet landscape

I wondered what Alfred Barnard would have made of it all, once he had got over the shock of motor cars and the demise of the local railway that opened 20 years before he got here, and closed a century later.

The speed of getting to Glenlivet distillery today and the sheer scale of the place with its 14 stills working around the clock would have blown him away. But he wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised to discover that it’s now the world’s top-selling single malt.

‘Wasn’t it ever thus?’ he would have muttered, unaware of Glenfiddich’s long supremacy. ‘Smith’s Glenlivet,’ he wrote back in the 1880s, ‘has become a household word and the whisky is appreciated in every country.’

His book missed the real Speyside boom, when 21 distilleries were established here in the 1890s, many of them beside the railway track.

It was the advent of the Strathspey line in 1863 between Dufftown and Abernethy, and its connection with the Inverness-Perth mainline three years later, that put this whisky region firmly on the map.

But as a suitably romantic Victorian, he preferred to believe it was all due to those illicit roots deep in the glen. Describing a ‘scene of majestic grandeur’ with ‘distant mountains, grim and bare’, he regaled his readers with tales of smugglers clambering over the hills ‘with kegs of whisky lashed to their backs’.  

Casks maturing at The Glenlivet

Best-seller: would Barnard have recognised today's much-enlarged Glenlivet distillery?

There may have been a certain grandeur to the barren uplands or braes of Glenlivet beyond the distillery, but I hadn’t come across any ‘fairyland’ yet. Nor was there any real sense of remoteness in the sunshine, with a smooth tarmac road spooling southwards over the hills.

‘Well,’ says Alan Winchester, Glenlivet’s master distiller, ‘come back in January or February, when the braes are cut off for a week. If you go hill-walking in the snow, you do get that feeling of isolation and vastness … that sense of space and emptiness. I haven’t been there, but it’s what I expect the tundra’s like.’

In the year to July 1824, there were 3,000 reports of illicit distilling and estimates of 400 stills working in this glen and neighbouring Cabrach and Glenrinnes, according to the excise accounts for the Elgin collection.

That was the year George Smith came in from the cold, took out a licence for his still at Upper Drumin farm, founded Glenlivet and basically kick-started the Scotch malt whisky industry.

His early struggle against the local bootleggers and how he kept a pair of hair-trigger pistols tucked in his belt is an oft-repeated tale. As is an early request from a certain celebrity.

No sooner had he squeezed into his kilt and flesh-coloured tights, than the ‘portly Hanoverian’, aka King George IV, was keen to score some illicit Glenlivet on his famous 1822 State visit to Edinburgh.

Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus, 60 miles south, wrote that ‘the King drank nothing else’ in her Memoirs of a Highland Lady. It sounds like a slight exaggeration, but she obliged him by raiding her cellar for ‘whiskey, long in wood, long in uncorked bottles, mild as milk and with the true contraband goût in it.’

It’s a quote Winchester can recite in his sleep, but how, I ask, had this southerner who had never set foot in Scotland before ever heard of the stuff?

‘Oh, that’s easy,’ he replies. ‘It was Sir Walter Scott, and it was to make the King look hip.’

Sir Walter was to the King what Alastair Campbell was to Tony Blair, according to Winchester, who believes the allure of ‘forbidden fruit’ remained part of the whisky’s appeal long after the distillery was licensed.

‘We’ve always been very clever at weaving in the romance,’ he says. ‘John Grant of Glen Grant used to sell legal Glenlivet as illicit whisky with the “true contraband goût”.’ Before long, distillers way down the Spey were cashing in on the Glenlivet name as a suffix – a practice which continued late into the 20th century.

The Glenlivet warehouse and scenery

Much imitated: The Glenlivet's name was taken by a wide array of rival distilleries nearby

It was during the 1960s and 1970s that Glenfiddich pioneered the great single malt revolution, according to almost every whisky book and article, but you wonder why The Glenlivet never really challenged this.

After all, it was probably selling a few thousand cases a year by then in the US – a market it had been in since the 1930s with those miniatures of The Glenlivet sold on Pullman trains. Still, no hard feelings – for on leaving the distillery there is a sign to Glenfiddich. I, however, turned the other way and headed south.

The road climbs gently past plantations of fir trees with rough grazing in the foreground and heather-clad hills beyond.

Higher up are the grouse moors, distinguishable by their occasional blackened patches where the heather has been burnt to rejuvenate it and provide the birds with cover. Time to walk and try to imagine the glen’s bootlegging past that had so captivated Barnard.

The ground appeared sound from the road, but underfoot it soon sucked and squelched at my boots. The whole area is oozing with brackish spring water that would have been used for making whisky, while transforming the plant life into peat, albeit over tens of thousands of years.

Presumably it was through the burning of local peat that these whiskies absorbed any trace of heather, though not any more. With the exception of Balvenie, the kilns and floor maltings of Speyside are long gone.

Yet we insist on finding heather honey on the nose, like the salt and sea spray that defines maritime malts like Old Pulteney. Is it all just in our heads?

I got back in the car and drove to Tomintoul, the highest village in Scotland, built in 1776 by the Duke of Gordon to house flax workers brought in from outside.

As a business venture for his sprawling, 250,000-acre estate, flax proved a disaster and the workers (who were Protestant, unlike most of the locals) soon turned to making whisky instead.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, over the ridge to the east, the Catholic seminary of Scalan was preparing young men for the priesthood and sending them to Rome.

The original building was burnt to the ground in 1746 after the Battle of Culloden, and had to retreat even deeper into the braes of Glenlivet to escape persecution.

Perhaps that, more than illicit whisky, is testament to how isolated and remote this glen in Upper Speyside once was.

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