Behind the Scenes at The Glenlivet Distillery in Scotland

Behind the Scenes

Your ticket into the secret world of boozemaking.

Author's Note: Thanks to Pernod Ricard, I recently had the opportunity to travel to Scotland with a group of American journalists and attended a plethora of distillery tours, master classes and whisky events surrounding the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival.

[Photographs: Jessica Leibowitz]

Welcome to Speyside, a beautiful region of Scottish countryside surrounding the River Spey, where the sheep and the shortbread outnumber the people. Beside those notable draws, what really attracts visitors is the high concentration of single malt whisky distilleries, such as The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Aberlour, The Macallan, and Balvenie. It's a good place for Scotch lovers.

During the recent Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, I had the chance to see a few different distilleries in action. First up for whisky cross-examination: The Glenlivet.

Single Malt Scotch: The Basics


What's distinctive about single malt Scotch whisky? If you haven't read Michael Dietsch's excellent Guide to Single Malt Scotch, here's a quick recap:

  • Single malt Scotch whisky must be made in Scotland,
  • From water and malted barley only (no other grains),
  • Distilled at a single distillery,
  • Fermented only with yeast,
  • And must be made in pot stills
  • To no higher than 94.8 percent alcohol and no lower than 40 percent alcohol,
  • And aged in oak casks for at least 3 years.

The Particulars

As I said above, the general framework for making Scotch whisky is pretty standardized among all distilleries. But the results from the subtle tweaks in method are noticeable from nose to body to finish.

What varies? Such factors as the water (The Glenlivet uses hard well water), the washback material (The Glenlivet uses tubs made of wood instead of the more modern and convenient stainless steel), and casks (most of The Glenlivet whisky ages in barrels that previously held bourbon, except for a few lines that age in casks that formerly housed sherry and port), to name a few.

The Glenlivet

There are only ten people in charge of all production at The Glenlivet—pretty impressive considering how much Scotch they make. Master Distiller Alan Winchester showed us the process at the recently renovated distillery, starting with an appetizer of malted barley at the mill, through the heady fermentation aromas surrounding the stills, and ending with a special sort of entree: whisky straight from the casks.

Come on our tour to see the nitty gritty (grisky)! See how single malt Scotch whisky is made in the slideshow »

Bonus Smugglers Trail Video

As part of the Festival, we trekked 11 km (nearly 7 miles) through rugged bogs and marshes galore in honor of the whisky smugglers of yesteryear. Smugglers such as Robbie MacPherson (our trail's namesake) used to distill illicit whisky out of sight of excisemen, in mini stills like the Sma' Still, shown in the slideshow above. A dram of whisky never tasted so good as it did atop a 570 meter (1870 feet) summit. Check out some of the breathtaking scenery in the 45 second video above.