Introducing Speyside and the Glenlivet Process
The single malt whiskies of Scotland are grouped by region. The four main whisky regions of Scotland are Islay, Lowlands, Highlands and Speyside, which produce whiskies that possess favours and textures somewhat unique to each region.
Scotch makers speak of terroir in their product in pretty much the same way as winemakers do - that whiskies are direct results of each distillery’s geography and the climate it experiences. However, whisky regional characteristics aren’t quite as clear cut as with wines; the things that give a single malt its uniqueness go beyond its geographical location to be about matters of tradition, recipe, technique, treatment and ageing such as the use of peat smoke to dry the malt or bourbon or sherry barrels for ageing.
The Glenlivet - A Product of Speyside
The Glenlivet owes its unique taste to a number of specific factors relating to its production and location. The distillery is located in Speyside at the Cairngorms National Park, which stands at over 270 metres above sea level. According to weather records, it is considered to be the coldest place in Britain, characterised by strong winds and heavy snowfalls in winter.
1. Location, Altitude and Water Source
Glenlivet’s remote location, high altitude and geological structure have nurtured a climate that is unique to the place – and to malt whisky.
Tempestuous gales blast inland from the east coast, whipped up by the North Sea. Winter blizzards rip through the glen, snow gusting horizontally off the mountain tops, leaving the landscape in an icy grip for weeks at a time.
There is no colder place in Britain or one where the air is so pure. The freezing temperatures and turbulent winds purify the glen and stimulate the atmosphere. The pristine snow feeds the cascading mountain streams whose crystal-clear water makes its underground journey to the spring through mineral-rich layers of limestone and granite.
That water is drawn from Josie’s Well, a source of hard mineral water, which enables complex aromas to develop during the distillation process.
2. The Glenlivet Process
Professional maltsters soak rich Scottish barley in water for several days, allowing it to germinate. Once the shoots have appeared, the barley is heated and dried. In this state, the barley is known as ‘malt’.
Once the dried malt is delivered to the distillery, it is run in batches through the malt mill, which grinds it into a coarse flour called ‘grist’. Much like removing the wrapper from a sweet, the hard barley husks are split open to release the starch granules inside.
Next, the grist is mashed with hot spring water in a mash tun, a machine with rotating arms that stirs the mixture. Here, the enzymes developed during the malting process convert the starch in the malt into sugar. The clear, sugary liquid produced by mashing is known as ‘wort’.
The wort is cooled and yeast is added to the solution, which converts the sugars into alcohol and flavour-imparting impurities called ‘congeners’. This process takes place in large vessels called ‘washbacks’. After two days, the wort becomes ‘wash’, a crude frothy beer that is usually around 8 to 9% alcohol.
In the first stage of distillation, the wash is heated in copper pot stills until the alcohol, which has a lower boiling point than water, evaporates. The width of their necks encourages maximum contact with the purifying copper. Their height ensures only the lightest vapours reach the top, where they cool, condense and become ‘low wines’ with an alcohol content of around 20 to 22%.
In the second stage of distillation, the ‘low wines’ in the spirit still are distilled. Once cooled, the resulting liquid is divided into three separate cuts by the stillman. He uses the spirit safe to separate the high alcohol liquid which comes out first (the ‘heads’); the desirable liquid of appropriate strength and quality (the ‘heart’); and the unusable liquid which comes out last (the ‘tails’). The heads and tails are recycled, and the heart goes into the spirit receiver.
Here, the distinctive sweet and fruity aromas of The Glenlivet is a result of the unique pot stills that it uses. Designed by George Smith, these lantern-shaped stills are taller and wider, allowing for greater interaction between the aromatic esters during distillation.
Finally, the ‘new-make’ spirit is slightly reduced in alcohol content and filled into casks. Over the course of the maturation period – which may be 12 years, 25 or even more – the whisky constantly evaporates, albeit incredibly slowly.
The Glenlivet is matured in hand-picked American Oak casks, which is preferred due to the creamy coconut notes it confers to the whisky. And the location of the distillery, situated at over 900 feet above sea level, ensures fresh temperatures all year around. This offers the perfect conditions for maturing 12 year old, and older, single malts and ensures the unparalleled quality of The Glenlivet