The Glenlivet: The Art of Maturation

When someone poses the question ‘Do you remember your first?’, they are not usually referencing the first distillery you visited.  I do remember mine; it was The Glenlivet.
I would love to say that there was some special reason for this but it’s simply that my best friend from Hong Kong happened to live nearby so when I went to visit him and asked if there were any distilleries nearby, a visit to The Glenlivet was arranged.
The Glenlivet was established in 1824 and became the benchmark style for Speyside whiskies.  So much so that when other distilleries in Speyside marketed their products, they would refer to them as ‘Glenlivets’. To this day, you can see photographs from a bygone era with groups of men, some in suits and some in work apparel, sitting on or near a stack of Scotch whisky barrels.  Look closely at the barrels and you may notice the name of a distillery followed by ‘Glenlivet’.


It became such an issue for The Glenlivet distillery that in 1884, the owners went to court to protect the name ‘Glenlivet’ and they won.  To make the point, ‘The Glenlivet’ has the word ‘The’ in it to distinguish it from those who simply had ‘Glenlivet’ as part of their name.


My visit was great.  I had the really interesting experience of a gentle sniff of the ‘beer’ fermenting in the washback.  Because fermentation produces carbon dioxide as a by-product, even a gentle sniff will momentarily make you faint.  It is only for a split second and feels like little more than a blink but you certainly notice it.  I am given to understand that, due to health and safety legislation, visitors cannot do this during visits now.
The Glenlivet is a special whisky.  So what makes it special?  One of the ‘secrets’ to a great Scotch is consistency.  That consistency is not always easy to achieve.  It starts with the raw material.  In the case of single malt Scotch whisky, that raw material is, of course, malt.  Very few distilleries produce their own malt.  Most buy it from maltsters.  Maltsters not only make malt for whisky distilleries, they make malt for beer brewers, makers of some other beverages and breads.

If you are forced to buy your malt from different maltsters, you will be making your whisky from different raw material.  The Glenlivet has been buying their malt from the same maltsters for over thirty years.


The style of the copper pot still used at The Glenlivet is based on the same design used 150 years ago.  The shape of the still is so important to distillers that when a replacement is required, they often tap in some of the dents that were in the old still.  Change is largely unwelcome!


The Glenlivet’s still is tall and wide giving their particular style of new make spirit which tends to be delicate in flavour with an obvious fruity note showing good complexity.
Water is a big chunk of all whisky.  If the alcohol level in the bottled whisky is 40%, most of the remainder is water.  As barley doesn’t have much moisture, that water has to be added.  At The Glenlivet, that water comes from Josie’s well, the water from which bubbles up into the grounds of the distillery.  As it is only The Glenlivet that can draw water from here, only they have access to the mineral content of the water which gives a unique taste to the whisky.
But as the title of this article suggests, it is the maturation that makes the real difference.


The Glenlivet 12 Years Old Excellence is matured mostly in Sherry butts.  ‘Butt’ is the term used in the Sherry region of Spain for the cask, which is 500 liters in size, they use to mature their local fortified wine.


The Sherry that was in it before The Glenlivet whisky will influence the style and character of the whisky.  The 12 year old shows those Sherry characters along with spice, fresh and dried fruits.


The Glenlivet 15 Years Old has part of the whisky aged in French Limousin oak.  This is French oak from the Limousin forest towards the south west of France.  These casks are popular among winemakers but The Glenlivet was one of the first to use French oak to mature its whisky.  It adds a gentle spiciness to the nutty and fruity character of the 15 year old.


The Glenlivet 18 Years Old is matured in a mix of European Sherry casks and American ex-Bourbon casks.  It is the personal favourite of The Glenlivet’s master blender and with good reason.  Rich dried fruit, spice and a touch of orange peel which can all be sensed on the long finish.


Not all whiskies have to specify on the label how long they have been aged for.  Sometimes the flexibility to add into the marriage of different casks a slightly younger whisky with something special to offer can result in a special whisky.


The Glenlivet Nàdurra is a ‘Non-Age Statement’ (NAS) whisky exclusively matured in first fill (so no other whisky in them before) Sherry butts.  The type of whisky they had in them is Oloroso, an oxidised style of Sherry which is the most common type for ex-Sherry casks used for maturing Scotch.


It is bottled at cask strength (so no water added to reduce the strength when taking the whisky from the casks) so you get a full sense of the stone fruit, dried fruit, dark chocolate, honey and spice.


You can experience all of these and more at our tasting entitled ‘The Art of Maturation’ on Saturday 21 June 2020 or learn a lot more about Scotch Whisky by joining our next Whisky Ambassador course on Sunday 9 August 2020.

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29 Feb 2020

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