GLENLIVAT OR GLENLIVET?
Why Are Other Whiskies Still Using Glenlivet In Their Name?
Recognised as one of Highland Scotland’s most dazzling river valleys, Glenlivet was a famous location long before The Glenlivet whisky was invented and became an enduring symbol of its place of origin. Glenlivet, or Gleann-liobh-aite in Gaelic, means “valley of the smooth flowing one.”The Livet river flows into the Avon above Ballindaloch.
Writer John Wilson, aka Christopher North, travelled to the village of Tomintoul in 1815, just a few miles south of Glenlivet. Wilson depicted Tomintoul at the height of the smuggling era as “a wild mountain village where drinking, dancing, swearing and quarrelling went on all the time.” This rowdy influence was not lost on all Glenliveters. Wilson also thought that the whisky from Glenlivet was the finest he had ever tasted. As it turned out, lovely Glenlivet, 14 miles long and 6 miles wide, was the most highly favoured location in the Highlands for smugglers. In the small parish of Glenlivet alone it was believed that two hundred small stills were operated. In the little glen, whisky of a special quality has been made for centuries. To ask why would be pointless, for no one could give a finite answer to such a question. Distillers have known it instinctively, which is why there were so many bothy stills in that tiny parish. One of these stills belonged to George Smith.
In the late winter of 1792, what one farmer Andrew Smith’s infant son George could not have known was that he was born in the epicentre of a monumental social earthquake. At its core, this deep-rooted upheaval concerned what the average Scotsman perceived to be his right to distill whisky unfettered by governmental interference, regulation, or taxation. Secluded, remote Glenlivet felt the seismic shudder more than most other places. What took place in Glenlivet over George Smith’s lifetime sent political tremors across the whole of Britain, including deep within the walls of Parliament.
The Glenlivet is the prototypical single malt whisky born in Scotland’s most renowned Highlands river valley, Glenlivet. Smugglers believed that the unusual climate of Glenlivet, the altitude of the glen, and the mossy water of the hill streams there, combined to give the whisky its unique character. As the excisemen rarely visited the glen, the locals could take a long time in distilling new spirits, running the whisky ‘lazily’ over a small fire. This was a luxury not allowed to other smugglers, constantly on the look-out for the gaugers. Glenlivet whisky, fully matured and with its unique flavour, soon became a great favourite of the Lowland connoisseurs.”
Through the beaconlike wattage of its reputation, The Glenlivet by the mid-nineteenth century made Scotland’s malt whiskies the most prized whisky of all.
The father-and-son team of Smiths—George and John Gordon—were Highlands farmers by trade in the bucolic Banffshire district called Glenlivet. As their fledgling malt whisky business grew in fame, they turned to malt whisky distilling as a primary source of income. They operated under the guiding principles that product quality and authenticity and customer service must prevail above all else. Riding those codes through the harrowing peaks and valleys of Scotland’s turbulent whisky industry in the nineteenth century, they adeptly conquered both regional and national marketplaces. They secured these triumphs, however, only at the cost of severe personal and professional tolls.
When British King George IV came to Scotland in 1822, the citizens of Edinburgh painted the whole town red. During his much ballyhooed trip in August 1822, word got out that the King had become smitten with whisky, in particular, the highly respected illicit variety produced in or around Glenlivet. The literary source for this claim is a small passage in the memoirs of Lady Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus, the daughter of a Scottish Member of Parliament:
"Lord Conyngham, the Chamberlain, was looking everywhere for pure Glenlivet whisky; the King drank nothing else. It was not to be had out of the Highlands. My father sent word to me - I was the cellarer - to empty my pet bin, where was whisky long in wood, long in uncorked bottles, mild as milk, and the true contraband goût in it. Much as I grudged this treasure it made our fortunes afterwards, showing on what trifles great events depend.”
The King reportedly consumed whisky during his visit in a concoction called the “Atholl-brose,” a thick, sweetish mixture of whisky, honey and ground grain. His supposed appreciation of smuggler’s whisky instigated a national awareness of the superior quality of whisky from Glenlivet, which became something of a brand name for better smugglers’ whisky. This wide recognition catapulted forward the mystique of Scotland’s most famous glen, even though much of the illicit whisky touted as “Glenlivet” was produced in other areas of the Highlands. The king, however, was delighted with the quality of Lady Elizabeth's Glenlivat (sic) whisky. Just one year later, the parliament passed a new tax law, The Excise Act of 1823 that allowed working on small pot stills. Now, finally, the illicit distillers in the Highlands were able to legally produce the kind of whisky that was previously available only on the black market - the “real Glenlivet".
Cardow Distillery(today known as Cardhu) in Knockando was possibly the first Speyside distillery to be licensed under the Act. While women are often absent from the history of Scotch whisky, they actually played a key role in the industry from its inception. One of those early whisky women was Helen Cumming, the founder of Cardhu distillery in Archiestown. Bessie Williamson, who owned Laphroaig in Islay in the 20th century, was equally influential.
George Smith acquired a licence in 1824 for the distillery, which he operated on his farm Upper Drumin until 1859. In old tax documents, it is listed under the name "Drumin". From October 1826 to October 1827, George Smith produced 1,340 gallons of alcohol at the Drumin Distillery, distilled from malted barley. However, the first legal distillery named "Glenlivat" was a completely different distillery. It belonged to Capt. William Grant, and was in Achorachan (now being re-established as the lost distillery of Auchorachan). The river passing by is the very same Livet, but that section was known locally as the river Livat. With a production volume of 1,130 gallons in 1826/1827, it was only slightly smaller than the Smith distillery.
George Smith was very successful in the following years as a farmer and distillery owner. In 1837 he acquired the farm Castleton of Blairfindy, in 1838, the Nevie Farm, and in 1839 the Minmore Farm. In 1850 he acquired the farm Delnaboe above Tomintoul, where a distillery was already operating under the name Cairngrom.
By this time, most of the illegal distilleries had disappeared, and in the valley of the Livet River there were only two distilleries left: those of George Smith and Capt. William Grant. In 1852, the Glenlivat Distillery was closed by Captain Grant. In 1859, Smith also closed down his two distilleries and built a complete new distillery on Minmore Farm, and initially this distillery was also called Minmore Distillery. Only in the following years, Smith renamed it to "Glenlivet", and under this name, the former Minmore Distillery later achieved international fame.
George Smith’s The Glenlivet was a raging success when first brought to the market in 1824-25. A host of other distilleries in the Speyside area shamelessly tacked the word Glenlivet to their product, despite being nowhere near the location, some as far away as the Moray coast:
In 1881, George’s grandson, George Smith Grant, by then running the family firm, initiated legal proceedings along with Andrew Usher. ‘…it was not until it was brought prominently under my notice that in the large towns in Scotland and England dealers were beginning to sell as Glenlivet Whisky lower priced Whiskies of a different character bought by them as Glenfarclas Glenlivet or Cragganmore Glenlivet or some similar combination of words calculated to deceive anyone not having local knowledge and to cause such person, by tacking on the word Glenlivet to the name of a particular distillery, to buy a different class of whisky at a higher price than it would have borne in the market if left to find a purchaser under its own name.’
By 1882, Smith and Usher began forwarding individual affidavits against each of the offending distillers. This provoked countersuits, with his competitors claiming that ‘Glenlivet’ had become a generic term during the illicit era and could now be used in the same way as ‘Islay’ to define a style of whisky. By 1883, Smith and Usher’s legal bill had reached £30,000, and 400 affidavits had been served.
By May 1884, all the parties were ready to compromise, and a deed was signed stipulating that the trademark for Glenlivet stood, and only Smith’s whisky could call itself ‘The Glenlivet’. The Smiths and Usher didn’t, however, succeed in banning other distillers from using the word.
Rather, they agreed to drop all charges against the other distillers and not prevent the use of the term by 10 distilleries: Glenlossie, Macallan, Aberlour, Benrinnes, Cragganmore, Linkwood, Glenrothes, Glen Grant, Mortlach and Glenfarclas, providing that ‘Glenlivet’ was only used as a suffix, in conjunction with the distillery name. At some point, it became common practise for the ‘Glenlivet’ part of the name to be joined to the distillery name by a hyphen.
By the 1980s, 28 distilleries were either registered as being ‘X-Glenlivet’ or using the term as a trademark, or on their labels. It’s only in recent years that Macallan, for example, has dropped the suffix.
The majority of the trademarks are now dead, and most of the distilleries are now registered under their own names. Some, however, have retained the suffix. Tamnavulin, Glen Moray, Speyburn and Tomintoul all still carry -Glenlivet in their registered name. The suffix is now only used on the labels of some independent bottlers.