The folk tale of bootlegger George Smith is as delightful as his whisky, writes Paul Davies.
There are more than 100 malt distilleries scattered throughout Scotland. About half of them are clustered in the idyllic whisky making district of Speyside. With abundant clean water, barley and Scottish "aye can do", distilling took off centuries ago.
Even when the royal taxman scoured the banks of the Spey River for illegal distilleries, the "water of life" kept flowing. When new regulations allowing the legal production of whisky were passed in 1823, the bootleggers came down from the hills to make and export their liquid gold.
One of those men was George Smith, who in 1824 acquired his licence to make whisky under the name Glenlivet.
Glenlivet translates to "valley of the smooth-flowing one" but the journey to the parish is anything but. The windy road east of Inverness follows the rivers Spey and Avon on to River Livet at the edges of Cairngorms National Park.
A large sign and perfect lawn welcomes you to the home of the world's second biggest selling single malt. The spiritual home at least — Glenlivet is now owned by French company Pernod Ricard, echoing the "Auld Alliance" of Catholic nations who battled the English.
Whisky in Scotland is big business. It makes up 85 per cent of Scottish food and beverage exports and plays a pivotal role in tourism. A visit to Glenlivet is like visiting a museum. Photos, biographies and interactive exhibits tell the tale often condensed for the back of a bottle. For whisky drinkers, a distillery tour is a must. The huge mash tuns and lantern-shaped copper stills show man's dedication to churning out a good drink.
The rolling hills which flank the Spey River contain Highland springs which provide continuous pure water, whisky's most vital ingredient. Glenlivet's water comes from Josie's Well, a natural spring which sits behind the distillery. It's said Josie will always provide, though there are reservoirs if disaster strikes.
You're likely to learn grand facts on a tour, such as how Glenlivet goes through 560 tonnes of barley a week, with its 1-2 per cent alcohol byproduct being given to cows as feed (they look happy). Or you'll hear about how 2 per cent of the whisky evaporates once it's been casked. Known as the "angel's share", it's considered a tribute to the whisky gods. Most likely though, you'll be told tall tales of outlaws, perseverance and probably how whisky saved somebody's life.
Founder George Smith sounds like a seven-foot tall man who would catch bullets with his teeth. He benefited by being given the first licence to distil in Glenlivet. It made him a target for disgruntled neighbours and he was known to carry a gun. He lived to 74, twice the life expectancy for a man from the district at the time. Our tour guide boasted that it was two nips of whisky a day that enabled his longevity, though his warm house, good food and the best healthcare that money could buy might've helped.
We sample the wares under George Smith's watchful eye. A giant painting of him dominates the tasting room. Glenlivet's whiskies are outstanding and its story is entertaining, but given Scotland's colourful history it's a common theme. Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal, Glenfiddich and Aberlour are also likely to have larger than life characters at the heart of their story. Though given how tough living conditions were, they needed to be larger than life to survive. Larger than life with a constant supply of whisky.
Speyside — here's tae ye!