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.
The stone pillar in the first photoset marks the site of The Glenlivet’s original distillery, circa 1824; it was nestled lower in the valley to more easily obtain hard well water. Now, thanks to modern day technology’s aid in procuring water, the distillery has relocated and looks down on the rolling slopes as seen above. P.S.: Those tiny white specks are sheep!
On with the show then, shall we? We begin with an examination of the grains. The Glenlivet, like most distilleries in the area, purchases locally-sourced barley that’s already malted. We popped a few grains of malted barley, and fast became addicted to its satisfyingly crunchy, slightly sweet taste.
The barley goes through a malt mill identical to this one, and turns into coarse grist.
The Mash Tun
Hot spring water gets added to the grist to in four batches to coax the sugars out. The first two batches of water move along to fermentation, and the last two are reused in a nice distillery version of the circle of life.
Tumbler rakes stir the mash around frequently. The Glenlivet produces a clear wort, which results in a cleaner, fruitier spirit. A cloudier wort would yield nuttier flavor.
Modern Day Renovations
The Glenlivet’s new distillery was opened in 2010, and increased the distilling capacity by 75%. Here, we see the floor of the still room en route to spic and span.
Another modern-day convenience: Computers, overlooking the stills, help the distillery workers monitor the process. The result: a more consistent spirit.
Fermentation in the Washbacks
Once the wort is cooled enough that it won’t kill the yeast (around 16-19 degrees Celsius), it’s time to add the yeast and begin the fermentation process, which takes about 48 hours. This room’s filled with 16 washbacks, each working on fermentation batches staggered three hours apart. The Glenlivet uses wooden washbacks for fermentation. While they’re much harder to scrub clean than modern stainless steel washbacks with bells and whistles like fans and vents, one of the reasons the wooden ones are preferred is because the lactic acid builds up and adds character to the final product.
We’re getting so close, we can nearly smell it. After fermentation, the spirit’s basically a frothy beer, so it’s up to the distillation phase to seriously kick it up. The two steps of distillation take place in the copper pot stills, as required by law for single malt. There are seven pairs of stills in the new distillery. The wavy-shaped pot stills and their increased surface area means more liquid to copper contact, both impacting the overall flavor and also reducing the sour sulfur content.
Wash Stills, Spirit Stills, and the Spirit Safe
After the spirit goes through the wash still, it’s still got a pretty low alcohol content, hence the name of the favorable product: low wines. The low wines then distill a second time in the spirit still, and with the help of the spirit safe, divide into strains. The strongest bit, which comes off first, is called the heads or the foreshots. The heart comes next, and is what makes our final malt whisky. Finally, at the end come the tails.
The spirit safe locks are left over from the strict lockdown policies all whisky distilleries had back in the day, when it was required by law for a government official to strictly monitor the process. The locks still remain, ensuring everything’s accounted for and everyone’s water bottles are only filled with water.
The Sma’ Still
This little guy mimics how the smugglers used to make whisky. It’s the 15th and final pot still licensed by The Glenlivet. As far as spike goes, this stuff is pretty potent. (Spike is the nickname for the unaged, straight-from-still spirit.)
From Cask To Bottle: Post-distillation, the 70% ABV spike piles into tankers and travels on a short journey offsite to Keith, where it’s then filled into casks after being reduced to 63.5% alcohol. The oak casks come in three different types: sherry butts (500 liters), oak hogsheads (250 liters) and bourbon barrels (190 liters).
Then, the casks come back to the warehouses to mature as all good single malts are apt to do. Most distilleries operate under the “don’t keep all your eggs in one basket” method—meaning, it’s better to distribute the casks among several different warehouses in case of a fire, natural disaster, etc.
The casks used to be repainted a different color and labeled with the name of the distillery, but nowadays they’re just labeled with barcodes. The blue casks mean the distillery is under the Chivas Brothers umbrella.
The bottling for all Scotch whisky takes place in the south of Scotland, in the industrial central belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Maturation: The spirit must age for at least three years to be considered Scotch. The youngest whisky at The Glenlivet is the 12 year old, which is aged at least 12 years.
We tried a dram straight from a 1979 cask—the good stuff, yessiree.This has been an excerpt from this original post on Serious Eats: Drinks.