“Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whiskey.”
One of the best parts of the trip: the whiskey.
We visited three distilleries and a cooperage (where the barrels are made). This was my second whiskey tour (I did the bourbon trail with my fiancé a couple of years ago). So I was already semi-familiar with the distillation process. For those who aren’t, I’ve tried to sum it up in a diagram – Distillation Process.
Our first stop was Glenlivet, or “Valley of the Smooth Flowing One.”
Glenlivet officially began distilling in 1824 (although it had long been distilling whiskey illegally prior to that date). Whiskey distilling started in the Speyside region with tenement farmers, farmers who did not own the land, but instead worked it and paid a percentage of their income to the individual who did own the land. Many times, the percentage was rather high, and the farmers started to distill whiskey to make some extra cash – free of taxes. Additionally, due to its remote location in the Highlands, it was easy for farmers to hide their illicit behavior from the customs office.
In 1824, however, legislation was passed to allow whiskey distillation, and George Smith, the founder of Glenlivet, was the first in the Glenlivet parish to get his distiller’s license. For this, he was harassed by his neighboring distillers and was forced to carry a pair of pistols for the rest of his life.
George Smith’s son had been studying the law when his father died. He gave up his law career to move home and run the family business. His law degree informed how he ran the business. For instance, it was under his leadership that Glenlivet fought a protracted legal battle over the Glenlivet trade mark, giving Glenlivet the right to be called “THE” Glenlivet. For those of us who are Ohio State fans, you know how important the “THE” can be.
Next was Glenfiddich, or “Valley of the Deer.”
“Few men have built their own distillery with their own bare hands. But that’s exactly how William Grant started writing our story.”
During the summer of 1886, William Grant and his children built, by hand, what was to become the Glenfiddich Distillery. Unlike many other distilleries, Glenfiddich actually has its own cooperage on site. The triangular shape of Glenfiddich bottles was instituted in 1961. And in 1963, Glenfiddich was the first Scottish Whiskey to be actively promoted outside Scotland.
Before visiting our last distillery for the day, The Macallan, we stopped at Speyside cooperage.
Speyside cooperage was founded in 1947 by the Taylor family. It is the largest independent cooperage in the United Kingdom. It also has branches in Alloa, Kentucky, and Ohio because much of the wood it uses to make barrels actually comes from former bourbon barrels. Under United States law, bourbon may only be aged in virgin barrels; thus, after one use, the barrel cannot be used again – at least not to make bourbon. So many bourbon distilleries will sell their barrels on to other whiskey distilleries.
But, like Bourbon, oak is the only wood that can be used as casks because oak prevents seepage of the whiskey while still allowing the whiskey to “breathe.” The ability to breathe also produces what is known as the “angels’ share,” i.e. the whiskey that evaporates.
The coopers at Speyside still use all the traditional methods and tools to make the casks.
Finally, we went to The Macallan, which just opened its new distillery this summer. It was breathtaking in a very modern sense.
The original name of the area was “Maghellan”, comprised of two Gaelic words: “magh”, meaning fertile ground and “Ellan”, from the Monk St. Fillan.
The Macallan was founded by Alexander Reid in 1824 on a plateau above the river Spey in north-east Scotland. In fact, to ensure that the river Spey continued to provide The Macallan Distillery with pure water for its whiskey, the Distillery bought up much of the land that surrounds the river. Unlike Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, Macallan does not use a Scottish cooperage; instead, they import their barrels from a cooperage in Spain.
Ultimately, my favorite was Glenlivet. Although I have to admit, my forever favorite will always be Jameson. And not just because it’s one of my cats’ names.