Spirit of Speyside best new events diary: Glenlivet Smugglers One Life Livet Tour

Heading to Speyside to help judge the best new events category for the Festival, Sean Murphy headed to Glenlivet Distillery for the Smugglers One Life Livet Tour.

Published 28th Apr 2017
Updated 28 th Apr 2017

They say you can't predict the weather but you can definitely make the best of it.

Well, that's exactly the approach Charlie Ironside took when eight excited whisky fans arrived to try out his Smugglers One Life Livet Tour and found grey skies, rain and snow peppering the hills surrounding Glenlivet distillery.

The excursion, which takes guests on a tour of the hidden Glen, immersing them in the history of the area and revealing a world of gaugers and whisky smugglers, involves two different forms of transport, three drams, one and a half castles, a bothy and one of the region's most famous distilleries.

Described as a "unique outdoor whisky smuggling adventure", the tour begins with a short hop from the meeting point just north of the main Glenlivet distillery site, in a refurbished Land Rover Defender, to the Packhorse Bridge, a key transport link for the distillery in the past and now the inspiration for Glenlivet's recent change of branding.

Charlie is knowledgeable and welcoming. Already well known within the Speyside community, it's easy to see why he is so well thought of in the area.

Along the way, he indicates various points of interest including Josie's Well (the original water source for the distillery) and the former Brewer's and Exciseman's houses on the main complex.

The bridge itself is a wonderful link to the area's past and gives a real glimpse of what whisky producers (illicit and legal) would have had to go through to deliver their wares to their thirsty customers.

Charlie patiently waits as each of the group takes their own photographs before explaining how and when the bridge was built, why it was so important and the reason the third arch no longer exists (it was washed away in a flood).

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From there the tour takes in the ruins of Drumin Castle, a key historical site for the area and the scene of our first dram of the day - a Glenlivet Founders Reserve.

Charlie gives out the first dram of the day.

On the way back to the starting point, the team pass by the ruins of Blairfindy Castle, a tower house previously used to survey the surrounding glens for the telltale smoke of illicit stills.

The weather, which Charlie explains is vital in providing Glenlivet with its much-needed springs and water sources, is already beginning to change (in typical Scottish fashion) and it's from here that the fun really begins as we switch from the smooth riding Land Rovers to the smaller, characterful eight wheel off-roaders known as Argocats.

Described by Charlie as a "bathtub on eight wheels", the little machines, which are imported from Canada, are, according to Charlie, the only real vehicles built for the boggy, heather strewn terrain of the hills around the main distillery and the perfect way to navigate the smuggler's trails that cover the area.

The Argocat makes traversing the hills look effortless.

The bouncy ride up through the slopes of the main hill is great fun and is also one of the best ways to spot some of the resident wildlife, with the now famous Grouse (boom, boom), and several hares all putting in an appearance.

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Once at the top, Charlie shows us where the Cairngorms would lie if the skies were clearer, before giving us a brief visual tour of the various hills, glens and rivers that make up this wonderful region.

As we enjoy our second dram of the day, the experienced guide explains how smugglers would have had to transport their wares through this harsh terrain, camping in the heather and using the old military roads to get onto the roads to Perth and Edinburgh.

From here, the weather returns with a vengeance and the wind and rain are making the summit slightly too cold for comfort for several of our guests (particularly those from warmer climes like Florida and Australia) so the group is taken back down the hill via the site of the first Glenlivet distillery, which sadly burned down in the 1850s, where we stop to grab some more pictures and selfies before heading to the peat reek bothy on the slopes of Carn Liath, a small building that has been renovated by Charlie and his wife to represent what an old illicit still house would have looked like, complete with candles, stove and of course a worm tub.

Charlie points out the cairn that marks the site of the original distillery.

The catered lunch of hot soup and sandwiches is perfectly matched with an 18-year-old Glenlivet and an ideal way to escape from the cold and get warmed up.

The event finishes with a guided tour of the Glenlivet distillery, and the immaculate building forms the perfect juxtaposition to the raw realism of the smuggler's journey, a journey that has taken this industry from the cosy confines of small bothies, caves and farmsteads on heather-strewn hills and green glens, to huge (now legal) behemoths of a production sites that are capable of producing millions of litres a year and are now famous the world over.

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Somehow, I think founder George Smith, a formerly illicit distiller and the first man to go legal, would approve.

• Next up: Whisky Tasting: The World of Duty Free Whiskies

Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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