Speyside’s sweeping glens and hills have been home to whisky distilleries for hundreds of years.
From illicit distilling and smuggling to licensed premises and businesses, these hidden gems have added to the landscape, and beauty, of the region - and now bring in a wealth of tourism, with three out of five visitors to the increasingly popular region coming to visit distilleries.
One brand that’s celebrating that history while offering something totally modern is The Glenlivet.
Recognised as the original Speyside malt, the history of the Glenlivet started with its founder George Smith who turned away from illicit distilling and applied for a license in 1824 when demand for his whisky was growing.
The popularity of the whisky was such that many other brands used Glenlivet in their names at the time. “The Glenlivet was actually used to describe the style of whisky that we’d now know as a Speyside,” explained master distiller Alan Winchester.
It’s this fascinating past and strong brand that has led the owners, Chivas Brothers, to invest in the new visitor centre, which opened in July.
The new space has a lounge area, bar, shop with fill your own bottle stations and archive area and has been designed to feel cosy and welcoming with a palette of teal, green, orange and neutrals that reflect the ever changing Speyside landscape.
The textures in the interiors - green marble, oak and accoya - hark back to whisky barrels used in the aging process.
A dried flower and barley chandelier above the reception is reflected in the tasting room, and brings a softness to the space (not to mention how fashionable dried flowers are just now).
Each area is punctuated with archive material, such as old pictures or artefacts that show the Glenlivet’s history.
The interiors also include craftsmanship from across the UK, who were brought in to design the intricate details and finer elements of the spaces.
These include the plasterwork by Locker & Riley above the impressive fireplace in the lounge, inspired by Scottish foliage and nature, and the beautiful patterned mosaic by Scottish artist and ceramic maker, Helen Miles.
Additionally, visitors can admire the eighty-three hand-crafted clay pots by Whichford Pottery, created to replicate those that were historically used to smuggle The Glenlivet through the Scottish hillside many years ago.
Tours are currently available, although do not include the still room due to Covid-19, and range from the original tour to an archive tour that includes a tasting of some old and rare expressions.
On these tours, visitors will be guided through a barley lined walkway as they learn about the people behind the Glenlivet via interactive videos from staff and suppliers, including the farmer who grows the barley, to the warehouse workers, and master distiller.
There is also a Monty Python inspired video that details the rich history of the brand. The whisky making process is explained in a former mash tun, before visitors exit via the gift shop where they can pick up a bottle, bottle their own or head to the bar for a dram or cocktail.
Also on offer are the famous ‘whisky pod’ cocktail capsules, which went viral in 2019 and divided the whisky community.
Created for London Cocktail Week in partnership with cocktail legend Alex Kratena, the Glenlivet ‘Capsule Collection’ was a limited edition offering of whisky cocktails served in a seaweed-extract casing – one of nature’s most renewable resources.
These have now been redesigned to be smaller, and are available in two flavours. The team also hopes to be able to sell jars of them in the shop.
Speaking of reopening, Miriam Eceolaza, director of The Glenlivet said: “The Glenlivet is a symbol of Speyside, and after 18 months of renovations, we can’t wait to open the doors to our local communities and bring whisky lovers into our new visitor experience, as we continue to push boundaries and break tradition within single malt whisky.
"It’s a true immersion into the iconic Speyside region, walking guests through our stunning indoor field of local barley, tasting from our old and rare archives, experimenting with our famous cocktail capsules and taking a unique piece of Speyside home with our straight from the cask personalised bottling.
"From the decor and design, to ambience and atmosphere, guests will witness something truly original at every turn.
"We strive to give visitors the best possible experience and look forward to welcoming back our loyal fans, as well as new faces keen to taste the original Speyside single malt.”
Lyndsey Gray who leads the experiences and hospitality at The Glenlivet explained that the team have worked hard to bring the modern whisky experience up to date, with tastings, food pairing (using Glasgow’s Bare Bones chocolate and wonderfully cheesy Popcorn Shed popcorn) and cocktails.
The overall experience is informative but relaxing and the space is modern and inviting - “we want to to feel like stepping into George’s (Smith) home” said Linda Brown, visitor experience manager.
This move comes at a time of huge investment in the whisky industry and tourism in particular, with Diageo reopening ‘lost’ distillery Brora (with Rosebank also set to open soon) and renovating the homes of Johnnie Walker before the grand opening of its Prince Street experience.
As restrictions ease and businesses reopen, it’s encouraging to see the whisky industry bounce back with projects like these as they’ll ensure the stories keep being told and that the drams keep being drunk.