On the afternoon of Sunday 10 June 2018 I arrived at The Glenlivet distillery having indulged in an extravagant tasting of cask strength whisky at the Strathisla distillery that morning. The skies were grey and a mild chill started to make it ways through Scotland after over a week of clear blue skies, warm afternoons and sunshine. Thankfully, I was in Speyside so there was no shortage of whisky to warm me up.
After warming up with six healthy drams of Chivas Regal whisky at Strathisla distillery, my designated driver transported me to The Glenlivet distillery for a Definitive Spirit tour.
The Glenlivet’s Definitive Spirit tour, as the name suggests, focuses heavily on the flavours which new make spirit gives a whisky. Whilst oak is said to be responsible for a big chunk of a whisky’s flavour (some say in excess of 60%), new make spirit (which some people call “unaged whisky”) is also an important part of a whisky’s character.
As I later observed during the tour, this tour gave participants the opportunity to taste The Glenlivet new make spirit and challenged them to identify the spirit’s role in a number of the distillery’s core expressions.
The experience involved a tour of the distillery, which included visiting The Glenlivet’s mash tuns, wash backs and stills. Then, the group made its way to a warehouse where we tried an American oak matured The Glenlivet Nadurra at cask strength straight from the cask.
After the distillery tour, the group made its way to a large tasting room where three bottles of clear liquid sat on display. Each of these three bottles contained liquid from each “cut” of The Glenlivet’s distillation – the “heads”, the “hearts” and the “tails”.
When new make spirit is distilled, not all the liquid that flows out of the still is used to make whisky. “Foreshorts”, which comprise of mostly toxic alcohol, come out of the still first and they are thrown out. Then lighter volatile alcohols flow from the still, the “heads”. Eventually sweet and tasty alcohol starts to make its way out of the still, the “hearts”. Finally the heavier alcohols and fusel oils are distilled, the “tails”. A distiller aims to collect the hearts which are then put in oak casks to be matured into whisky. The heads and tails are re-distilled because they may contain desirable alcohol.
The Definitive Spirit tour initially involved a nosing of the heads, hearts and tails of The Glenlivet’s distillation run. The heads looked cloudy and when smelled they sent a sharp piercing alcoholic burn up my nose which made me light headed for a moment. The “tails” had the unpleasant aroma of wet dog fur. In stark contrast, the hearts were sweet, fruity and malty with an appetising aroma that seemed juuuuuust right!
Once I gained some familiarity with the distinctive aromas of the heads, hearts and tails of The Glenlivet’s distillation run, I sat down to six neatly ordered glasses of liquid. The first glass contained the hearts of The Glenlivet’s distillation run. The rest of the glasses contained whisky from The Glenlivet’s core range, being The Glenlivet’s Founder’s Reserve, 15 year old, 18 year old, Nadurra Oloroso Matured and Nadurra Peated Whisky Cask Finish.
I nosed and tasted The Glenlivet’s new make whisky, and then I progressively nosed and tasted each of the whiskies which sat in front of me. The exercise allowed me to spot what role the fruity new make spirit played in each of The Glenlivet’s expressions, and it highlighted the way new make develops depending on the type of oak in which it is aged and the length of time it spends in oak.
The Glenlivet’s Definitive Spirit tour provided a unique insight into the distillery’s new make spirit, its DNA. This refreshing approach to whisky tasting allows people to experience The Glenlivet single malt whisky from the ground up and perceive how a whisky’s flavours develop over time and in specific oak types. Overall the tour was informative, professional and lots of fun.
I left the distillery with a lovely gift (a quaich, which is a traditional Scottish drinking cup, and a miniature of The Glenlivet 18 year old) and a hunger that was eventually satisfied later on at The Mash Tun pub.
Thank you to Pernod Ricard for arranging this tour.