Searching for the true story: The Real Glenlivet

When British King George IV came to Scotland in 1822, the citizens of Edinburgh painted the whole town red. And even 200 years later, whisky friends all over the world are still full of enthusiasm for this royal visit. Because supposedly Geordie-Boy drank nothing else except Glenlivet. But does this famous marketing tale actually correspond to the truth? Or are we dealing once again with a cleverly woven marketing lore? Let's take a closer look at this popular story about "The Real Glenlivet".

King George in Scotland

One of the most popular stories when it comes to Glenlivet is the story that King George IV did not want to drink anything other than Glenlivet whisky while visiting Scotland. The literary source for this claim is a small passage in the memoirs of Lady Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus, the daughter of a Scottish Member of Parliament:

 "Lord Conyngham, the Chamberlain, was looking everywhere for pure Glenlivet whisky; the King drank nothing else. It was not to be had out of the Highlands. My father sent word to me - I was the cellarer - to empty my pet bin, where was whisky long in wood, long in uncorked bottles, mild as milk, and the true contraband goût in it."

The story has only one catch: when King George came to Edinburgh, the Glenlivet distillery was still a dream of the future. It was built two years after the royal visit by George Smith on his farm Upper Drumin.

In 1822, the year of the royal visit, only illicit New Make was distilled in the valley of the Livet. So the question is: what did the king really drink during his visit?

If you do not have much time, then you should now jump to the end of the article, and read only the result. I invite everybody else to take a look with me at the situation of Scottish whisky in 1822.

It was to be a fateful year for the Scottish Highlands in general and for Scottish whisky in particular. That particular year, the foundation was laid, why until today there is no whisky fair without men in kilts. And second, the foundation was laid for Scottish whisky to become what it is today.

In order to discover the true meaning of the story around the "Real Glenlivat", we first have to take a closer look at the protagonists from Lady Elizabeth's memoirs:

Rothiemurchus Cottage (original edition)

First, there is Lady Elizabeth, who at the time of the royal visit stayed at the family estate in Rothiemurchus. Her father, Sir John Peter Grant, had filed for bankruptcy only two years earlier. The family had over 60,000 pounds of debt.

Elizabeth's brother had to abandon his law degree and left university, so he could take care of the land management on the family’s estate and the mother was so ashamed that she wished the ground would open and swallow her up. Because that didn’t happen, she left her residence in Edinburgh instead and retired with her daughters into the Highlands, where she burried herself in melancholy.

Soon, Elizabeth took over the responsibilities for housekeeping. Her mother didn’t know much about these things, but Elizabeth found support in her aunt, who could give her lots of good advice.

Rothiemurchus: Doune House (original edition)

In her own words, Elizabeth is also the "cellarer" of the family, the cellar master. One of her responsibilities is the stockpiling of food, which includes not just the food, but also the drinks. We learn that Elizabeth carefully looks after her whisky which she aquired in all likelihood from one of the area's many illegal distilleries. She stores it in her "pet bin", in a box that she looks after and cares for.

Elizabeth stored her whisky first in caskets, firkins presumably. To prevent the wood flavors from getting out of hand, she then poured the whisky into bottles, so that the liquid continued maturing slowly and it seems that the alcohol content would decrease due to evaporation to a level pleasant to the palate. The result is being described as  "mild as milk, and the true contraband goût in it" - as gentle as milk, with the full flavor of smuggled goods. 

Do I have to emphasize that it is obviously the task of women to produce an excellent whisky by careful cellar work and wood maturation? 

The King's Voyage (engraved by R.Hawell, Jun.)

When the king went to Edinburgh in August 1822, mother and daughter stayed away from the big event. The family didn’t have enough money to properly equip the two women with pomp and clothing. Only the two younger sisters were allowed to accompany their father to Edinburgh. They were considered prettier than Elizabeth, and the old gentleman probably figured that they had better marriage prospects. 

As if that wasn’t annoying enough, Lady Elizabeth had to give away her painstakingly and carefully matured whisky to the king at her old man’s behest. She makes no secret in her memoirs of how little she liked this idea. She knew that the father's generous gift would be sadly missed by the family at the approach of winter time.

King George IV

The king, however, has other things to worry. George had ascended the throne two years earlier, and was only moderately popular at the time. His secret marriage to the Catholic Mary Anne Fitzherbert was as much disliked as was his wastefulness and extravagances. His visit to Scotland was certainly not a vacation trip, where you want to enjoy your favourite tipple in the evening, but an important political mission. For the first time in 170 years, an English king came voluntarily to Scotland. George was under pressure, his visit to Scotland had to be a political success.

With Sir Walter Scott, the king had a consultant at his side, who staged the trip to Edinburgh carefully and in great detail. In order to win the Scottish hearts, Scott even designed a Highland costume for the king, which caused quite a stir among the Scottish noblemen. The Scottish Lowland Lords were taken aback by this Highland costume, and Lady Elizabeth, in her memoirs, describes the King’s kilts as a great blunder. The English yellow press also made fun of the King, the kilt appeared to be way too short. The Highland Lords, on the other hand, felt flattered and were full of praise for the King.

To really understand the historical significance of this royal piece of clothing, we need to take a quick detour into the history of the kilts. After the Battle of Culloden, the then English King George II issued the so-called "Dress Act" in 1746, banning the wearing of a kilt by law. Those who violated it were jailed for up to six months or banished to Australia. It was not until 1782 that the ban was lifted again.

When George IV promoted the kilt as the official royal attire in Scotland on his visit to Edinburgh in 1822, he set a kilt revival movement in motion that continues until today. Since then, an official Scottish reception without a kilt is hard to imagine for men. Unfortunately, Geordie-Boy did not have a queen by his side at the time. And that's why there is no official Scottish attire for women today.

But let's go back to the Highlands and its illicit whisky-production.

The British Yellow Press was not impressed with the King's Kilt (British Museum)

When George came to Edinburgh, the Highlands caused him quite a headache again. For more than 25 years, Parliament was struggling with the differences in tax systems for distillers in England, the Lowlands and the Highlands. Especially in the Highlands, almost all distilleries had been closed since the tax reform of 1798, and the black market flourished.

As a result, the king lost huge sums of money each year. In 1822, Parliament issued a new law to combat illicit distillation in the Highlands. Bear in mind, it was a lot of money that was lost to the state budget year after year. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the king took advantage of his visit to Edinburgh to taste the infamous illicit Highland whisky.

The Entry of George IV into Edinburgh from the Calton Hill by John Wilson Ewbank, Museum of  Edinburgh

But why in the world did he want to try a Glenlivet Whisky? A painting helps us to get on the right track. When John Frederik Lewis painted the picture "Highland Hospitaly" in 1832, a description of this painting appeared in a newspaper. It says: "The Husband has just poured out a glass of the real Glenlivet”. 

In this painting, a Highlander offers his guests a home-made whisky. "The real Glenlivet" was then a name for "the real thing", an illicit Highland whisky from the region of the Glenlivet district, which extended in a wide radius around the valley of the River Livet. This region was a stronghold of illicit distillers and smuggling.

When Lady Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus sent her illegal whisky to Edinburgh, no fewer than 200 illicit distillers are said to have run their stills in the Glenlivet district. Glenlivet whisky at the time referred to nothing but an illegal, tax-free distilled whisky from the Glenlivet-Speyside region.

The reason why illicit whisky from the Glenlivet district had a such a good reputation was possibly due to the fact that the winters here were particularly cold and dry.

John Frederik Lewis: Highland Hospitality

There were 106 legal distilleries in Scotland at the time - mostly in the Lowlands. But King George didn’t care much for their products. He wanted "the real thing" from the hidden valleys of the Highlands. With his demand, he put his Scottish hosts into a hot seat, because none of them wanted to admit that illicit distillation was carried out on his land and that the smugglers were welcome guests. Even the Scottish Duke of Gordon, who lived in London and campaigned for Highland whisky in Parliament, did not deliver.

But Elizabeth's father had nothing left to lose at this time. Due to his bankruptcy and awkward acting, he had little chance of a political career anyway. So he could only win if he did the king a favour. He knew exactly what treasures his daughter kept in her favorite chest.

The "Real Glenlivet":  ..mild as milk, and the true contraband goût in it...

And so it happened that Lady Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus sent her tax-free Highland whisky heavy-heartedly to Edinburgh in August 1822, together with fifty slain ptarmigans, so that King George could get a better idea about the quality of Highland whisky. And I am sure that King George, while drinking whisky with the Highland Lords, was also talking about the necessary reforms to the spirits laws.

The real Glenlivet

Maybe the whisky was really distilled by George Smith. Maybe not. We will probably never know, because the estimated 200 illicit distillers in the Glenlivet region operated at that time in secret. But we can say with certainty that the whisky the king drank in 1822 came from a small, illegal pot still, which had nothing, but nothing at all, to do with the Glenlivet Distillery of later years.

The king, however, was delighted with the quality of Lady Elizabeth's Glenlivat whisky. Just one year later, the parliament passed a new tax law that allowed working on small pot stills. Now, finally, the illicit distillers in the Highlands were able to legally produce the kind of whisky that was previously available only on the black market - the “real Glenlivet".

One of them was George Smith, who acquired a licence in 1824 for the distillery, which he operated on his farm Upper Drumin until 1859. In old tax documents, it is listed under the name "Drumin". From October 1826 to October 1827, George Smith produced 1,340 gallons of alcohol at the Drumin Distillery, distilled from malted barley.

However, the first legal distillery named "Glenlivat" was a completely different distillery. It belonged to Capt. William Grant, and was in Achorachan. With a production volume of 1,130 gallons in 1826/1827, it was only slightly smaller than the Smith distillery.

George Smith was very successful in the following years as a farmer and distillery owner. In 1837 he acquired the farm Castleton of Blairfindy, in 1838, the Nevie Farm, and in 1839 the Minmore Farm. In 1850 he acquired the farm Delnaboe above Tomintoul, where a distillery was already operating under the name Cairngrom.

By this time, most of the illegal distilleries had disappeared, and in the valley of the Livet River there were only two distilleries left: Smith and Capt. William Grant, who also ran a distillery on his Glenbarry farm next to his distillery in Achorachan. In 1852, the Glenlivat Distillery was closed by Captain Grant. In 1859, Smith also closed down his two distilleries and built a complete new distillery on Minmore Farm, and initially this distillery was also called Minmore Distillery. Only in the following years, Smith renamed it to "Glenlivet",  and under this name, the former Minmore Distillery later achieved international fame.

So, what facts did our search for the true story finally reveal? Let's summarize our results:

King George IV (English Heritage, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House)

When the English king visited Scotland in 1822, the term "the real Glenlivet" referred to illicitly distilled whisky from an estimated 200 farms in the valley of the River Livat and the surrounding countryside, and that's exactly what Lady Elizabeth Grant sent to the King in Edinburgh, and that's exactly what the king drank.

We will probably never know which farm Lady Elizabeth Grant got her whisky from. As early as 1826, a distillery in Achorachan officially had the name "Glenlivat", which belonged to a certain Capt. William Grant. It migh be heart-breaking to all the fans of Glenlivet -  but this original Glenlivat distillery had absolutely nothing to do with Glenlivet distillery today. The present Glenlivet Distillery was built several decades after the King’s visit by George Smith and was originally called Minmore. The precursor distillery, which George Smith built in 1824, also had a different name. It was located on the so-called Upper Drumin Farm and was therefore called Drumin Distillery.

Whether Lady Elizabeth was aware of the historical dimension of her actions at that time, can be doubted, but her exquisite whisky has certainly made a crucial contribution to convince the king of the quality of the "real Glenlivet". Only a year later, the laws were changed, and now it was possible in the Highlands to distill the "real Glenlivet" legally. So you could say that the whisky of Lady Elizabeth has helped to save an entire industry ... and that's actually a wonderful story, and there is also a woman in it.

But until today the careful cellar work, which Lady Elizabeth applied to refine her illigally purchased New Make to that wonderful drink, which was able to inspire the king, has been ignored by most whisky writers for years. Instead, the story is abused to boast a distillery that did not even exist back then. And that, my friends, is a big marketing bullshit story. Sláinte!

Note: My special thanks to Jens, who helped me on countless nightly internet hours to unravel the mystery of the "Real Glenlivat" by Lady Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus.

Selected sources:

I. About Lady Elizabeth:

Elizabeth Grant, Memoirs of a Highland Lady,  Paperback, 366 pages
Published March 30th 2006 by Canongate UK (first published 1899)

II. About King George II:

III. primary sources distilleries 1826:

IV: secondary sources Glenlivet

extended article about the development of the farms and distilleries in the Glenlivet valley, Elgin Courant,  July 18, 1862 ( )


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