The rain pelts down hard as we climb through the Scottish highlands towards Speyside in a shiny, mushroom-coloured Range Rover. In my car are a French food blogger and a suave gent from a Mexican men's magazine – we're as unlikely a group as you would find on the way to visit The Glenlivet distillery in Ballindalloch, an hour north-west of Aberdeen.
The legendary whisky is currently the second highest-selling single malt in the world, behind Glenfiddich just down the road. This year The Glenlivet is aiming at number one with the worldwide release of the Founder's Reserve, a no-age statement expression controversially replacing its signature 12-year-old dram.
We swerve down a narrow road, past moss-roofed barns and snow-capped mountains to our first stop of the day: the Speyside Cooperage. This is where skilled tradesmen bang together the American oak barrels so integral to the final flavour of the spirit.
"These coopers are as important as anyone in the whisky process," explains The Glenlivet's global brand ambassador Ian Logan, a bearish, classic Scot with a strong handshake.
It's backbreaking work – 15 coopers repairing 20-odd barrels each, every day. They have names like Atilla and Crazy Pete. "These guys are here for one reason only," Logan says. "The money."
With Founder's, we're tweaking it, giving it a bit more of a modern angle. It's not about replacing the 12-year-old.Ian Logan
Cooperage etiquette: don't ask how much the coopers get paid - the journos discreetly speculate it's around 50 quid ($100) per barrel.
Calories don't count
Next, we convoy to the Craigellachie Hotel, a Grand Budapest-ish Inn carved into a bucolic hillside with a cracking little restaurant. We're told Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell spent last Christmas here, and you can see why – it's brilliantly cosy with a roaring fireplace and dozens of whisky bottles glowing under soft lights. We tuck into lunch, heavenly soda bread with thick spreads of salted butter and crisp-skinned snags in gravy. Calories don't count in the Scottish Highlands.
All fed up, we drive to the distillery in silence through the bleakly beautiful landscape, more rain crunching sharply on the windscreen. The cars glide over a rushing stream and into The Glenlivet headquarters – it's exactly how you would imagine a Scottish distillery to look; stone warehouses and a smoke-stacked factory nestled in a damp green valley on the icy River Livet. It's magical.
Logan leads us on a guided tour, offering a speedy history lesson about the founder George Smith. His was the first distillery in the region to be granted an official licence in 1824 after earning the admiration of King George IV, which Logan likens to Prince William taking a shine to an Amsterdam coffee shop. The whisky's many imitators resulted in an intense trademark dispute that saw it christened THE Glenlivet.
An impressive sight
Logan moves us through the main distillery, past vertiginous mashtuns and washbacks and vast, curvy copper stills. It's an impressive sight, and the air is hot with yeast and barley. Every drop of Glenlivet in every bottle in the world has run through the distillery's spirit safe, a gold and glass box that spouts 10 million litres of the clear spirit every year like an endless geyser. Logan carries an electronic alcohol counter that beeps intermittently. "It's like a petrol station in here," he says. "There's always the potential for it to go up in flames."
The tour finishes in a low stone barn filled with barrels of the best stuff from a range of eras. 1966, anyone? Two bottles of the Founder's Reserve sit shiny and new, with an attractive pale blue trim, ready to be sampled.
The no-age strategy
Essentially, Logan explains, the Founder's is replacing the 12-year-old because the company can no longer keep up with demand if they continue to age the entry-level booze for so long. But the no-age expression tastes just as fine, and will cost the same price.
"With Founder's, we're tweaking it, giving it a bit more of a modern angle," Logan says. "It's not about replacing the 12-year-old."
With glowing cheeks, we get back in the cars and drive to nearby Gordon Castle, our home for the night. It was hired by Ben Affleck last summer for a private salmon fishing holiday, apparently. It's more Downton than Downton Abbey, an immensely regal home with a drawing room and billiard room and various wings branching off a breathtaking hexagonal sitting room. Expansive windows frame velvety lawns in the dying light outside.
I shave, spray and dress for dinner, and take my seat in the main dining room at a table adorned with heavy silver. Alan Winchester, The Glenlivet's Master Distiller, has joined our party. He's another charming Scot with an almost indecipherable accent and a dizzying knowledge of whisky. Winchester is the ultimate custodian of The Glenlivet with the weight of history on his shoulders.
'True to the legacy'
"The Founder's Reserve is true to the legacy we've got from George Smith," he says later over a tipple. "Have we copied the 12-year-old? No. We've made it a wee bit different. The Glenlivet style is in the zestiness, that orange note that comes through, the candy, the toffee apple, that creamy aftertaste from the American oak. It's still Glenlivet."
I swirl it around my mouth. It is a fine drop, to be sure; pale yellow and slippery smooth, humming with citrus and notes of apples and sugar, as promised.
The Mexican journalist wants to know how long it's aged for, really. Come on, you can tell us. By law, all Scotch whisky must be aged in oak for at least three years and one day. "Why don't you go into a KFC and ask for the Colonel's secret 11 herbs and spices and then come back and tell me," Logan says with a twinkle. "And get me a Tower meal while you're there."
We all laugh. Twelve years old or not, the Founder's Reserve does the trick.