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George Smith - The Whisky Pioneer With Determination & A Pair of Pistols

Updated: Mar 5


George Smith Glenlivet

Image by The Glenlivet


It has never been easy to establish a whisky distillery, especially with the increasing number of distilleries popping up around the world every year. However, gone are the days when you had to protect yourself with pistols from jealous neighbours.


For some, like George Smith, starting a distillery meant enduring death threats and having armed men guard the distillery grounds 24/7. Despite the challenges, Smith became the first legal whisky distiller in the 'Valley of the River Livet' and changed the industry forever.



 

Illegal Whisky


Illegal Highland whisky still

George Smith was born in 1792 at Upper Drumin Farm, located in the Scottish Highlands on the Glenlivet Estate, owned by the Duke of Gordon. George's father, Andrew Smith, was a farmer and a distiller of illegal whisky. The Smith family had a long history of farming and distilling, and they used the latter as a way to supplement their income.


George Smith began working on his father's farm at a young age, learning the various skills necessary for farming and carpentry. As he grew older, he became curious about the illegal distilling that his father was involved in and eventually began to participate in it himself. When Andrew Smith passed away in 1817, George inherited the farm and its illicit stills at the age of 25. That same year, he married Helen Stewart at the Upper Drumin farm.


Drumin farm cottage Glenlivet

Image by Unique Cottages - Drumin Farm Cottage


George spent a few years refining his own unique style of whisky. He had the luxury of time and a prime location hidden away in the hills, far from the prying eyes of customs officials and soldiers. His whisky was distinct from his competitors' in that it was lighter and fruitier.


Word of the delicious 'Glen Livet' whisky soon spread and even reached the ears of King George IV when he visited Scotland in 1822. Despite knowing that Smith's whisky was illegal, the King couldn't resist trying it for himself, and he enjoyed it immensely.


King George IV Visit To Scotland in 1822

Image by Cairngorms National Park - King George IV Visit To Scotland in 1822


King George IV made a decision to lower the tax on spirits in order to address the issue of illegal distillation. This paved the way for the Excise Act of 1823, which was a crucial step towards legalizing whisky. This act had a profound impact on the life of Smith.



 

Going Legal

 Copy of The Original Excise Act of 1823

Image by Whisky Tasting Fellowship - Copy of The Original Excise Act of 1823


The Upper Drumin farm was situated on the land owned by Alexander Gordon, the 4th Duke of Gordon. He played a role in passing the Excise Act of 1823, which required whisky distillers to obtain a license to distil. George Smith, in his early 30s at the time, was encouraged by his landlord to make his famous operation legal.


As per the legend, the Duke of Gordon shared some inside information with Smith to make his proposal more attractive. If Smith managed to be the first to get a license in the area, he could use the name 'Glenlivet', which was the parish's name. It is believed that the Duke also allowed Smith to set up the new operation on his land. However, what motivated Smith to pursue a license needs to be clarified.


The timeline of events surrounding the Excise Act of 1823 raises questions about whether it was explicitly drafted with George Smith in mind. After the King's visit, there were rapid developments, leading to speculation that the King enjoyed Smith's whisky so much that he wanted to be involved in the business. With the assistance of Alexander Gordon, who had more influence than Smith and his associates in Congress, the King could license the company and receive a share of the profits. It would have been reassuring to have the King's support as a silent business partner' and the protection it provided, as well as boosting our confidence and motivation. This also explains why some viewed Smith as a sell-out and a traitor. However, this is just speculation and has yet to be proven.


George Smith was the first person in Scotland to apply for and acquire a license to distil whisky. The permit cost £10 (equivalent to £1,220 today). However, obtaining the permit and operating legally did not make him popular with his fellow illegal distillers and smugglers. It made him highly unpopular. The legal operation attracted hatred and jealousy across the region. His neighbours even threatened to burn down his distillery with him in it. Smith's whisky was the only one that could legally be called 'Glenlivet'.


Glenlivet first distillery license

Image by Issuu



George Smith obtained a license that required him to pay taxes to the King, which brought soldiers to the region to protect the King's money and enabled them to destroy any illicit still operations. Smith organized an armed 24-hour surveillance on the property to protect his distillery and his life.


Smith received support from James Gordon, the last Gordon of the Lairds of Aberlour, who was impressed by Smith's determination. Gordon gifted Smith a pair of flintlock duelling pistols in 1824, shortly after the Glenlivet distillery opened. The guns were .62 calibre Innes pistols, potentially made by James Innes, whose father, Francis Innes, was a gunmaker for King George III. The pistols were mirror images of each other and engraved with the phrases 'Innes Patent' and 'Makers to his Majesty--Edin'.


Pistols of George Smith The Glenlivet

Images by Glenlivet


It is unclear how James Gordon acquired the pistols he gifted George Smith. It is believed that the guns were made between 1790 and 1803, which means they were nearly three decades old at the time of gifting. However, what is clear is the purpose behind the gift, which was for personal protection. George was always seen leaving his house with these pistols for the next ten years.


Although it may seem unusual for a distiller to carry a gun in modern times, it was a common practice in the 1800s. In fact, the UK had some of the strictest gun laws and banned carrying most pistols and firearms in 1997.



 

Expanding the Horizon


Old distillery picture

George Smith was a whisky distiller who started a trend of legalizing whisky-making operations. He was the first to go legal, making it harder to repeal the law. As a result, other whisky makers followed suit. Distilling became the gold rush industry of the 1820s.

George Smith was a kind and welcoming man who sold his whisky to other entrepreneurs in the area before they established their distilleries. John and James Grant, who set up the Glen Grant distillery in 1840, were among those who bought whisky from Smith.


Due to high demand for his signature spirit, Smith leased his second distillery, Cairngorm-Delnabo, in 1850. His youngest son, John Gordon Smith, took over the management of the newly built site. However, operating two distilleries was more complex than Smith had thought, and he decided to expand his 'crown jewel' - Glenlivet.


In 1858, a fire destroyed the Upper Drumin farm where Smith's distilling equipment was. Fortunately, all the equipment had already been moved to the new site, which was under construction just 1km down the road. The Delnabo distillery closed in the same year, just before the Minmore Glenlivet distillery fired its stills in 1859.


George & J. G. Smith, Ltd. was created to manage the new site.


George & J. G. Smith Limited staff The Glenlivet distillery


 

Passing of The Torch


Captain John Gordon Smith The Glenlivet distillery

George Smith died in 1871, and his son, John Gordon Smith, inherited the company. By George's passing, the whisky made at the Glenlivet distillery had become extremely popular and set the standard for other whiskies produced in the area. The name Glenlivet was associated with quality and high standards. Because of this, many producers adopted the name as a description for their brands. J. G. Smith and his son George took it as their honour to stop the use of the name Glenlivet by those who wanted to become famous by association.


Col George Smith Grant (1845-1911)

Image of Col George Smith Grant (1845-1911)


In 1881, George Smith's grandson, George Smith Grant, initiated a legal battle to restrict other distillers from using the name Glenlivet. Although he and his agent, Andrew Usher, won the copyright to the title, other producers could still use the word with a hyphen (e.g. Glenfarclas-Glenlivet) to indicate the originating parish of the whisky. Over the years, this practice was adopted by 26 different whisky distilleries. However, it's now easier to label whiskies as Speyside whisky to differentiate them from each other and use the region recognized by SWA, where the former area of Glenlivet is located. The Smiths used The Glenlivet to establish themselves as the original and distinguish themselves from others.


single malt whisky brands that have used the suffix Glenlivet

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

The Illegitimate Son?


Some people believed that George Smith had a son named John Smith, born out of wedlock. John Smith was a famous whisky pioneer known for his larger-than-life personality. He was born in 1833 and went on to manage various distilleries, including The Macallan, Dailuaine, Wishaw, Glenfarclas (which he leased from the Grant family between 1865 and 1870), and ironically, The Glenlivet distillery. In 1869, he founded the Cragganmore distillery.


Old picture of Cragganmore distillery Scotland

Image by English Lakes Hotels


Whether John Smith was George's son remains a mystery, but he did adopt the Smith family name, just like his alleged father. John Smith had a brother called George, and John named his son Gordon. Coincidence? We'll never know. We failed to find any pictures of him, even to make a look-alike comparison with his alleged father.



 

This is Interesting - Upper Drumin Farm Unearthed


Archaeologists excavated the Upper Drumin farm location in 2021 to discover the original site of The Glenlivet distillery, which was established in 1824 by George Smith. The area was also known for being the site of illicit stills. The Herald reported about the discovery on the 6th of October in 2021, stating that the archaeologists uncovered fragments of bottle glass and ceramics that are believed to have been used in producing whisky.


Please find the full article about the discovery here.


The Original Site of The Glenlivet Distillery

Images From The Original Site of The Glenlivet Distillery - Daily Record

 

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