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6 Oct 2021

Dig discovers footprint of old The Glenlivet distillery

Two men stand side by side at an archaeological dig site. Both hold tumblers of whisky. The man on the left holds a spade and the man on the right holds a bottle of whisky. Behind them, a number of people kneel on the ground, working on an area of exposed flagstones.
Derek Alexander (left; National Trust for Scotland) and Alan Winchester (right; The Glenlivet) at the dig on the old site of The Glenlivet distillery. | Photo: Alison White
Trust archaeologists have uncovered some secrets of Scotland’s whisky history in an excavation at the old site of The Glenlivet Distillery, one of Scotland’s first whisky distilleries to be licensed after the 1823 Excise Act.

The dig at the site of Upper Drumin in Speyside, which is 1km upslope from the modern distillery, has so far uncovered the floor of the old site, which dates from 1824. This is where The Glenlivet’s founder, George Smith, risked life and liberty to produce his single malt whisky. Fragments of bottle glass and ceramics believed to have been involved in whisky production were also found.

Investigations took place from Monday 4–Saturday 9 October and were carried out as part of the Pioneering Spirit project – a partnership between the National Trust for Scotland and The Glenlivet to uncover and share the history and impact that whisky production has had on Scotland’s cultural heritage and our modern way of life.

An aerial view of the Glenlivet distillery, showing it sitting at the base of rolling hills. A red arrow is superimposed on the image to mark a spot further up the hill, behind the distillery.
The modern Glenlivet distillery, with the red arrow marking the site of the 1824 distillery.

The Glenlivet is the original Speyside single malt whisky. The old distillery site was first a farm, converted to a whisky production site by George Smith in response to the 1823 Excise Act, which made licensed production of whisky possible. Before that date, Smith, like many others in communities across Scotland – including Speyside and the Highlands – had produced the spirit illegally, smuggling the spirit to their customers. Smith was the first illicit producer to get his licence.

Apart from the remains of two of the old mill dams, nothing of the former distillery survives above ground. The site, which is on Crown Estate Scotland land, is marked by an inscribed monument, indicating its important role in whisky history.

An old plan of the former Glenlivet distillery site, showing buildings marked in red and two nearby squares labelled Old Mill Dams.
A map of the old Glenlivet distillery, 1869

Derek Alexander, the National Trust for Scotland’s Head of Archaeology, has a long association with the location and conducted a survey of the distillery remains in the 1990s. He said:

‘Returning here after nearly 25 years to finally uncover the remains of this special place is really inspiring. What’s really interesting is that this is where the illicit production of whisky, which is what we find evidence of at our National Trust for Scotland sites, and the transition towards larger-scale industrial production meet. This site is a formative part of the whisky industry becoming one of Scotland’s biggest and most successful. It’s such a powerful part of our national story and identity, which is loved and recognised at home and around the globe.’

“Brushing dirt from the flagstones where George Smith, one of the leading figures of Scotland’s whisky industry, stood was incredible.”
Derek Alexander
Head of Archaeology
A close-up of a man crouching beside an old stone wall, with a pine tree in the background. The man has a beard and wears a woollen beanie hat.

Alan Winchester, The Glenlivet’s Master Distiller said:

‘I have always been fascinated by The Glenlivet’s rich history, so to be entering the second year of our partnership with the National Trust for Scotland is a delight. The majority of my career has been spent continuing the legacy of our founder George Smith, so it’s really interesting to have the opportunity to uncover even more secrets about our illicit past and tell new stories about the role scotch has played in defining Scottish culture.’

Volunteers, including staff from The Glenlivet and members of the local community, are taking part in the dig, with the support of the Crown Estate Scotland Ranger Service.

A view of a hillside area, with groups of people working on the ground in the distance. A couple of small blue tents can be seen at the centre of action.
The dig in progress | Photo: Alison White

Pioneering Spirit

In partnership with The Glenlivet, we’re uncovering and sharing the history of illicit whisky production in Scotland.

Find out more