Unlocking the archaeology of Speyside malt whisky

The star find was a brass keyhole cover, which would have been used to lock the ‘spirit safe’, where whisky is traditionally collected after distillation.

Excavations at the old site of The Glenlivet Distillery in Upper Drumin, undertaken as part of the ‘Pioneering Spirit’ project – a collaboration between the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) and The Glenlivet (CA 381) – uncovered the footprint of the original distillery building. The secrets of Speyside malt are still being revealed, however, as post-excavation analysis of the investigation’s finds continues.

The old distillery, which was originally a farm, sits 1km upslope from its modern namesake. Initially, The Glenlivet’s founder George Smith had been, like many others, producing his whisky illegally, but after the industry was licensed in 1823, he converted the farm into a distillery in 1824. The original building was demolished in the 1860s, around the time of the modern distillery’s construction, but last October, at the original site, NTS archaeologists uncovered foundation walls to the west (surviving to c.60cm high), as well as evidence that the facility featured a three-sided courtyard, open to the north.

PHOTO: John Sinclair

In the south-east corner of the courtyard, the team excavated two rectangular fireboxes, built up against the wall, which were probably used to heat the undersides of the distillery’s copper wash and spirit stills: ‘If you were doing illicit distilling you would use one still, but the best way to make whisky is to distil it twice,’ Derek Alexander, Head of Archaeology at NTS, told CA. ‘Some places do it three times, but twice is the standard in Scotland,’ he said. Describing the whisky-making process, Derek explained: ‘You take what is effectively a weak beer called “wash”, made from soaked, malted barley, which is heated in the wash still for the first distillation. The alcohol evaporates slowly and condenses in a copper pipe called a “worm” before being collected and then put through the spirit still. The same process happens there, to refine the liquid, and by having two stills you can do this as an almost continuous process.’

In the vicinity of the fire pits, the team found remains of an iron gate used to control airflow, as well as iron bars, fire grating, and deposits of ash, cinders, and coal. In addition to these key structural features, however, the archaeologists also unearthed further whisky-making artefacts at the site, including copper pipe sections, the base of a wooden barrel (or tub) with an iron hoop, bottle glass, ceramics, and a copper cup.

The star find, though, was a brass keyhole cover from a standard-issue Gottlieb Customs and Excise lock, which would probably have been used to lock the ‘spirit safe’, where whisky is traditionally collected after distillation. Patented in 1829, this item would once have contained a paper insert that would have broken if the lock was interfered with, alerting the on-site exciseman that the distillery’s whisky had probably been illicitly tapped. 

Alan Winchester, The Glenlivet’s Master Distiller, has been sharing his expert knowledge of whisky with the archaeologists and helping with the excavations. He said: ‘It was brilliant to get stuck in on the dig… and it amazed me just how much of the original building and its features were not only uncovered but preserved, too. To discover parts like the copper pipes, the base of a barrel, and even the brass keyhole cover from an excise lock that would have been seen by George Smith himself when creating one of Scotland’s first licensed whiskies is fascinating, and I can’t wait to return and see what else we can find.’

The team plans to carry out further archaeological work next summer with help from members of the public.