In Depth

The Glenlivet: 1966 and all that

On the release of a rare vintage, master distiller Alan Winchester recalls his encounters with this very special whisky over 50 years

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I'm very proud The Glenlivet Winchester Collection Vintage 1966 has my name on it, but the creation of it has been nurtured by a succession of master distillers, starting with Bob Arthur in 1966 and the baton has been passed to me as we cross the line.

I first met Mr Arthur – he may have been Bob to his industry peers, but he was definitely Mr Arthur to the rest of us – by chance around 1968, when this whisky would have been very young. My dad was having his car serviced at the Ford garage in Huntly when Mr Arthur drove in. The mechanics were fussing around him and he said: "Put it on the Glenlivet account" and I thought: "Company car, treated like royalty – that seems like a good job…"

It turns out it is a good job, but I don't get royally treated.

The whisky business has flowed through my life for as long as I can remember. My great-great-uncle built one distillery, my great-uncle worked in another. Until the age of six, I lived in Burghead, on the Moray Firth, and one of my earliest memories was of the construction of a massive maltings facility. It opened in 1966 – my father was a policeman and the French crane drivers had to present their passports to him. It wasn't beautiful, but the local people were delighted it was being built because it would bring in money. Later, Dad joined the Excise as a "watcher" – keeping an eye on the whisky warehouses.

I also remember my grandfather and uncle's farm, which was by the Glenfarclas distillery, not far from The Glenlivet. I remember the barley being put in silos over the winter. It would develop this lovely sweet scent – when I smell it in the distillery today, it takes me back to my childhood.

My first job, straight out of school, was showing visitors around Glenfarclas before taking a job at the Glen Grant cooperage, which was part of the Glenlivet group at the time. There, I encountered some of the casks from the 1966 vintage – they would have been bottled as 12-year-old The Glenlivet and we were inspecting them to determine whether they were ready to be refilled or needed repair. At that stage in its maturation, the spice from the sherry was coming in over the signature floral notes of the whisky.

In the 1980s, I got married and had two daughters and my career was progressing through different departments at various distilleries – working in the tun room, cleaning the fermenting vessels and training to operate the stills. By the 1990s, when the vanilla notes and dark colour from the wood were beginning to develop, I was in senior distillery-management positions at Aberlour and The Glenlivet. I met Mr Arthur again on various occasions. Although he'd retired, he was consulting for blenders because he had an incredible nose and was highly revered. He was still Mr Arthur, clad in his shirt and tie and white coat.

By 2009, when I had the honour of being made The Glenlivet's master distiller, there was already a desire to produce very special, long-aged whiskies such as this. I am so pleased with it – the aromas of treacle, moist raisins and apricot jam; the release of candied, sumptuous soft fruits and juicy orange on the palate; the layering of delicate spice, like liquorice intermingling with cinnamon. The finish is exceptionally long and smooth, with a pleasing hint of dryness.

Craftsmanship is such an important part of creating a whisky – not only in what we do in the distillery, but for the farmers and coopers too - so we wanted to reflect that in the presentation of the bottle. Master artisan John Galvin, of Glasgow, spent 60 hours making the leather-lined cherry-wood cabinet. Silversmith Richard Fox created a gold stopper inlaid with a smoky Cairngorm quartz "whisky stone" from the mountains behind The Glenlivet. The decanter itself, meanwhile, was handblown by Brodie Nairn – you couldn't get a more Scottish moniker than his, which combines the names of two villages near the Moray Firth.

This link with craft was what made us think we should auction the master distiller's own bottle of Vintage 66 and donate the proceeds to the Crafts Council to support its A Future Made programme, taking UK makers to overseas showcases such as Design Miami. As part of the lot, the successful bidder will be welcomed in Speyside, where we will host them at The Glenlivet. We'll invite them to select a cask of new-make spirit to lay down to mature for another half-century, after which they or their descendants will be able to enjoy some more wonderful whisky. I just hope they'll invite me to the unveiling of the 50-year-old Vintage 2016.

The master distiller's bottle of The Glenlivet Winchester Collection Vintage 1966 will be auctioned at Christie's New York and online with an estimate of $26,000 to $40,000 (£21,000 to £33,000). A hundred bottles of The Glenlivet Winchester Collection Vintage 1966 are available for sale at $25,000 (£20,000) or the equivalent; theglenlivet.com

ALAN WINCHESTER is the master distiller at The Glenlivet and was honoured in 2004 as a Keeper of the Quaich – an international society that honours those who have shown outstanding commitment to the Scottish whisky industry. He is a keen Alpine walker and climber and, in 2007, marked out the ancient smugglers' trails near The Glenlivet for fellow hikers

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