The Macallan vs The Glenlivet: The Tale of Two Speysides

Speyside contains some of the world’s most well-known scotch distilleries, including The Macallan and The Glenlivet. Both demonstrate the incredible diversity of Speyside. One is dark, spicy and luxurious. The other is lively, fruity, and refreshing. Macallan and Glenlivet are two sides of the same coin, which will you choose?

The Main Differences between The Macallan and The Glenlivet:

  • The Macallan is darker with a strong flavor, whereas The Glenlivet is lighter with a softer flavor.
  • The Macallan notes feature hazelnuts almonds and dried fruits, whereas The Glenlivet features fruits and fresh flowers.
  • The Macallan is matured in specialty Spanish oak casks, whereas The Glenlivet is matured in white American oak casks.

A Quick Definition of Single Malt Scotch

scotch

Single Malt Scotch is easy to define, though often easily misunderstood.

  • The single in single malt refers to the single distillery. (Many people confuse this with a single barrel or single grain.) It simply means this bottle of scotch is the expression of a single distillery. One bottle will be a blend of different barrels and ages of scotch, but they will all have come from one distillery.

  • The malt refers to the ingredients, specifically malted barley. In Scotland, malted barley is the only grain permitted for use in single malt.

  • At its most simple level, scotch is whisky from Scotland. But the Scottish government has created a set of stringent stipulations to guarantee quality throughout all of their scotch exports. These regulations can get very complex, but for our purposes, we’ll stick to the basics.

Location:

Just like wine has terroir that can affect even the most subtle aspects of grape growing and wine production, location plays a huge factor in scotch production as well. The difference in water, soil, and climate can cause very subtle changes to a whisky’s make and you’ll notice them in the bottle.

There are 6 main scotch regions that produce the world’s single malt scotch supply. While no two scotches from one region are exactly similar, they are grouped by location because of common qualities that seem to be present in scotches from certain areas.

  • The Highlands – the largest region with huge variety in styles
  • The Lowlands – mellow, citrusy, and feminine
  • The Islands – heather and peat with honey and smoke
  • Islay – heavily peated, smoky, meaty scotches
  • Campbelltown – highly distinctive wet wool notes with salt brine and smoked toffee
  • Speyside – light with sweet notes, floral and citrusy with notes of honey

So what are we looking at today? Both The Macallan and The Glenlivet are considered Speyside scotches.

What is a Speyside?

speyside

Speyside is located a very specific scotch region, just off the shoulder of the Highlands. It is Scotland’s most productive area, accounting for over 60% of the total single malt scotch produced in the world!

Scotches from Speyside are very distinct but range between two styles: light, fruity, citrusy, floral and dark, rich, caramel, nutty. But you’ll consistently find sweet honey and citrus notes throughout nearly every bottle, regardless of specific style. These are light, easy sippers that become darkly complex and rich in subtle flavor the longer they age.

Speyside whisky in general is a perfect beginner scotch because of its drinking age and wide range. The Macallan and The Glenlivet both have examples of perfect beginner scotches in their world-famous 12-year bottles.

Taste Profile

Place a glass of Macallan and a glass of Glenlivet (of any year) next to each other and you’ll be able to tell the difference instantly. But how and why? Since these two scotches both come from Speyside, let’s take a closer look at what sets them apart.

Taste Profile of Macallan

Macallan is the dark sister of typical Speyside scotch. It has none of that light, fruity, orchard-walk profile that we are so used to seeing. Instead, Macallan represents the richer, more textured, dark caramel version. Macallan usually has a vanilla and nutty character to it, especially in more aged bottles.

  • Caramel
  • Vanilla
  • Butterscotch
  • Sherry Cream
  • Hot baking Spices
  • Toasted Nuts
  • Green Herbs or Pine

Because of the maturation in Spanish oak and sherry casks, you’ll notice hot spices too. But don’t worry, there is some evidence of the Speyside green grass deep in the bottle.

Taste Profile of Glenlivet:

Glenlivet is everything a beautiful Speyside should be. It’s full of light and zesty orchard fruits and blossoms – just bursting with orange, apple, and hints of pear. And there is almost always a green hint like fresh cut grass or orange leaves and just a bit of wood.

  • Orange
  • Golden or Green Apple
  • Orange Blossoms
  • Vanilla
  • Cut Grass
  • Orange Leaves
  • Orchard flavors
  • Twisted Wood

History

Speyside scotches located miles from each other, The Macallan and The Glenlivet distilleries have a history of rivalry. However, today The Macallan, The Glenlivet, and Glenfiddich (another Speyside vaguely similar to Glenlivet) combined makeup about one-third of the total single malt scotch production in the world!

The Macallan History

macallan 18

The Macallan was founded in 1824, just a year after distilling was finally legalized in Scotland. The distillery has changed hands several times throughout its long history. In 1994 Japanese whisky company Suntory purchased the distillery but left Macallan in control. This same system remained in place when the Edrington Group took over in 1999. They still own the distillery today.

The Macallan distillery was one of the very first to begin aggressive marketing of the Single Malt Scotch in the 1970s, drawing attention to individual distillery expressions. Which certainly paid off, rare bottles of Macallan have been known to sell for thousands of dollars each! The Macallan has quite a reputation for quality scotch.

Macallan has been steadily increasing production and is one of the highest producing scotch distilleries in the world. However, they still maintain a very specific recipe and exert great care in making scotch, so their batches feel “small.” Today they are the 5th most sold scotch in the world.

Another fun tidbit? The Macallan distillery Easter Elchies is supposedly haunted by Roderick Kemp, the owner who took over in 1892 and introduced the now-renowned Spanish oak and sherry casks to the distillery. Supposedly he still walks the grounds.

The Glenlivet History

glenlivet

If you’re imagining the early history of Scotch as lots of swashbuckling men walking around with Scottish accents, Glenlivet has the history for you!

Begun in 1824 by George Smith, legally. But he learned his early craft with the illicit distillers in the glen of Livet. Needless to say, ol’ George opening the first legal distillery of the area didn’t sit well with all those illegal distilleries that wanted to make a buck behind the tax-man’s back.

With threats of retaliation and violence, George carried around a pair of flintlock pistols always on his belt, and his son John was always armed with a cutlass. (And you thought pirates had the cap on swashbuckling spirits!)

Within 10 years Glenlivet had made a name for itself and was referred to as “the whisky” by notable figures like Charles Dickens and King George IV. With such popularity, nearby distilleries started to capitalize on the name, including Macallen themselves who released scotch labeled “Macallan-Glenlivet.”

But in 1884 Glenlivet succeeded in branding his whisky, legally, as The Glenlivet. A trend that has continued throughout the area. (As you can now see with The Macallan who finally got their naming act together.)

Today, it’s one of the most popular whiskys in the world, and easily found at any local bar.

Production of Scotch

blended scotch in glass

The key to what sets these two apart from each other seems to be slight differences in production in which each distillery maintains their originality.

The Macallan

  • Distillation – The Macallan has the smallest stills in Speyside to increase the distillate’s interaction with the copper walls. However, their cut time is somewhat shorter. They use only about 16% of the alcohol in the distillate, and combined with the small stills and acute angles of their pipes, this probably contributes to the big, bold and vaguely oily character of their whiskys.
  • Casks – The Macallan is renowned for unique and high-quality casks that they handpick from Spanish oak forests, import, and maintain at the cooperage on the Macallan distillery site. These casks are most often seasoned in Sherry for extra spice. Macallan is so serious about the effects of their casks that they are the only distillery to have a Master of Wood employed.
  • No Coloring – some distilleries color their whisky, The Macallan’s scotches draw all of their coloring from the wood where they mature.

The Glenlivet

  • Fermentation – completed in all wood pine washbacks to add some resin and ester flavors to their whisky
  • Distillation – lantern-shaped stills, these stills are created specifically for Glenlivet and increase the purity of their distillate.
  • Bottling – Chill Filtration is used on almost all of The Glenlivet’s bottles to remove any cloudy or hazy sediments from the dram. The alcohol is cooled slowly, allowing certain unwanted compounds to clump together and be easily removed, leaving a clearer dram. It is a somewhat controversial method. Many critics and drinkers believe sediment helps flavor and reflects the actual taste of the whisky.

Product Offerings

macallan collection

Both The Macallan and The Glenlivet have a wide range of potential scotches to entice you. Of course, their aged single malt scotches are legendary but don’t discount the reserves and specialty bottles either. You’ll often find really unique options.

The Macallan:

  • Aged Scotches: 12 double oak, 12 triple casks, 18
  • The Quest Collection – Quest, Lumina, Terra, Enigma ranging in order from light citrus, to sweet vanilla, darker toffee, and mature oak and cinnamon
  • Rare Cask – a simple dram that focuses on the effect of The Macallan’s renowned casks
  • The Master Decanter Series – similar to Quest, but with a focus on the effects of sherry aging, each bottle increases in depth and maturity as you move through

The Glenlivet:

  • Aged Scotches: 12, 14, 15, 18, 21, 25, 50 (Winchester Collection)
  • Distiller’s Reserve Bottles – unmarked Age, a step up from the Founder’s Reserve, combined with multiple casks for a layered flavor
  • Nàdurra – aged in white oak and sherry casks for intense spice (it almost rivals Macallan!) But the biggest draw? A peated option for a smoky take on classic Speyside!
  • Founder’s Reserve – the budget option with extra fruit and cream

Sample Taste Test:

Eye:

  • The Macallan 12 yr Sherry Oak Cask (43ABV) Eye: Amber with flecks of Orange
  • The Glenlivet 15 yr French Oak Cask (40ABV) Eye: Deep Gold

Nose:

  • The Macallan 12 Nose: Rich caramel and vanilla, deep oak notes with a hint of feisty spice
  • The Glenlivet 15 Nose: Sweet orange citrus, mandarin orange peel, vanilla and caramel. Light heather notes

Nose with Water:

  • The Macallan 12 Nose with Water: Sweeter caramel, almost bread pudding drowned in caramel, hazelnut notes
  • The Glenlivet 15 Nose with Water: Something a little earthy and oily, but somehow even brighter, a bit more like a spring day walk in the orchard with orange notes and clear orange blossom flowers surrounded by light airy vanilla

Palate:

  • The Macallan 12 Palate: Burst of butterscotch on the instant it hits your tongue, but it’s quickly overwhelmed by sherry spice. Raisins on the back palate, but there is a hint of fennel or green herbs. The higher ABV gives a bit of harsher burn. In general, a more complex sip than the sniff!
  • The Glenlivet 15 Palate: Sweet vanilla and caramel with a rich orange sauce flavor. Strong wood smoke in the back palate. Just a faint hint of wood spice and a hint of something green and herbaceous, like a bit of moss or cut grass. Overall light and happy dram.

Palate with Water:

  • The Macallan 12 Palate with Water: Sweet, intense caramel with raisins, a bit of intensely green herbs, and a nut mix of pecans and walnuts, followed by a finish of hot spicy sherry cream
  • The Glenlivet 15 Palate with Water: If you could drink an orange blossom, this would be it. Rich and bright floral notes followed by just a bit of French oak spice, quickly overtaken by sweet caramel notes. Delicious and way too easy to sip.

Price:

The prices between the two will be fairly comparable. Glenlivet may be slightly less expensive in some circles, but not by a noticeable amount.

  • The Macallan Prices: 12 Y.O The Macallan can usually be found between $55 to $65.

Of course the longer the aging, the higher prices go. Next up from 12 and you’ll get into the $80 range, higher still and you get into $150. You can find some well-aged beautiful bottles upwards of $300.

  • The Glenlivet Prices: 12 Y.O. Glenlivet runs around $50-$55.

Slightly more expensive examples are around $70, while 18 year old and up will be at least $120 and up to $300.

Pairing Suggestions:

Speyside scotch should never be paired with anything heavy.

What pairs with The Macallan?

  • Main Dishes: Pork, Venison, Roasted Vegetables, Caramelized Onions, French Onion Soup
  • Cheese: Manchego, Pecorino, Gouda, Gruyere
  • Desserts: Creme Brulee, Gingerbread, Mince Pies, Spice Cakes

These poached apples in sherry would go perfectly with Macallan, especially those that have been aged in spicy sherry casks!

What pairs with The Glenlivet?

glenlivet collection

  • Main Dishes: Scallops, Salmon, Pork, Asparagus, Artichokes, Spinach
  • Cheese: Brie, Camembert, Crumbly Blue
  • Desserts: Apple Pie, Apple Tart, Apple Crisps, Bread Pudding

Final Recommendation:

The final choice between these two opposite Speyside gems? I just can’t pick! It depends on your mood.

Macallan is perfect for wintery months, Christmas parties, extra decadence. That richer caramel, vanilla flavor needs a special occasion. Especially when it’s a well-aged bottle! And the explosions of sherry and hot spice can warm you right up on Christmas Eve.

Glenlivet is a much lighter, milder dram. One sip and you’re transported to walks through fruit orchards. You’re biting into a crisp apple next to a field of heather and savoring the sweet orange breeze.

Of course, both Macallan and Glenlivet have a whole array of varieties and styles. So if you don’t like one bottle, it’s definitely worth it to try another version. There is no “right” choice. Pick what suits your palate, your dinner, or your mood best and go from there!

FAQ’s About Macallan vs Glenlivet

What is the finest bottle of Macallan?

Macallan is definitely one of the finest scotch brands that can sell a bottle on auctions for pretty big bucks, and one of their finest bottles you can find right now is their 25 years old which is sold for less than $1000.

Is Macallan better than Glenlivet?

Macallan and Glenlivet are obviously two different types of whiskey, but Macallan is definitely better than Glenlivet due to its bolder oakier taste and dark fruity notes.

How do you drink scotch whiskey?

Scotch whiskey should never be refrigerated because the coldness will interfere with being able to enjoy all the notes of the drink, instead, drink it on room temperature and add one or two ice cubes which will slowly turn into water and allow you to enjoy the flavors of your scotch.

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Kathryn Loveless

Kathryn Loveless is a freelance writer for hire who delights in all things delectable. You can find her perfecting a roast chicken recipe, hunting down a new bottle of scotch, or hosting a wine and cheese soirée somewhere in New York. My passion for Scotch started in college when my conniving parents gave me their best whisky for my "first taste." Needless to say, the stuff my friends had at school didn't compare. They had a joke "If Kathryn comes to a party, you need a whiskey that's over $40." My first job in NYC was hosting several fine-dining establishments where I learned everything I could from bartenders and mixologists. Now that I work in writing and development full-time, I continue my education in classes around the city and explore the newest whiskeys on the market. (Still trying to find a bottle of Compass Box No Name if you have any leads...) Newest in my collection: Compass Box Peat Monster and Port Charlotte Islay Single Malt (I love peat if you can't tell.) Most interesting thing on the market right now: Japanese whisky! (No "e" since much of the trade was learned in Scotland.)
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