Illicit distilleries were commonplace throughout the Speyside area from medieval times but were largely made redundant with the passing of the Excise Act in 1823. It was under this legislation that legal distilleries could be formed, subject to holding a license. Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon, was allegedly instrumental in the passing of this legislation. Although there is no historical record of his involvement in the issue, his tenant, George Smith, who was operating an illicit distillery at the time, became the first person in Glenlivet to apply for and receive a license to legally produce spirit. This would prove to be an unpopular decision; every other distiller was operating illegally at the time and hoping the new Excise Act would be repealed, something which would not happen if some distillers accepted the new law. Threats were made against George Smith, so George Gordon provided Smith with two pistols to be used to ensure both his own safety and that of the distillery. In 1824, The Glenlivet distillery was established at Upper Drumin by George and his youngest son John Gordon Smith.
George Smith established a second distillery during 1849, named the Cairngorm-Delnabo Distillery but by 1855 or 1856, both distilleries were running at full capacity, and were unable to meet rising demand. The operation of two separate sites was also proving difficult and expensive, so plans were formed around the same time to build a new, larger distillery further down the hill at Minmore. Construction of this new distillery was underway when the old Upper Drumin distillery was destroyed by fire during 1858. Construction of the new Minmore distillery was sped up and salvageable equipment from the Upper Drumin distillery was transferred to the new Mimmore distillery. The Delnabo distillery was closed at the same time and the best parts of the equipment were also transferred to the Minmore plant. Production commenced at the new plant during 1859 and it was around the same time the legal entity of George & J.G. Smith, Ltd. was formed.
George Smith died in 1871 and his son John Gordon Smith inherited the distillery. The quality of the product from their distillery had resulted in the other distilleries in the area renaming their products to "Glenlivet" and by the time of George's death, several distillers were doing so. J.G. Smith decided to take legal action and tried to claim ownership on The Glenlivet name, this legal action was only partially successful - the verdict forced other distillers in the area to stop calling their whisky Glenlivet and gave J.G. Smith and the blender Andrew Usher sole permission to use the brand, but permitted other distilleries to hyphenate their distillery name with the "Glenlivet" name, which resulted in new distillery names such as The Glen Moray-Glenlivet Distillery, a distillery which is situated nearby.
The distillery remained open throughout the Great Depression, an event which affected many other distilleries; it wasn't until the Second World War that the distillery was mothballed for the first time, by Government decree. In the aftermath of World War Two, Britain was heavily indebted and needed to export large quantities of goods to earn foreign revenue (mainly United States dollars). Distilling was an ideal industry with whisky much in demand overseas. Distilling restrictions were rapidly lifted and output from the distillery was at pre-war levels by 1947, despite ongoing barley, fuel, and manpower limitations. Bread rationing was retained until 1948 in order to ensure supplies of grain for the distilleries.
Glenlivet Distillery (George & J.G. Smith, Ltd.) merged with the Glen Grant Distillery (J. & J. Grant Glen Grant, Ltd.) in 1953 to form The Glenlivet and Glen Grant Distillers, Ltd.. The company would go on to merge with Hill Thomson & Co., Ltd. and Longmorn-Glenlivet Distilleries, Ltd. in 1970 before changing their name to Glenlivet Distillers Ltd in 1972. The company was then purchased by Canadian drinks and media company Seagram in 1977. Seagram's alcohol production interests were acquired by Pernod Ricard and Diageo during 2000, with ownership of Glenlivet Distillers passing to Pernod Ricard. Glen Grant Distillery was sold to Campari Group in 2005.
The Glenlivet is the best selling malt whisky in the United States, and the fourth best selling in the UK with a 7% market share. The Glenlivet is the world's second best selling single malt whisky, and current global sales total 6 million bottles per annum.