If there’s a distillery that doesn’t need much introduction, it’s Glenfiddich. It is the Best Selling Single Malt in the World, and this is not hyperbole. Impressive for a family owned firm, but the real trick was not just getting there, but holding the title in time to come.
The throne seems secure for now, but the ground outside seems to be shaking, just a little. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, and the upstarts have come knocking with their innovative, nontraditional whiskies. The boundaries of scotch whisky are being pushed.
So what is the colossus’ response?
Why, to release their own experiments, of course.
Game of Thrones
Glenfiddich itself is located in the heart of Speyside, close to the towns of Elgin and Dufftown. Today, more than 10 million litres of malt is distilled each year on its premises, and almost 800,000 casks are maturing in its cavernous warehouses. It would take literal months to sample all the spirit slumbering in them. Yet, it was not always this way.
Glenfiddich was founded by William Grant, and its (still family-owned) parent company still bears his name: William Grant & Sons. Grant was no amateur; before he struck out on his own at the age of 47, he had worked at the now-legendary Mortlach for almost 16 years.
In 1886, he and his nine children laid the first stones of the sprawling distillery, which he called Glenfiddich, or “Valley of the Deer” in Scottish Gaelic. On Christmas Day, 1887, the first spirit flowed from its stills.
One needs to bear in mind that for most of Scotch Whisky’s existence, blended whiskies were the mainstays. For most part of the distillery’s existence, it produced blended whiskies. At first, this was for the Patterson Brothers of Leith, who went bankrupt in 1899. Their demise nearly brought the fledgling distillery down with them.
This near-catastrophe prompted William Grant to open his own grain distillery, Girvan, and produce his own blended whiskies- the Grant blend that still bears his name.
The end of the Second World War ushered in an era of growth for Scotch Whisky, and the competition for market share among the big blended whisky brands was fierce. It is in this backdrop that Glenfiddich finds its biggest distinction.
A Singular Character
Glenfiddich was the progenitor of the distillery Single Malt whisky category as we know it today. In 1963, they became the first distillery to release their single malt as an official bottling.
At the time, this would almost be like Glenfiddich saying they would love to colonise Mars. This was more than an experiment; it was a gambit. With the benefit of hindsight, this throw of the dice was an excellent decision. In a decade, sales had grown thirtyfold, and Glenfiddich was the first brand of Single Malt to attain global recognition.
There is another major first that Glenfiddich holds; it was the first distillery to open its doors to the masses. In 1969, it opened a visitor centre on its premises, allowing enthusiasts and tourists alike a glimpse of the semi-mystical world of whisky production. Together with the release of its single malt, this cemented the idea of Glenfiddich as a, or perhaps the, Single Malt whisky brand.
With the radical departure from tradition being its most distinctive claim to fame, one would expect Glenfiddich to be at the forefront of innovation, but this has not always been true. While the 15-year-old’s use of the Spanish Solera blending system was a large step, nothing else stands out as radical, in our view.
Instead, the distillery focused on creating consistent, high quality expressions. High quality, but perhaps as part of the curse of being such a large producer, very focused. For Glenfiddich, the key would be to stay true to its house character of light flavoured whisky that takes on European Oak flavours over time. Its identity is that of green apples, green grass and increasing spice and oak as it ages.
Perhaps we’re being unfair; there is great value and skill required in making your whisky taste exactly as people want, year after year. No large distillery, no matter how innovative, has ever abandoned its core range of whiskies- and these almost always come with age statements. A large part of this strategy would probably be motivated by the need to meet their fans’ expectations; it would not do to completely change what made the single malt so popular in the first place.
As if to silence critics who bemoan the lack of innovation, Glenfiddich itself has now kicked off its own experimental series with two new NAS releases – The Glenfiddich IPA Experiment and Project XX.
In September 2016, Glenfiddich released the first in its experimental series. The IPA Experiment was an interesting step, even as far as innovations go. While cask finishing is not new (sister distillery Balvenie was the pioneer in this area), it is typical to use wine or spirit casks for this purpose. Bourbon and sherry were and still are popular choices for both finishing and maturation. One should perhaps take a step back to ponder if what we know as whisky is in some ways a chimera of sherry, bourbon, and refined beer.
But we digress. The IPA Experiment, is as its name suggests, the first single malt Scotch whisky finished in India Pale Ale (IPA) craft beer casks. An unusual choice, to be sure, but on reflection, an inspired one. What is the base of whisky but a distilled beer?
Glenfiddich’s Malt Master, Brian Kinsman created it in collaboration with a local Speyside craft brewer. An experiment it might be, but it was not random. Rather than simply taking some used casks and pouring spirit in, the two worked together to create a IPA that would season the whisky casks, before finally finishing the whisky in it.
A sensible choice; after all, IPAs vary widely in flavour. We have had some brews so bitter that they were practically fizzy hop sodas. If the whisky is to take on the flavour of whatever is in the casks, it would be best to control it.
We were told that the new IPA was a bold brew that tasted of fresh citrus and hops. The whisky to be finished was also selected by Brian to complement the extra hoppy (read: herbal and bitter) notes.
Nose: Vanilla, cut green apples and ripe pears. There is a faint maltiness and herb aroma towards the end, but it’s not distracting. We don’t get much spice.
Palate: Light viscosity and body. Palate is pleasantly sweet. Our first impression is of vanilla and sweet grain, ripe apples- not green, and a hint of beer. Light honey and orange, with the tiniest tinge of ginger. A French apple pastry. A muted grassy bitterness toward the end.
Finish: Finish is of medium length. There is a pronounced bitterness which we presume comes from the hops. It remains quite pleasantly sweet- in a way that reminds us uncannily of grapefruit.
Not bad, though if you’re expecting a whisky that tastes like beer, you’re not going to find that here. It tastes more like a classic Glenfiddich 12 with both sweet and bitter elements accentuated. Overall, interesting, and a good starter whisky- a good amount of interest, but not too challenging.
The other experimental item on the menu is Project XX (pronounced “twenty”, it’s not R-rated at all). The story behind this one is that it’s a collaboration between 20 whisky experts and Brian Kinsman. He invited 20 of Glenfiddich’s brand ambassadors to each pick a cask from the distillery’s vast stores.
We were told that there was absolute freedom to choose any of the casks in the warehouse, and the brand ambassadors dutifully chose some very interesting malts: whiskies matured in port pipes, old sherry butts and the like.
The whiskies were then married by Brian Kinsman to create a new single malt. The spirit in the commercial bottling that we drink is, of course, is a recreation of that initial vatting. Sounds interesting- a whisky not entirely made by master blenders. A nice step for Glenfiddich.
Nose: Vanilla, toffee, spice, citrus peel. Figs and raisins. Dried apples. Cream chiffon cake and a tinge of ginger and anise.
Palate: An initial oakiness, followed by heather honey sweetness mixed with caramel and a dollop of cream. The unmistakable green apple appears towards the middle, alongside citrus, apricots and a great deal of spice. The walnuts and hazelnuts present themselves towards the finish- almost like nutella.
Finish: Spicy and very long. There is some bitter oakiness about it, but it is kept alive by dried green apples.
Excellent. There’s a good deal of balanced complexity here that we quite enjoy. It also manages to be light and sweet at the same time, which makes it a suitable candidate for an all-night sipper. There is some classic Speyside distillery character in this, most assuredly, but it also feels a little richer than the 12 year old. It’s richer and more complex, so we’d go for this if you had to choose.
Summing it All Up
Glenfiddich takes some interesting first steps with their new experimental series. While these two drams might not seems particularly radical, one considers that experimentation takes time and this goes doubly for distilleries with a legacy and a loyal customer base to protect. In our view, it’s already a pleasant surprise to find two new experiments coming from the venerable Glenfiddich.
As we have come to expect, the distillery focuses on being itself- producing high quality whiskies at good prices, and it does not disappoint. The prices are very reasonable for the kind of quality that you’re drinking- and you can scoop them up for under a hundred bucks a pop, which is a welcome surprise indeed.
Our only complaint is that they’re only available at travel retail for now, at least. If you are looking to pick up a scotch on your return, you could certainly do much worse than these.
The Glenfiddich IPA Experiment and Glenfiddich Project XX are available at DFS Singapore Changi Airport, with a Recommended Retail Price of SGD81 and SGD90 respectively. For more information, you can check out the website.