Over the last few months I’ve almost felt that this blog has become an extension of the William Grant and Sons website, with bits about the Balvenie Whisky Den and Grants whiskies. So it’s vaguely fitting that I can also finish off their range of whisky brands by writing a bit about Glenfiddich – the most popular single malt whisky in the world.
My relationship with Glenfiddich has until recently been a fairly simple one – I hated it. I tried their old regular expression a number of times over the years and actively disliked it, referring to it as ‘Cooking Whisky’ and generally ignoring the whole Glenfiddich stable. Add to that a recent trip to the distillery where I felt the tour to be full of half-truths and innaccuracies that were obvious enough that my companions (who didn’t know much about whisky until that week) queried them with me. However, on Burns night I had a taste of the 12 year old replacement for the old bottling and was pleasantly surprised. Since then I’ve started giving them much more of the benefit of the doubt, and since starting to acknowledge my mainly baseless prejudice against them I’ve started finding that their whiskies are actually quite interesting. Not all to my taste, but definitely worth a look.
I was invited along to Albannach for the tasting along with Steve Rush of The Whisky Wire and a host of whisky fans and neophytes, from tasting veterans to those who didn’t think they liked whisky. It was a fairly big group in a fairly noisy area (we were upstairs on the balcony at Albannach and it got quite busy downstairs as the night went on) which was a bit of a challenge for our host for the evening, Glenfiddich Brand Ambassador Jamie Milne. Jamie’s another person who decided to make a random jump into the drinks industry, working as an IT and management consultant for 15 years before making the move to professional boozer last year. He seems to be doing rather well, so I hope I can emulate at least part of his success myself over the coming years.
Anyways, the plan for the evening was simple – taste our way through the Glenfiddich range. I won’t got much into the history of the company, as I wrote about that in my recent post about Grant’s blended whisky, but the bit that’s important as far as Glenfiddich is concerned is that it was the start of the Wm Grants & Sons story, starting production in 1887. The current work horse whisky in the line-up is Glenfiddich 12 year old, brought in to replace the older regular malt that I based most of my previous dislike of the distillery on around the turn of the century (this is what I vaguely remember of the development of the range, but please correct me in the comments if anyone knows better). On the nose it had pencil erasers, heather honey, creamy butter, apple skin, pear, gooseberry, plasticine and toffee apples. To taste it had a honeyed sweetness to start and an appley middle that turned to spicy wood. The finish hung around for a short while with butter and cinnamon fading to pear. Water added some vanilla to the nose and a chunk of sweet cream to the flavour. This is the whisky that showed me that I was wrong to dismiss Glenfiddich – it was my favourite of the night, easy drinking and one to drink without having to contemplate too deeply.
Next Jamie decided to go outside the normal procedure of stepping gradually in age, skipping one step to give us Glenfiddich 18 year old. This makes sense as the 18 is basically an older version of the 12 year old. Grant’s like playing with finishes on their whiskies and Glenfiddich isn’t any different, but the 12 and 18 year olds are straight down the line unfinished whiskies. The makeup of the whisky is almost all bourbon casks with a small percentage of sherry. On the nose the 18 started with some musky spice, vanilla ice cream, spiced apple, sweet grape and sweet pastry. To taste there sweet apples with cream up front, moving on to spiced pears with a hint of menthol. The finish was spicy with cinnamon and more pears, tending to pear skin as it faded. Water added vanilla, like with the 12 year old, as well as some sour wood and some tannic apple skin. One that definitely follows on from the 12, with a bit more richness and more wood. Glenfiddich’s trademark pear flavour, fresh crunchy pears rather than pear drops, is also much stronger in this one.
We then stepped back to the Glenfiddich 15 year old. This is marked as a 15 year old, but is matured in a barrel system similar to a sherry solera, with the 15 year old whisky being married together in a large tun which is only half emptied each time – as half of each batch is made up of a mix of all the whiskies that have ever gone into the marrying tun some of the elements of spirit are much older than 15 years old. Like with sherry the main benefit of using this kind of system is to promote consistency from batch to batch, as well making the whisky rather unique in the industry. On the nose it had apples, cinnamon, cream, brittle toffee, sweet oranges and apple skin. To taste it had butter, apple, sweetened grape juice, golden syrup and butter cream. The finish was short and soft, with a bit of spice and butter icing. Water killed the flavour very quickly, leaving it generically whisky-like and uninteresting.
Fourth on the mat was the more recently introduced Glenfiddich 14 year old Rich Oak, a doubly finished whisky. It starts off in ex-bourbon casks but after 14 years some is switched to new American oak casks for 3 months and some to new Spanish oak for 1 month, before the whisky is recombined and bottled. The new wood hasn’t has had much of its flavour extracted by previous maturations, giving a chunk of woody influence despite the short time that the whisky sits in the casks. On the nose there were sultanas, unripe almonds, balsamic vinegar and general meatiness that I usually associate with sherry casks – further evidence to me that it’s not just the sherry that’s been in the cask that adds the flavours, but the type of wood as well. To taste it was quite thick and oily and very rounded in flavour, with no hard edges. It was buttery with red grapes, pears and a heap of woody spice – cinnamon and nutmeg. It finished with sugary liquorice (pink and blue bobbly Liquorice All-Sorts?) and spicy cinnamon bark. Water brought out the butter, swamping the fruit a bit and giving it a rich spicy pastry flavour.
Number five was Glenfiddich 21 year old, finished in rum casks (from Havana Club in Cuba it seems, although the USA release has different casks and a stated origin of just ‘The Caribbean’). On the nose there were ripe bananas (just on the turn – my notes have an ‘over’ crossed out in front of the ripe), sweet creamy grain (a bit like runny porridge), sugary raisins and nutmeg. Jamie gets a lot more wood and leather on the nose, and it reminded him of his dad’s office when he was a kid – his dad was an exciseman so there was often a lingering hint of whisky in the office. To me it was much more creamy and oaty, like the porridge I used to get before going to school – definitely a whisky that evokes memories. To taste it was fruity and sweet, with vanilla sugar, vanilla fudge, spicy cloves and a bit of cinnamon.The finish was leathery with a light woody smoke, apple skin and custard. Water brought out more sweetness and some berries. An interesting whisky and definitely influenced by the sugary rum casks.
Last on the mat for the night was Snow Phoenix, which I’ve tried before as well as having a couple of bottles at home waiting to be either drunk or squirreled away for investment purposes. The story behind it is quite simple: after the fourth successive fall of about 6″ of snow without much of a thaw in between some of the warehouses roofs at Glenfiddich gave up the ghost and fell in. All in all 8 roofs collapsed and they managed to get away with only losing 8 casks of whisky. However, the rest were buried and rather than dig them out and make space for them in other warehouses they instead vatted them together to create Snow Phoenix. It’s a mix of all different kinds of whisky, young and old, and is bottled un-chill-filtered, unlike most of the rest of the range. I spoke to Jamie about the chill-filtering thing and he is quite pragmatic about it – many whisky customers don’t like un-chill-filtered whisky because it goes cloudy when cool and also can be a heavier spirit, whisky experts/geeks often go the other way, declaiming the loss of flavour and mouthfeel as a much worse crime. Glenfiddich try and appease the “chill filtering is bad and wrong!” gang by doing some bottlings unchill-filtered, but filter most of their whiskies as it’s what the majority of the market demands. He also pointed out that we haven’t tried many of the filtered whiskies before filtering and it often makes the whiskies taste better – it’s just another tool in the whisky maker’s box to be used to create a certain product. Anyway, back to the Snow Phoenix – on the nose it had buttery raisins, cinnamon, vanilla cream and an underlying sour grape vibe. To taste it had cinnamon Fireball gobstoppers, golden syrup, sultanas, menthol, low cocoa solid dark chocolate and a background taste of young spirit – caraway and sour fruit. The finish was quite dry and woody with a touch of tannic red grape skin. Still not one of my favourites, feeling a bit of a confusion of flavours from various different Glenfiddich expressions, which is what it is.
Jamie also passed around a glass of new make to nose and it was pretty good – a touch of lime, apple, caraway and a hint of cereal with a stony edge. Clean and elegant, and quite impressive considering the amount they have to make – it has just been announced that Glenfiddich is not only officially the biggest selling single malt whisky in the world (again) but that they also shifted over a million cases of single malt last year, the first distillery to do so.
A good evening in slightly challenging circumstances (Jamie’s voice impressively held up all through the night) and after we were done Steve and I sat down with Cat from Albannach and Mark from Dramatic Whisky to see some of the new stuff that Glenfiddich is working on to help their brand ambassadors around the world. Keep an eye out for tastings from them in the future – they have some shiny presentation magic that’s looking rather good.
Thanks to Jamie for running the tasting and Cat from Albannach for inviting me along. Also hello to Alex and Caspar who I bumped into on the night – I will take up that offer of a drink as soon as I can…
Glenfiddich 12 Year Old
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£25
Glenfiddich 15 Year Old
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£30
Glenfiddich 18 Year Old
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£40
Glenfiddich 14 Year Old Rich Oak
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£30
Glenfiddich 21 Year Old
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£80
Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix
Speyside single malt Scotch whisky, 47.6%. Originally ~£50, already going up in price due to rarity.