The Giant of Speyside and First Ever Scottish "Single Malt" - Glenfiddich Distillery
Distillery Spotlight: Glenfiddich Distillery
Region: Speyside, Scotland
Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.
(Image Source: Glenfiddich Distillery)
Where was the first known use of the term “Single Malt”? The answer could be Glenfiddich distillery. Before the 1960s, it was more popular to drink blended Scotch (i.e. whiskies made from various different distilleries) rather than single malt Scotch which comes from a single distillery distilled from fermented malt (i.e. from barley). Glenfiddich was one of the first distilleries to coin the term and market its whisky as a “Single Malt”. This was to convey the message that the whisky came from just one distillery and exclusively contained malt.
Sold in over 180 countries and accounting for at least 35% of single malt sales worldwide, Glenfiddich is the international best-selling single malt Scotch. The classic Glenfiddich is about lightness of character, with an aroma of honey, grass, green apple and pear, and with slight aging, a smooth well-rounded palate of dark fruits and dark chocolate. Such a taste profile is presumably very well received by Scots and Asians alike. Any bartender worth his salt is sure to have a Glenfiddich on hand for serving.
Glenfiddich distillery was founded in 1876 by William Grant, a baron of the Victorian distilling industry, who also founded Balvenie and Mortlach distilleries. Initially a humble operation built with capital of just £120, the distillery has expanded to a sprawling facility with a cooperage (cask-making facility), coppersmith, 3 distillery buildings, many warehouses and even an in-house bottlingline. With 31 relatively small copper pot stills and a small army of craftsmen and coopers, the distillery has an impressive production capacity at 13 million liters a year. Unsurprisingly, it is dubbed as 'the giant' of single malts.
One of the first distilleries in a conservative industry to recognise the importance of marketability, Glenfiddich was the first distillery package its bottles in decorative tubes and gift tins, as early as in the 1960s. At the same time, when the whisky industry was focused on producing blended, Glenfiddich was also the first Scottish distillery to focus on the marketability of its single malt. The management was also quick to recognize the importance of the duty-free market for spirits. Its marketing and positioning strategies proved successful, and are credited with the global market success of the Glenfiddich brand.
Remarkably, five generations of the Grant family have shown demonstrable resilience through the Prohibition and Great Depression. While many well-known distilleries are now managed by multinational conglomerates, Glenfiddich never left the ownership of William Grant’s family. It is managed today by the fifth generation of William Grant’s descendants under William Grant & Sons Limited.
Let’s have a look at how Glenfiddich’s process creates its signature light, grassy, appleish profile
Cutting a sweet and light spirit
The small stills at Glenfiddich distillery. (Image Source: Distilled Sunshine)
The stills are Glenfiddich happen to be relatively small. Chemistry tells us that tiny stills should create heavy and sometimes sulphury distillates, and one would expect Glenfiddich’s tiny stills to create whiskies of a similar heavy and rich style as Macallan. A whiff of a Glenfiddich, however, is mild, grassy and apple-ish.
How does Glenfiddich distill light and grassy whiskies? The answer lies in the spirit cutting process at Glenfiddich.
Distilled spirit emerges from these valves to be analysed by the stillman (Image Source: Glenfiddich Distillery)
During the distillation process, the distilled spirit collected from the heated stills is further separated by a valve into three “cuts”: (1) the head cut / foreshots, (2) the middle cut / heart, and (3) the tail cut / feints. As the spirit pours out of the tap, the stillman excludes the initial head cut (or foreshots), which are deemed too flavourless and removed from the drinkable spirit. The subsequent middle cut (or the heart) is then collected and used to make whisky. The head cut and tail cut are then recycled for re-distillation.
Considering the tendency for small stills to create heavy-bodied spirits, Glenfiddich creates the sweet and light-tasting spirit by only using the lightest part of the distillate to make whisky. The stillman must execute a very early and small middle cut, essentially saving only the lightest compounds and sweet esters to be matured into whisky. As Glenfiddich’s master blender Brian Kinsman explains this practice:
“We cut at very high strength which is how we get this estery clean spirit. If we ran any deeper and cut later it would be much heavier and potentially sulphury.”
Innovative techniques to integrate oak, spirit and age
Despite the lightness seen in the new spirit and younger expressions, Glenfiddich ages incredibly well with very impressive complexity with slightly more years of maturation. As age takes old, the youthful grassiness and green apples turn into sweet red apples, earthy coffee grounds and soft chocolate notes. This complexity can be attributed to the selection of maturation casks used by Glenfiddich – and after all, the casks used could ultimately provide as much as 65% of the whisky’s flavour. A diverse range of maturation casks are intentionally procured, including sherry butts from Spain and bourbon barrels from America. Keeping with this tradition, Glenfiddich has more recently experimented with maturing whisky in Caribbean rum casks and even Indian pale ale casks.
Masterful blending of different casks
Yet the work is not done even after maturation. For further complexity and depth of flavour, whiskies matured in different types of barrels are masterfully blended and “married” to create the many different Glenfiddich expressions.
(Image Source: The Rake)
During this process, the distillery’s Malt Master selects whiskies of sufficient maturity and pour them into large Portugese oak “marrying” tun. Within these tuns, whiskies of different seasoning (eg. bourbon or sherry) and different wood type (eg. European or virgin American oak) are often blended together and “married” for about 9 months to create a well-rounded, mellow and harmonious texture.
Generations of experience within the same family has also led the distillery to develop innovative methods of marrying or blending whisky. While some of these techniques remain proprietary and are not disclosed to the public, a famous example of such an innovation is the Solera blending method for which Glenfiddich is the first to introduce to the Scotch industry.
What is the Solera process?
A simple schematic diagram of the Solera blending process
Glenfiddich uses the Solera blending process to blend whiskies of different ages; the final product could carry a small amount of very old whisky dating back several decades.
This process is a technique borrowed from the sherry and port wine industry to blend alcohol of different ages. Oak casks with whisky are grouped together according to the same average age. Whisky is drawn from the oldest casks below to bottle whisky for drinking at planned intervals (e.g. every 1-3 years), but the oldest casks are never completely emptied. While whisky is drawn from the oldest cask, younger whisky in upper levels are added to what remains in the lower levels in a hierarchical manner, creating a blend of whiskies of different ages. The result is a well-rounded product with depth of flavours and smoothness only possible with age.
Glenfiddich employs this technique to create its award-winning Glenfiddich 15 Years Old expression. As half of the Solera vat’s contents are removed for bottling, the Malt Master replaces the Solera vat with a blend of whiskies: 70 percent ex-bourbon matured, 20 percent European oak and 10 percent virgin oak. The result is soft, silky and rich, a 15 Years Old expression with a great mouthfeel.
Glenfiddich’s iconic flavour profile
(Image Source: Glenfiddich distillery)
Glenfiddich’s use of a very early and small spirit cut, and innovative techniques to marry whiskies from different casks are responsible for Glenfiddich’s signature light, honeyed grassy, apple-ish aroma with a smooth palate and well-balanced maltiness.
Typical Glenfiddich expressions tend to have the following taste profile:
- Fragrant and floral
- Honey, fresh green apples and pear
- Touch of wood, vanilla and delicate cinnamon spice
- Crisp and light-bodied
- Smooth texture but with gratifying complexity
- Honey and pears, well-balanced by cinnamon spice and maltiness
- Light oak character with vanilla
- Touch of dark fruits including cherries, blueberries and raisins
- Medium length, with fading spice and slightly dry sherry notes
Expressions from Glenfiddich are generally easy, approachable, highly drinkable and affordable. For an independent family-run operation, we like the distillery’s high quality and factory-like consistency through the years – bottle after bottle of the same favourite expressions do not disappoint. We also like the distillery’s enthusiasm in pushing the envelope and regularly releasing experimental bottles, ranging from French ice wine maturation to Caribbean rum maturation, to port wine maturation.
The Glenfiddich IPA Experiment and Project XX expressions (Image Source: Theeverydayman UK)
There is the occasional grumbling by whisky critics about Glenfiddich’s conservatively low alcohol-by-volume today – modern bottles generally ranging from 40–43%. Glenfiddich, with its focus on mass-market and mass-premium product ranges, may indeed prefer to be more accessible to the masses rather than to only please a small cadre of connoisseurs. Perhaps there is a vested interest in slightly watering down the whisky for greater production. Perhaps a lighter-tasting lower-proof spirit is also more marketable amongst new drinkers or to Asian palates.
But in our view, the ABV is not the be-all and end-all to what makes a great whisky. We have encountered several very nice expressions from Glenfiddich of 40-43% ABV but are full on flavour, balance and texture. They are also kinder to our livers.
Our favourites are:
Entry Level: Glenfiddich 15 Years Old- Solera; Glenfiddich 18 Years Old; Glenfiddich IPA Cask
Intermediate: Glenfiddich Winter Storm; Glenfiddich Excellence 26 Years Old
Top Shelf: Glenfiddich 30 Years Old