The biggest and the best (Glenfiddich)

The biggest and the best (Glenfiddich)

Home of the biggest malt whisky distillery in Scotland and the world's best-selling single malt, Glenfiddich Distillery has consistently produced whisky that consumers can't get enough of. David Stirk visited to find out why this is so.

Distillery Focus 16 Jun 2001 | Interviews | By David Stirk

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Somebody up there likes Glenfiddich. The Gods have smiled upon this particular distillery in Dufftown, certainly a believable theory when you consider that Glenfiddich has been the biggest selling single malt whisky for more than 30 years and eases around 750,000 cases of whisky out of its on-site bottling plant each year to be enjoyed in nearly 200 countries worldwide. Glenfiddich is a giant of a drink and all of us that enjoy single malts should pay homage.Their dalliance with malt whisky began in 1963 when William Grant & Sons made the bold step of marketing their single malt whisky. “I think it would be fair to say that Glenfiddich pioneered the malt whisky category at a time when malts were only drunk in Scotland and a handful of lucky pockets around the world, and is still doing it today,” explains Jens Tholstrup, Glenfiddich’s Global Brand Ambassador, as we chew the fat over a dram of the 12-year-old in the plush and spacious visitor centre.Given enough time and encouragement, I am sure that Jens could go on and on (and on) about Glenfiddich without a hesitation or a repetition. He is probably the youngest Brand Ambassador the whisky world has ever seen: his youth makes him approachable yet his maturity affords him a wealth of product knowledgeable. He truly loves what he does and this is illustrated by his limitless enthusiasm not just for Glenfiddich but also for whisky and all things Scottish. Jens loves the area around Glenfiddich so much he moved there. But why Glenfiddich, when in the eyes of connoisseurs there are more impressive malts elsewhere in Scotland?“The flavour first of all. It is just so drinkable!” Jens exclaims. “It is a beautiful example of what Speyside has to offer with a range of subtle, perfectly weighted flavours rather than one overpowering one. I also think it is backed up by excellent marketing and also by the fact that we do not compromise.”This refusal to compromise has meant that Glenfiddich alway buys stills in tios: one washstill and two different shapes for its spirit stills; a reflux ball still and a gas mantle still. This tradition dates back to 1887 when Cardhu were refitting their distillery and sold off all of their old equipment to William Grant – the purchase included the odd number of stills. The 28 stills (the most in any malt distillery in the world) are split into two rooms with traditional coal-fired stills in Still House 1 and experimental gas-fired stills in Still House 2. It is an experiment to see whether or not the labour intensive coal-firing method actually imparts a different flavour on the wash and spirit. Of course, only time will tell.Standing outside the entrance of Glenfiddich Distillery, basking in the glorious sunshine, it is hard to imagine the humble beginnings of William Grant in 1887. Now the Glenfiddich complex sprawls several acres encompassing three working distilleries and Convalmore Distillery that is used for warehousing. Using the same barley and water from the Conval Hills (where Glenfiddich’s water also comes from), The Balvenie Distillery, built adjacent to Glenfiddich in 1899, has a different taste to that of Glenfiddich. “The Balvenie takes malt from the only floor maltings in Speyside and uses a different water source to Glenfiddich,” explains Ian Miller,
Glenfiddich’s Distillery Manager as he shows me around the still houses. “Glenfiddich on the other hand has direct-fired stills (naked flame)...
Glenfiddich’s stills are very small as opposed to The Balvenie’s larger ones [bought originally from Lagavulin and Glen Albyn].”Ian Miller was born in Aberfeldy, home of John Dewar & Sons – real whisky country. He quickly decided that his life would be spent working within a distillery and, after graduating from the apprentice class of ‘89 (with other notable figures from the industry such as Dr Bill Lumsden, David Robertson, Alistair Robertson and David Hardy), he gained 14 years of experience from Blair Athol before he moved to Mortlach and then Linkwood. Two years ago he was offered the position as Glenfiddich Distillery Manager and has never looked back. “I love my work and I love what I get to do,” Ian tells me. It certainly appears to the enthusiast as a dream job although I wonder what hidden stresses exist in working for the biggest selling single malt distillery in the world. There’s certainly a lot to look after with every aspect of the distilling process being carried out on the site: everything from traditional floor
maltings in Balvenie and an on-site cooperage and bottling hall within Glenfiddich. The one thing missing from Glenfiddich is a duty paid warehouse meaning all of the whisky is shipped to Glasgow after bottling before being returned to be sold in the visitor centre. After the impressive sight of the 28 stills gleaming in the afternoon sunlight I am shown through to the bottling hall. The bottles are initially washed out with whisky to prevent any dust remaining before filling. This continual exposure of Glenfiddich whisky to the air has left the bottling plant smelling of chocolate liqueurs and heather. This has to be a good sign for the taste of the whisky. All of the Glenfiddich whisky is bottled on site and all small batches such as The Balvenie 15-year-old single cask and Ladyburn are painstakingly bottled and labeled by hand.Glenfiddich do not appear to be sitting on their laurels and have completely revamped their product range. In the last couple of years
Special Reserve has been replaced by a 12-year-old. A vintage and rare series including limited bottlings of exceptional casks has also been introduced. Their biggest experiment though has been a 15-year-old Solera Reserve single malt. This whisky is a marrying of 15-year-old traditional oak (ex-bourbon) and 15-year-old sherrywood casks that are then left for a limited period of time in new oak. I was given the chance to try from each of the three cask: the sherry, the bourbon (traditional) and the new wood cask. The 15-year-old sherrywood was my personal preferance, a whisky that that had spent a further four months in new wood. A love for single batch bourbons will probably explain why I enjoyed the mix of vanilla, cream and sherry. The Solera Vat is never left less than half full and is surrounded by work-in-progress vats that keep Glenfiddich in touch with consumer demand. Eventually my tour leads me to David Stewart, Master Blender. He is a humble and introverted man that won’t seek an audience – he is content to lets his whiskies do the talking. However I was fortunate enough to talk with him, thus allowing him a chance to explain what he thinks are the main qualities of the Solera vat: “(It is) rich, sweet and full flavoured, due to the mix of the different woods. The new wood adds colour, oak and vanilla notes, combined with the sherry oloroso top note, that provides the sweet fruit notes. The traditional oak [oak previously used in bourbon barrels] provides the balance of flavours recognised in all Glenfiddich products – pear notes and delicate fragrance.”Sales of Glenfiddich Solera Reserve 15-year-old are growing steadily. It seems there’s no stopping its success – testament to the age old traditions that are still adhered to today. As Jens Tholstrup said: “Although Glenfiddich today is the biggest malt distillery in Scotland, it is also known as the home of traditional whisky, simply because we still make whisky the way we h ave always done.” If they continue to do so I’m sure the sun will continue to shine and the Gods will continue to smile upon Glenfiddich.
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