Pouring the dram

Now we are talking about one of the most iconic name of the Speyside… The most sold Single Malt in the world, the most awarded Single Malt: Glenfiddich. There is so much to say about it so it might be a long report but I’ll try to not digress too much and stick to my visit of September 2017 (and November 2017 under the snow). It is located in Dufftown. The town is advertised as the ‘Malt Whisky Capital of the World’. Indeed, tough to avoid distilleries, the concentration is actually quite crazy! There is a local saying “Rome was built on seven hills, Dufftown stands on seven stills”: Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Dufftown, Mortlach, Glendullan, Parkmore and Convalmore. They haven’t all survived, Convalmore and Parkmore are actually inactive (most probably still used as warehouses). There was also some new addition (like Kininvie and Pittyvaich, the latter is by the way also inactive) bringing the number of working distilleries to 6. Busy distilling town! The 6 working distilleries are shared by 2 owners: William Grant & Sons (Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Kininvie) and Diageo (Dufftown, Mortlach, Glendullan). Officially, and this will be a challenge for the future of the Single Malt Tour, only The Glenfiddich Distillery and The Balvenie Distillery are opened to visitors. Let’s start with Glenfiddich as it is easy to visit, there is a tour every hour, the distillery is proud to be visitor ready at all time. Glenfiddich is actually the third most visited whisky attraction in Scotland, after The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburg and The Famous Grouse Experience in Crieff (at The Glenturret Distillery in Crieff). As per 2013 data, more than 80,000 visitors per year, and considering the recent trend, this must now be close to 100,000, which is quite outstanding considering how remote it is: it is not just a cab ride away from the airport or town centre, it takes some proactive effort to come here. And in winter, it can be difficult to access as it can snow a lot (I actually stopped on my way to Glen Grant a couple on month after my original visit to get a few snowy pictures). It shows the power of the brand, it is far and remote, but people are getting there: it is so busy during the day that for health and safety reasons trucks do not seem to tip during visiting hours!

What is striking even before entering the visitor centre is the quality of the maintenance of the distillery grounds, it is just done very well, very beautiful, neat, clean and tidy… Despite the huge works that are currently going on as the distillery is expanding!

It almost feels like it is a visitor centre in which there is a distillery rather than a distillery operating a visitor centre on the side! But there is a long tradition, the Glenfiddich distillery is the first distillery that opened a visitor centre (in 1972). There is no commercial pressure, the visit is not just a way to get the visitor through the shop, the shop here is actually quite separated from the visitor centre and one can easily miss it. The shop worth a wander but visitors are intentionally not put through the shop, visitors are here firstly to visit, if they want to buy, they’ll surely find their way to the shop indeed!

There is a clear ‘wow’ factor here, and it makes very legitimate the fact the Glenfiddich Distillery won the highly thought Scottish Field Distillery Visitor Experience of the Year in 2017, but was also Gold Medal for its Consumer Experience in the Global Spirits Masters Awards run by The Spirits Business, and was also Highly Commended in the Visitor Centre category of the Distillery Experience Challenge Awards run by the magazine Drinks International. So there’s a lot to look forward to!

There is a clear attention to detail and a lot of references to the tradition and the past.

Iconic Speyside Single Malt, it’s on the bank of the River Fiddich, which mean deer in Gaelic, the logo is an obvious giveaway! The Valley of the Deer that is, and the water source is the Robbie Dhu. It was built by William Grant and aimed to produce the best dram in the valley. Considering this is the most sold Single Malt, no doubt William Grant is watching from up there its descendants with some pride as Glenfiddich is celebrating its 130th anniversary. Indeed, the company is still fully owned by the family and has reached a decent size, over £1b turnover, over £250M pre-tax profits… Dufftown is the epicentre of the malt production of the company with not only Glenfiddich distillery but also the Balvenie distillery (with has one of the last traditional malting floor), and also the less known Kininvie (Kininvie Single Malt is not easy to find and is quite premium, the distillery is mainly used for the blending operations, in particular with Monkey Shoulder). William Grant & Sons also own the Girvan grain distillery (largest grain distillery in Scotland) and on the same grounds there is Aisla Bay malt distillery (once again, Ailsa Bay Single Malt is not easy to find but worth a dram as it’s an unusual Lowland peated Single Malt), and also Hendrick’s Gin distillery. This is a family who knows the Scotch Whisky and distilling businesses for sure!

The basic visit is £10 and it starts on the wall of the visitor centre with the genealogy of the family (it is now run by the fifth generation of the family) and timeline of the milestones of the company, like 1909, when Charles Gordon – William Grant son in law – exported the whisky notably in the US, 1998, when Master Blender David Stewart created the Solera Vat System (essentially a massive barrel never really emptied). It is then summarized by a movie to explain how the ancestors built the distillery, how it focused on blending business at the start, how it was exported, showing the company is precursor and pioneers in whisky making and finishing. A bit of a caricature sometimes with dirty and toothless actors building a distillery brick by brick but I guess it reflects the north of Scotland at the end of the 19th century! The distillery was built by hand with the help of 9 family members from 1886 and the first distillation was performed on Christmas Day 1887 after 371 days of work with the objective to produce, as previously mentioned, the best dram in the valley. William Grant believed in small directly fired stills and the tradition have been maintained over the years: it is striking, Glenfiddich there’s a lot of stills but they seem relatively small compared to other distilleres. Balvenie came in 1893. A significant move was to purchase the struggling largest blender (Pattinson’s) in 1898: Grant’s Family Reserve was born. If Charles Gordon exported successfully the whisky in the US, expansion plans were hit by the First World War (distillery was closed from 1917 to 1919 due to a lack of sales) and the prohibition. However, William Grant kept producing, betting it would be temporary and distilleries stopping production during the prohibition would suffer later having a lack of matured whisky in stock to meet the returning demand. Good call! Indeed, if a distillery can go bust when unable to finance its working capital, it can also go bust when there’s nothing to sell anymore! Long term forecast is an essential part of a distillery’s job. William Grant died in 1923 but his name is still known worldwide, he left a gigantic legacy. The distilleries in Dufftown also became kind of fully integrated in the 1950’s with coopers and coppersmiths onsite, and the company continued its pioneering approach: the triangular bottle was born in 1957: Grant’s Family Reserve and Glenfiddich are still bottled in those bottles (although Glenfiddich tends to have less and less sharp angles since the last 15 years, it can only be assumed that having such distinguishable similar bottles on two different market segments is probably posing some positioning challenges). In 1998, the Solera VAT system was created: the batch of Glenfiddich is married in a big vat which is never really emptied. In other words, every Solera batch is different and technically contains some very old whisky. Marrying and finishing has always been a strength of the company, being innovative in finishing or blending in the intent to produce indeed the best dram of the valley (sorry, I like the catchphrase). And it is still going on as the creativity of the Glenfiddich Experimental Series is suggesting: finishing in Indian Pale Ale cask (Glenfiddich IPA), the one I like to call ‘Glenfiddich open source’ (the Glenfiddich Project XX, 20 brand ambassadors chose a cask they liked in the warehouse and Master Blender, Brian Kinsman, married them) or the Winter Storm (Canadian Icewine Cask finish and with an age statement, 21 years old, I would fancy trying it side by side with the Tullibardine 225, NAS on Sauternes finish). There’s clearly still a pioneering proactive mind-set, some great marketing, leading the independent company, although significantly smaller, to compete with Diageo or Pernod Ricard rather than other independent distillers and Glenfiddich is the most sold and most awarded Single Malt. Tough to compete on the other segment (Blended Scotch Wisky), Johnny Walker and Chivas are the clear leaders, it’s where the size of the company actually matters. A legitimate question is also how much can a single malt grow until I’s perceived as too mass market and less craft by consumers?

The actual visit starts on the discharging bay, a very small hole for a 49T truck! It most probably needs a chute system, malt is much drier than freshly harvested (and dried) cereals and also cleaner, so it should not jam too often. It seems to be a standard in the industry as a bigger bay is more expensive to build as it need to be deeper (more digging) while here elevator system will directly bring the malt higher in the bin. The tour guide said there is a consumption of 100T per day, making 36,500T per year, roughly 14.6ML of alcohol… Knowing that all Glenfiddich casks are maturing on site, tough to imagine how many of them are around! And on top of that, Glenfiddich production is said to be 100% for the Single Malt, in other words, never sold to any third party and never blended. The tour guide was quite technical, indicating the barley used was only from Scotland, at 12% maximum moisture and 2% nitrogen maximum and using a yeast from Mauri.

The visit is not going through the malt mill, there is a little stand to explain the process of malting, pretty well done though. Glenfiddich do not use peat… Well, it must be the case for most of it but the Glenfiddich Vintage Cask edition is actually peated. Very few in the Speyside actually use peated malt. Well, a notable exception is Balvenie with notably the Peat Week edition and the own malt (not enough is produce to meet the production needs) is very lightly peated. Also, one can only assume good planning would be to lay down stocks of peated spirit, just in case, to be ready to act if necessary as trend car start and restart by surprise. The current hype on peaty Islay Single Malt is such that a well marketed heavily peated Speyside Single Malt as no reason to be a failure.

There are only 2 mash tuns in Glenfiddich, this is quite amazing considering 1.11M cases are sold every year! It only needs 2 mash tuns, pretty big though. The expansion will probably need more mash tuns (and washbacks) as building just a new still house would certainly create a clear bottleneck. Every batch of mash is made with 10.5T of grist, as usual, 3 waters, 64 degrees, 75 degrees and 86 degrees to create a wort of 41,000L. The draff is going as it is increasingly the case, to biomass. In the same room, there’s a heat exchanger to optimize the energy consumption and reuse the generated heat.

There are a staggering 32 washbacks, 17 foot high (5.2 meters), in origin pine, they have a 30 years life span. They are cleaned only with steam, it kills the bad bacteria’s, keep the good ones. The fermentation lasts between 48 and 60 hours and the wash is reaching 9.6% ABV. The long fermentation gives a nice amount of esters and will make a fruity spirit.

There are 2 still rooms at Glenfidich, only one, the biggest, is visited. The process and the spirit safe was well explained… As mentioned before, what is striking is the size of the stills, they are very small (4,500 litres, the spirit still at Glenkinchie was 20,998 litres!). But there are many of them (something like 32 in total) and a single man is in charge to control and manage. The wash still is taking the low wines to 25% ABV. There is a stirrer on the wash still as it’s fired by a naked gas flame: like a soup, the bottom would burn without any stirring. The window on the wash stills is used to visually control the level of the emulsion in order to avoid some wash to end up in the neck of the still undistilled. The volatile components, the foreshots, are let gone and the heart is starting at 70% ABV and are running for 2.5 hours, then come the feints, mixed to the foreshots and put in the next batch, as usual… It’s the 8th distillery we’re visiting, so we start to be quite familiar with the process, right? The spirit safe (no picture as pictures could only be taken from outside the still room, the only place were there were restrictions) is operated manually with the usual help of thermometers and hydrometers. Indeed, the gravity measured will differ with the temperature and it needs to be adjusted to the original gravity temperature to calculate the actual ABV. The pot ale syrup goes to animal feed.

Then, the visit moves to a Warehouse 1, the first warehouse ever built. The walls are typically black, due to the fungus. Although it is used as a tourist attraction (there is a movie about cooperage and casks where the spirit can be nosed – a bourbon cask, an older bourbon cask and a sherry cask) it is still used for maturing whisky. It is now very small and can only contain a very small number of casks. It was said that 60% of the flavour is coming from the cask, without cask, no maturation. The distillery has coopers on site (8 coopers and 2 apprentices), like everyone else they are using second had bourbon casks but also the usual sherry casks and many others as William Grant & Sons are actually the precursors of finishing. Charing and toasting helps the process of filtering and extracting the wood flavour. Casks are used and reused and end up in garden furniture or as salmon smokers. Glenfiddich casks are filled at 63.5% ABV (this filling ABV seems a standard in the industry), adding water from the Robbie Dhu, and are maturing for 3 years and 1 day minimum on cask in mainly 200L to 300L casks (bourbon casks, hogsheads, wine casks) but also butts (500L), the maximum allowed by the regulation is 700L. They are not using small casks. The angels’ share is 2% per year and there are cask laid down horizontally with a Plexiglas top filled with probably some kind of mock whisky to give an idea on how empty it would be after 12 and 25 years, very visual… An empty cask is also there to show the charred inside and to emphasised that after 100 years, it would be totally empty! The ABV is also down year on year and it has to be monitored closely as below 40% ABV, it cannot be called whisky anymore and it would need to be married with another cask, probably younger. Nosing the full casks was really interesting (in Tullibardne, the previous similar experience, they were empty) as the vanilla flavour of the bourbon cask cannot be missed and the sweetness and fruitiness on the sherry cask is mind blowing. There is also a marrying tun of 2,000L, allowing to marry different barrels and let the ‘blend’ (I don’t like using this word in those circumstances though) to rest and the flavours to be harmonized. Typically, the 12 years old is 85% Bourbon casks, 15% Sherry cash and the proportion of the Sherry cask is improving in general with the age statement.

The next to last step is the bottling hall. Some of the Glenfiddich is still bottled on site, especially small premium batches: when a batch of the Glenfiddich 50 years old is made (£22,500 retail price by the way, clearly on my bucket list), I assume there’s probably not enough made to fill a road tanker to haul it to the main bottling plant, on the west of Glasgow. Premium products require smaller and slower lines (although this case is extreme, it’s probably even manually bottled), bigger attention, less risk of getting lost due to their price and rarity (cannot imagine a tanker of 50 years old getting off road in the snow and leaking… Thinking about it makes me shivering!). Unfortunately the bottling line was not in operation at the time of the visit. There are also some cabinets with old (and probably priceless) vintages, fun to see round Glenfiddich bottles!

Then the drams… The room is very well set up and encourages visitors to get together around small tables: a nice convivial moment. And for the £10 visit, one can have a dram of the 12 years old (vanilla, apple, cream, it’s definitely a Speyside!), the 15 years old (Solera edition, cinnamon, oak, spice, a clear sherry influence), 18 years old (small batch reserve, fruits, chocolate, candy and sherry notes, a clear delight) and the Project XX (apple, liquorice, almonds, quite oily, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea). Very interesting to see the progression of the range, the Sherry influence is getting stronger with the age indeed but it’s not getting to the Sherry bomb stage and is keeping the spirit of the Speyside: the 15 years old Solera is a great compromise in my opinion in terms on how good it is and the price (between £30 and £40, the 12 years old, between £15 and £25, the 18 years old a more consequent, but worth it, £65 to £75). Should you drive, you’ll be offered a 12 years old miniature which is very responsible. But now, I have my own trick, carrying 3cl sample bottles to enjoy comfortably when back from this excellent visit.

Indeed, top rated visit for sure. Well deserve the awards in my opinion, visitor is well treated, £10 is well below the worth of the time and effort staff put into the visit and on top of that quite generous in the tasting. Once again, it really looks like it’s a distillery managed firstly as a visitors attraction and then, on a side business, producing whisky. And what whisky, the most awarded single malt. No need to talk more, you understood, I love it and I am very enthusiastic… Some will say it is too mass market, reaching the tipping point of how much a single malt can output. I disagree, as long as there is no compromise on taste and tradition, the impact is just in the head (and it’s the marketing job to answer the potential challenges). And I need to stop right now as I left the shop (I found my way to it) with the 21 years old (Reserva Rum Cask finish, £115) and it is time to crack it open!

Sláinte!

Further reading:

Scotch Whisky Brand Champion 2016: https://www.thespiritsbusiness.com/2016/06/scotch-whisky-brand-champion-2016/

William Grant & Sons posts big rise in profit and turnover: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-business-41444574

Secretive Billionaire Heiress Benedicta Chamberlain Owes Fortune To Balvenie, Hendrick’s, Stoli: https://www.forbes.com/sites/calebmelby/2013/10/15/secretive-billionaire-heiress-benedicta-chamberlain-owes-fortune-to-balvenie-hendricks-stoli/#6f4aae0e6c0d

Whisky Tourism – Facts and Insights: http://www.visitscotland.org/pdf/Whisky%20Tourism%20%20Facts%20and%20Insights2.pdf

Glenfiddich Distillery Scoops two awards for its tours: https://www.scottishfield.co.uk/glenfiddich-distillery-scoops-two-awards-for-its-tours/

Scottish Field Whisky Challenge Awards winners are revealed https://www.scottishfield.co.uk/scottish-field-whisky-challenge-awards-winners-are-revealed/

30ml PET bottle “Pegasus” black screw cap: https://www.world-of-bottles.co.uk/PET-packaging/30ml-PET-bottle-Pegasus-black-screw-cap.html

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