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Glenfiddich (pronounced: glen-FID-ik) is the giant of the industry. It is also the godfather of single malt, being the first distillery to actively release and market large quantities of its product as a single malt in 1963. The current climate of high-flying single malt sales and marketing owes a huge debt to Glenfiddich’s pioneering work. The result of this success and legacy as one of the world’s best selling whisky brands is that a great number of people sneer at Glenfiddich and disregard it as a mass produced spirit with little remarkable character. If you only drank the 12yo or the old NAS versions you could be forgiven for thinking this, but dig deeper and you will discover many beautiful expressions of Glenfiddich. It is a distillate with immense aging potential, natural distinction and complexity and an ability to show well in various cask types and ages.
Stills: 5 Wash 8 Spirit
Water Source: Robbie Dubh
Capacity: 10 Million Litres
Owners: William Grant & Sons
1950s-1980s: Expanding In All Directions
Glenfiddich officially launched its malt for the first time in 1963, although there were versions bottled before then. These whiskies were all distilled in a more old style fashion but even back then Glenfiddich was a multi-still monster of a distillery. It was using coal firing back then and worm tubs along with its own floor maltings. The resultant malts, that can still be found today with some careful searching, were resinous, piney affairs with lots of spicy, waxy and green fruity aspects to them.
Similarly there are many aged vintage expressions from this era and before as well. Official vintages, single casks, 30, 40 and 50 year old bottlings, all of them are well worth trying and most are stunning. Aged Glenfiddich tends to reveal big wax, herbaceous and fruit notes with accentuated elements of tangerines, apples, spice, flints and floral aspects. The best are glorious drams and, since the spirit can keep on aging for a long time, they often tend to be very fresh as well.
There are incredibly few independent bottlings of Glenfiddich, most were bottled a couple of decades ago from very old casks before WM Grants put a stop to independent expressions of their malts. The best bottlings were done by Cadenhead’s, Cheiftain’s and Intertrade. Several were from very dark sherry which, while excellent as sherry bombs drams, left little room for distillery character. The refill 1972 32yo by Cadenhead’s was a majestic exception.
1980s-Present: The Whisky Factory
Glenfiddich was using over 20 stills in the early eighties, I’m not sure when they stopped using worm tubs but it was definitely by the mid eighties. They eventually reduced the number of stills down to a more manageable 13. Although these stills thankfully remained gas fired and the floor maltings are still used to this day. These factors undoubtedly contribute to the continuing distinctive edge that the spirit has managed to retain.
Modern Glenfiddich has retained the same apple and spice notes that have been in the spirit for the past decades. Younger expressions can be very pleasantly fresh with vanilla, white fruits, pear drops and a lick of smoke. The 12yo is solid but not too inspiring, however the 15yo cask strength and the 18yo both show a big leap in quality and intensity of flavour, both are excellent benchmark expressions. The best thing to look for in a Glenfiddich is a lack of interference. It has never been a spirit that takes well to wood finishes or fancy wood technology. Bottlings like the Caoran Reserve and Rum Finish 21yo reveal this weakness with a notable imbalance between distillery character and cask influence. While the recent Snow Pheonix bottling shows a wonderful richness of character and deep complexity that arises from a careful vatting of casks from a variety of vintages.
Glenfiddich is unashamedly a massive whisky factory, a tour will leave your mind boggled at the scale of the production. However, despite this it is also a fundamentally good malt whisky, one that rewards further investigation and interest. It also scotches the myth (as it were) that good malt whisky can only be achieved with small, artisanal style production methods. Glenfiddich should be commended for achieving a regularly high level of quality on such a vast scale.