Scotch whisky is in a rather good position really. It is the highest value spirits category in the world, and the two market leaders, Glenfiddich in the single malt category & Johnnie Walker in blended whisky category, are highly regarded by retailers, bloggers, and are consistently awarded prizes at competitions. You would think that this would be the case for other categories, but Scotch whisky is one of the few really where the top seller happens to have mass market appeal and approval from the critics.
Beer: Budweiser, Heineken, Coors. Average, clean, and in our opinion, not great. The sheer amount they spend on marketing, their distribution, their low price and the fact they are refreshing mean they sell well, but they are not highly regarded.
Wine: Barefoot, Gallo, Echo Falls. Basically middle of the road wines. Not too sweet, not too sharp. Lacking character. Not likely to be winning big points with Robert Parker any time soon.
Spiced Rum: Morgan’s Spiced Rum, Sailor Jerry, Bacardi Oak Heart. Sickly sweet, heaps of vanilla, great in a rum and coke. But when you try Dark Matter or Bristol Black rum, it is difficult to believe these are in the same category.
We were thinking about this recently when we were attending a tasting at Usquabae (a new whisky bar at the West End of Princes Street) with Glenfiddich Brand Ambassador Mark Thomson. One of the first things he mentioned was that in whisky bars, people almost have a habit of passing over Glenfiddich. It is available everywhere, so people take it for granted. In fact, because it is everywhere, people sometimes look down on it, which is nonsense. Mark talked about some of the key points that have made Glenfiddich the bestselling single malt in the world and the most awarded single malt:
Being a family run company whose business has always been whisky
Since they built Glenfiddich in 1887, the Grant family have been in charge of William Grant’s, even as the company has become one of the bigger spirits companies in the UK. Since the family’s main business has always been whisky, they are willing to invest in the best casks, the best people and innovation. After all, whisky is what has made them one of the richest families in the UK.
The Grant family have taken bold decisions, and have turned out to be right with most of them. During US prohibition they decided to up production (when many other distilleries closed or slowed down), which allowed them to be perfectly placed with mature stock once prohibition ended. They were the first distillery to release a single malt in the 1960’s with Glenfiddich, when the rest of the market were selling blends. They decided to build Girvan Grain distillery in the 1960’s, giving them a plentiful supply of grain whisky for Grant’s blend. Bold decisions that have put them in a great position.
In this way, they remind us of Springbank and Glenfarclas to a certain extent. Family run and independent can give you the opportunity to take a braver position.
Innovation and Quality
Guided by their on-site barrel coopers and the Malt Master, the Grant family have been willing to back any innovation with the investment required. There is a lot of hard work, innovation and product perfection going on, particularly in their warehouses. These include using a Solera vat for their 15 year old, using virgin oak to finish some of their whiskies, using rum casks to finish their 21 year old, and having Portuguese marrying tuns to allow their whiskies to develop after being emptied from cask.
A break down of the Glenfiddich 15 Solera Reserve
It’s not very often that we get to try Glenfiddich cask samples, so this was a rather special experience. Their 15 year old is a vatting of several casks that have been married in a Solera vat. The vat hasn’t been fully emptied since 1998, allowing different vintages of Glenfiddich 15 to mix. Each time they create a new batch of 15 year old; they empty the vat to half way, bottle that, and then fill the vat again with more 15 year old whisky.
We got to try samples from each of the casks that are poured into the Solera:
Glenfiddich 15 Oloroso Sherry Refill Cask Sample
Nose: Spicy notes, raisins, venison notes, brown sauce and the ground coffee.
Palate: Oily, spicy, meaty and honeyed with peppercorn and balsamic vinegar.
Glenfiddich 15 Refill Oak, finished in New Oak
Nose: Pears, candy floss, apple cider and apricot.
Palate: Lemon, meaty notes, honey and oily notes.
Glenfiddich 15 Refill Oak
Nose: Buttery, vanilla cream icing and crème brulee.
Palate: Heavily toasted pastries, orange zest, apricot and syrup.
We attempted to make our own version of the official 15 year old bottling. Mark said it wasn’t a bad attempt. We’ll stick to retailing rather than Master Blending for the time being.