My Dad drank Glenfiddich. Not exclusively. Mostly as a treat at Christmastime. For men of his generation, it had a special distinction as the very first Scotch distillery that marketed its single malt whisky outside Scotland as single malt whisky, rather than sending it away to flavour blended Scotch. That was in 1963 and history tells us that the great pioneer was an eight-year-old Glenfiddich, aged mostly in old Spanish oak sherry butts. Very few people in England and North America had tasted a single malt before but you could say the idea caught on. Soon other distilleries saw the possibilities and began to bottle and sell their own productions.
Cut to this weekend, in Banff, Alberta, where Ian Millar, global ambassador for Glenfiddich, will be pouring iterations up to 50 years old for loyal fans. The agents were kind enough to invite me but alas, I couldn’t make it, so instead I showed up last night at the Spoke Club where Millar was pouring the 12-, 15-, 18-, 21- and 40-year old Glenfiddichs. With him was Ian McDonald, one of the seven Glenfiddich in-house coopers who repair and rebuild the many kinds of oak barrels used to age and finish the whiskies. He had brought a cask with him and proceeded to dismantle it to its hoops and staves and then rebuild it again perfectly in six minutes – a fascinating operation I had never witnessed before.
It’s all about the barrels, you see. Millar reckons the oak provides about 65 percent of a whisky’s character so it matters greatly whether the cask or hogshead or butt comes from America or Europe and what, if anything, it has previously contained. Last night’s nosing showed this to perfection.
The 12-year-old was a good dram to begin with, most of it aged in used bourbon casks but with about 15 percent in Spanish sherry butts. Tasted cold there was a certain sharp edge to it that was smoothed away as the spirit warmed up in the glass held tight in a hot little hand . The bourbon barrels were responsible for the brown sugar aroma but the hint of pear, interestingly, was a result of a deliberately long fermentation. I hadn’t heard before that the actual length of fermentation could have such a direct effect on ultimate flavours.
The 15-year-old had a sweeter nose – vanilla toffee, honey, raisins, spice… The reason is that a third style of oak was used in the blend – new US oak barrels that had never seen bourbon but lent some of their pungent vanilla lignins and tannins to a small percentage of the finishing Scotch. A little too much of a good thing, in my opinion.
The 18-year-old Glenfiddich is a super whisky, one of the most celebrated Scotches in the world and its class fairly jumped out of the glass. Like the 12-year-old, it’s 85 percent used bourbon barrels and 15 percent Spanish sherry casks but the extra age has smoothed things out. The nose is reminiscent of baked apples, butter and cinnamon, the body is a touch more viscous and the long aftertaste is dry and complex, with dried fruit, citrus and spicy notes all dancing slowly around in your head. My Dad would have loved it.
The 21-year-old is a rare treat, an anomaly, with a nose that eluded me until Millar explained what had been going on. Glenfiddich had bought a quantity of rum and let it sit in their own barrels for months – long enough to give the wood a thorough Caribbean education. Then the rum was removed (“not wasted,” said Millar) and the 21-year-old whisky put into the barrels for four months. Any longer and the rum’s funky influence would have grown too strong. Millar held his glass up to the light. “There’s a little golden note in there from the rum,” he said, “and a hint of ripe banana on the nose that can only have come from the rum.” Such is the power of suggestion that everyone suddenly caught that little whiff of the islands.
Glenfiddich and the Balvenie are sister distilleries owned by the Grant family. Millar and I chatted about the 50-year-old Balvenie I had the good fortune to taste a couple of years ago at Allen’s, on the Danforth, courtesy of John Maxwell – a marvellously dark, smooth and viscous whisky with enormously complex aromatics. The Glenfiddich 40-year-old was lighter in body and colour but still altogether profound. “Forty years old is the minimum age,” Millar reminded us. “There are whiskies in this dating from 1925 and from the 1930s as well as the 1950s.” The nose carried a powerful testament of the sweet oloroso sherry that had once filled the Spanish oak barrels in which the Scotch aged – raisins and prunes, Christmas pudding, hints of nutmeg and vanilla. The flavour was surprisingly dry and austere with different levels of pleasing bitterness, like the bitterness of very dark chocolate or of lemon peel on the long, long finish. As a rule of thumb, explained Millar, Spanish sherry casks give more complexity and a longer finish to a Scotch but can mask its personality if over-used while American bourbon barrels have simpler effects but allow the whisky to speak its own mind more clearly.
At $2,200 a bottle, the 40-year-old is never going to be an everyday dram. The 50-year-old costs $26,000. Millar brought two bottles with him – one to sell through the SAQ in Montreal, the other to open and enjoy in Banff. That will be quite the party.