There are two images that I’m working to reconcile. The first will be familiar to many reading this — those who’ve ever ventured into an international hotel bar, smart restaurant, or indeed — these days — a good public house. Travellers to Hong Kong, Dublin, New York or São Paulo will walk into a bar and find a bottle of Glenfiddich. Depending on the élan of the establishment and the depths of the pockets of its clientele, it might be the 12 Year Old, the 18 Year Old, or if you’re in luck, the hard-to-find 30 Year Old, but one or more will be there.
From whatever angle you approach the bottle, it will shine. The glass will glow, in a way that seems to allude to the quality of the precious liquid held inside. The barman might carefully pour your chosen dram into a thick-cut tumbler; perhaps there’ll be spring water to add, or more controversially, ice. I’ll bet the whole process will speak of luxury.
The second image I have in my mind’s eye is of Ian McDonald, Head Cooper at Glenfiddich, or more specifically, of his hands. These are strong hands - beaten and calloused. These are the hands of a hardy craftsman. These are hands that have endured, having spent most of their life working tirelessly to shape the oak barrels that provide 70-80% of any whisky’s flavour profile. Without these hands we’d be left with next to nothing.
Ian Miller, Glenfiddich’s Global Brand Ambassador, and Ian McDonald, Head Cooper at the distillery
Ian, who is something of a legend at the distillery, joined in 1969, that first summer of love, a lifetime ago. He trained for six years and once qualified, joined the distillery’s cooperage team, where he remains, almost half-a-century on. He’s not alone: several of the distillery’s employees have given more than 40 years of their lives to helping produce this golden liquid. Blood, sweat and tears doesn’t quite cut it.
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These men and women, with over a thousand years active service between them, make Glenfiddich; they are the custodians of this extraordinary product. Whenever I see one of those shining bottles in any bar around the world, I will think of Ian’s hands, and understand something deeper about the time-worn alchemy that lives in the glen above Dufftown.
We arrive at the distillery in a flurry of frozen rain — hectic, formless precipitation that is followed immediately by piercing sunlight. It strikes me as peculiarly Scottish weather — nature balancing precariously between gentle and malevolent. The glen looks glorious in this capricious, spring light. All is framed by pine and oak, all is verdant — full of promise.
The warehouses at Glenfiddich house generations of gently maturing casks
The task ahead of us would be enviable to all but the hardened teetotaller. We are to help select a barrel of whisky for the Glenfiddich Rare Cask, a release that will hit the US whisky market in the fall. The year of distillation for this whisky was 1978, meaning that the whisky has been ‘resting’ in cask for almost 37 years. We must nose and taste, and follow our senses toward a whisky that will meet Glenfiddich Master of Malt’s exacting standards.
William Grant & Sons, owner of Glenfiddich is something of a rarity in these days of huge, conglomerate companies. The company is still to this day family owned, by the heirs of William Grant who founded the company in 1887. Mr. Grant is remembered as a man of redoubtable character. He honed his craft at the Mortlach distillery, before following his dream and setting up his own distillery on Christmas day 1887. He built the distillery that stands today from the ground up, by hand, having enlisted the help of his nine children. He’d found a site that he saw as perfect for whisky production. The site was in a glen and close to an excellent source of water, the Robbie Dhu spring.
Before long, the community heralded him as a producer of fine whisky and as a skilled, industrious businessman; he expanded the export and blending business and built a thriving company. The business grew throughout the first half of the 20th Century, initially as a producer of blended whisky that was bottled under the William Grant & Sons label and exported to far flung lands: Bombay, Hong Kong and New York.
The whisky-making process at Glenfiddich hasn’t changed since 1887. It uses the same water source, the same unusually shaped stills, and the same high cut point to capture the heart of our distillate, traditions all laid down by founder William Grant
It wasn’t until the 1960s, the Mad Men era, that W. Grant and Sons — ever the innovator — created the single malt, Glenfiddich. In one fell swoop, a new category was born. Today the spirit is the world’s best-selling single malt and produces over 12 million bottles per year. To fully process that figure, one must one again return to the image of Mr. McDonald’s hands, and those thousand plus years of experience that reside at the distillery. This is a product that takes at least twelve years to arrive on the market –often many more: gin or vodka can be made in an afternoon.
So let us return to that all important task — the old barrels. The tasting room is ready when we arrive. Five small tasting glasses have been arranged. We have no details relating to any of the glasses, we are to taste blind. The liquid in each glass looks almost identical to the others; there are barely perceptible variations of colour, but essentially they’re the same in the glass. Fortuitously, the experience on the palate is different — there are two clear front runners, it is obvious that two of Mr. McDonald’s barrels have performed best and leant more to the character and body of these whiskies — there is a depth and added richness which sets them apart. The decision is hard, but finally there is consensus.
We sit, calm and collected, reverent. We are humbled by the knowledge that our experience tasting these extraordinary whiskies will now become part of the unique story of Glenfiddich.
Main image at top: Christie’s specialist Noah May takes a wee dram
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