This article was originally written for Whisk(e)y Network. You can find the original here.
Dufftown is a wee village in the heart of Speyside, surrounded by farms, fields, and best of all – distilleries! You can easily walk to the likes of Glenfiddich right from town; a good idea if you’re planning to imbibe during your time there!
Seeing as how Glenfiddich is ranked #1 Single Malt in the world, I thought it would be fun to take a deeper look at this powerhouse (and still family owned) producer.
Glenfiddich’s history dates back to 1886 and one William Grant, an intrepid man who had the dream to create “the best dram in the valley” (Glenfiddich means Valley of the Deer, hence the stag emblem which they introduced in 1968). And so, with the help of his wife, 7 sons, 2 daughters, and 1 stone mason, they built the distillery by hand and the first spirit flowed on Christmas Day, 1887. The first bottling happened in 1902, and they’re proud to continue the tradition of bottling on-site.
It was actually Sandy Grant Gordon (William’s great-grandson) who first established the Single Malt Whisky category and introduced it to the wider world, in 1963: “This is the Glenfiddich Straight Malt Whisky. Most of the Scotch drunk throughout the world is blended whisky, a mixture of whiskies from as many as forty distilleries. Very good whisky but quite unlike the traditional Highland Scotches of which Glenfiddich is one of the most famous. Glenfiddich is the product of a single distillery. Pure. Without the addition of any other whisky. You should try Glenfiddich soon. It may change your whole idea of what good whisky should be.”
So, what goes into making this world-famous whisky?
Glenfiddich receives 100 tons of malted barley each day and they mill it in 10 ton batches. Each milling takes 2 hours, resulting in a grind of 70% Grist, 20% Husk, and 10% Flour. This is added to one of their 2 Mash Tuns on premises and mixed with water from the Robbie Dhu, Glenfiddich’s unique water source. Water is one of the three precious ingredients needed for whisky making, and William was so conscientious about the purity of their Robbie Dhu Spring source, he bought the 100 acres surrounding it, so it wouldn’t be polluted by farming or factory works. Robbie Dhu winds down from Conval Hills, through quartz and granite which give it a soft quality, perfect for the Glenfiddich style.
Each Mash Tun holds 10 tonnes and it takes 4.5 hours to produce about 40,000 litres of Wort (sweet sugar water). Between the two Mash Tuns, 10 washes happen at the distillery each day.
The Wort is cooled off before being sent on to one of their 24 Washback barrels, which are made of Douglas Fir, cost £45k each, and last about 40-45years. Their massive size necessitates them being built in place, and when their whisky days are over, they’re dismantled and sold on for repurposing – primarily to the nearby eco village. It’s a point of pride for Glenfiddich to be conscientious and innovative with recycling and repurposing all by-products of their whisky making process.
Once in the Washback, 250 litres of yeast is added to the Wort and left to ferment for 72 hours (which is on the longer end of the spectrum as far as whisky ferments go). Yeast strains can be fiercely guarded secrets in the spirits world, as up to 30% of the flavours in whisky are attributed to the yeast strain used.
Glenfiddich’s Washes end up at 10% ABV and are sent to the Wash Stills to begin the distillation process. The first distillation takes 5hrs and produces Low Wines of 25% ABV. 40% of the distillation comes out as Low Wines, and 60% is Pot Ale, which Glenfiddich used to sell on for cattle feed but now is able to repurpose as a fuel source.
The Low Wines are then sent to the Spirit Stills, and take 8-9hrs to run through. The Glenfiddich Spirit Stills are 11’ high, which may seem quite small compared to how gargantuan stills often are these days, but they’re replicas of the original stills (purchased for £120 from the renowned Elizabeth Cummings when she rebuilt Cardhu), and there is great reverence (and a fair dram of superstition) for exact Pot Still recreation in the whisky world. Glenfiddich currently has 32 stills (a combination of Wash and Spirit), but are undergoing massive renovations that will increase the number of stills and nearly double their production.
After going through the stills, the spirit is divided into the Head, Heart, and Tail via the Spirit Safe, with the Heart sent on for maturing into Whisky, and the Head and Tail recycled for re-distillation. This is obviously a massive operation, but everything is streamlined for efficiency, and automation is the rule of the day. For the human side in the actual distillery, they have 5 teams of 2ppl working 8hr shifts 24/7.
Glenfiddich has 1.2million casks holding over 150 million litres of precious Uisga Beatha (Oosh-kah Bae, Scottish Gaelic for ‘Water of Life’) maturing in Scotland. And while I wasn’t able to take pictures inside, getting to see one of their on-site storehouses was a thing of beauty. They have barrels from the 1950s and ‘60s, in there!
But the mother of all exciting maturation vessels was their Solera Vat. Someone could drown in it, it’s that big. Continuing their spirit of invention, Glenfiddich’s 5th Malt Master, David Stewart, took his cue from the Sherry bodegas of Spain, creating the first ever Whisky Solera Vat. It is always kept half full of whiskies aged for at least 15 years, allowing their 15 Year Single Malt to gain intensity and complexity. Getting to sip straight from that almighty vessel was a fierce pleasure. It was fire and spice, rich and complex, flavours dancing on my tongue and seeping into my cheeks. I can say things like nuts and burnt caramel, honeycomb, christmas pudding, brandy soaked sultanas and apples, rich, spicy, fruity…but a tasting note just doesn’t do it justice. Solera Vat Strength: pure and perfect.
But there was more yet to see. To round out my Glenfiddich experience, I got to visit the inner sanctum – the Blender’s Room. Hundreds of whisky samples lined the walls in lighted glass cases. I tingled with excitement, knowing this is where the magic happened. Blenders are mesmerizing to me; their ability to combine spirit from dozens or even hundreds of different maturing vessels and have that brand continuity is awe-inspiring. I got to try my hand at making my own blend from samples of their New Oak, Bourbon, Sherry, and Solera 15 Years, and while I think it tasted delicious (very light, floral, and fruity with prominent green apple notes), it really put into perspective the skills that go into blending. I appreciate their work immensely, and to them, I raise my glass.