(This was a writeup from a few months ago that didn't get posted for some reason, so re-posting now)
I had the pleasure of attending a private tasting of two of the William Grant single malt scotch giants, The Balvenie and Glenfiddich, this week of WhiskyFest San Francisco. The tasting was held at Nihon Whisky Lounge, which is a great Japanese restaurant that also boasts the largest single malt selection found on the West coast (over 400 bottles, according to their website).
The tasting was split into two halves. First up was Ray Pearson, Brand Ambassador (Western division) for Glenfiddich, which was the #1 scotch in the world last I checked. See my extended interview with Ray here. Ray provided context on Speyside as a region within Scotland and the typical character of malts from that region ("full, fresh, and easy on the palate") which has led to their widespread popularity.
Ray spent a fair bit of time covering the importance of wood in the aging process. Glenfiddich primarily employs bourbon, sherry and new oak barrels, and aims to achieve a level of consistency across the three woods in their 15 year old malt at volumes unseen by others in the industry through the solera process - basically adding new product at specified intervals to vats containing older product of varying ages to achieve fractional blending ("similar to adding sourdough starter in baking," according to Ray).
To highlight the impact of the woods on the finished product, Ray presented three Glenfiddich samples: the 15 year old, the 21, and the Distillery Edition (102 proof). The 15 was malty and spicy, with some hints of sherry; it wasn't my favorite of the lot, but it grew on me the more I sipped it. The 21 year old was a different beast entirely, since it had been aged in Caribbean rum barrels and presented assertive, strong flavors of toffee and caramel as a result - I liked this the best for its change of pace, though it isn't a typical Speyside malt by any stretch. Lastly, the Distillery Edition was a 51% ABV (alcohol by volume) version of the more common 40% ABV 15 year old; it was certainly stronger, though interestingly more cloudy in the glass since it is non chill-filtered.
Next up was Andrew Weir, Brand Ambassador for The Balvenie (see my extended interview with Andrew here), to provide insight into the history and character of this very popular Speyside malt. Andrew also touched on the importance of wood to his brand ("think of whisky like baking a cake - adding layers of complexity throughout, and the 'icing' is the flavor from the wood"), and shared some interesting factoids about the distilling process:
- In the same way that brandy is effectively "distilled wine" (same ingredient list), think of scotch as distilled beer
- The distilling process is not only time-consuming, it is also expensive - sherry barrels are twice as large as bourbon barrels but 8x as costly ...
- Scotch distillers are paying Spanish coopers these days to grow/harvest forests and manufacture sherry barrels since the demand for the barrels in Scotland far outstrips what is required for sherry production on its own
The madeira 17 was the star, and has been garnering rave reviews (John Hansell of Malt Advocate recently awarded it 90 points). It presented great balance and long finish, with flavors of spice and fruit that were milder and more subtle than the rum version or the portwood 21 version which followed. The latter spent 21 years in first-fill sherry and bourbon barrels, with a 4 month finish in port barrels, and it shows - the overwhelming sensation I got was of chocolate-covered raisins. While pleasant as an after-dinner drink, it was a bit too much after sampling the madeira version, which won my vote as best of the tasting.
The passion that both Andrew and Ray have for their brands and for scotch overall was evident in their presentations - thanks to both of them for their insight and for allowing us to explore some great drams with them!