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Monday, September 3, 2012

Single Malt Report: Glenlivet 12 versus Glenfiddich 12


After reporting on a pair of old $200+ whiskys last week, I thought it best to take a taste of two single malts priced for the workingperson.

Glenlivet and Glenfiddich (both Speysiders) have held the number 1 and 2 spots in the single malt market share for a couple of decades; almost 26% of the total market between them, as of 2010.  They also have the two largest capacities of the non-Roseisle malt whisky distilleries in Scotland.

Their prices also march in lockstep, often differing only 5% from each other.  The 12 years can often be found in the $25+ range, the 15 years at $40+, the 18 years at $65+, and the 21 years at $140+.  I'm not sure if that's collusion or coincidence, but either way 'livet and 'fiddich are two of the more affordable single malts on the shelf.

Of course, they're also at the minimum allowable ABV of 40% (any lower than that and they couldn't label themselves "Scotch whisky" as per the SWA).  And they're both chillfiltered and caramel colored in order to provide the most pleasing visual experience.

Pre-Taste Off Comments

I come to this Taste Off with biases.

I've never found Glenlivet 12 particularly interesting.  It has often seemed to me very polite with few discernable characteristics, almost like a quiet high-malt blend.  My opinion of it changed for the worse three New Years Eves ago when my brother and I went to a pair of pubs in Hollywood.  The 'livet 12 that was poured for me that night gradually went from bland to sour, then from sour to bitter.  I made a mental note not to buy a dram of it at a bar ever again (even though it's often the only single malt available at small bars out here).

I've reviewed Glenfiddich 12 before (here).  It's actually my most viewed Single Malt Report by a long shot.  That's partially due to Google Image searches, and partially due to the malt's popularity.  'Fiddich 12 has been my idea of a reliable cheap twelve-year malt that won't make a woman purr, but also won't draw out a pinched whisky face.  It also makes for a decent highball.

I will now attempt to set aside these inclinations and match 'em up, head to head...


It's a head-to-head between two Single Malt heavyweights.

In one corner, wearing black & gold, owned by William Grant & Sons, stands

Brand: Glenfiddich
Region: Speyside (Dufftown)
Type: Single Malt Whisky
Maturation: American (ex-bourbon) and Spanish (ex-sherry) oak casks
Age: minimum 12 years
Alcohol by Volume: 40%

Color -- The darker of the two, more gold than amber, with some reddish highlights
Nose -- American oak much stronger than the Spanish oak, white fruit juice (think apple, green grape, and pear), brief hint of ammonia, rich cream, maple syrup, whipped cream
Palate -- Vanilla, citrus (orange and lemon), sugar cookies (sort of reminiscent of good single grain whisky)
Finish -- Brief to moderate length, very similar to the palate, but grows sweeter

(Previous tastings found some gin-like herbal/mineral notes, as well as some mocha.)

WITH WATER (approx 28% ABV)
Nose -- Malty and a little sour, the citrus shows up here now, pleasant but mostly characterless
Palate -- Maple syrup, citrus, the bitter ammonia note now shows up here?, vanilla and whipped cream
Finish -- Same length, vanilla, maple syrup, cream, a little drying

When served neat, the nose shows more angles than the palate.  Doesn't improve with water, so you might as well just turn it into a refreshing highball instead.

In the other corner, representing Chivas Brothers & Pernod Ricard, wearing the light beige label and a red cap, stands

Ownership: Chivas Brothers (Pernod Ricard)
Region: Speyside (Livet)
Type: Single Malt Whisky
Maturation: American (ex-bourbon) oak casks
Age: minimum 12 years
Alcohol by Volume: 40%

Color -- The lighter of the two, amber-gold.
Nose -- Light on the oak, a little salty/savory but inoffensive, apple flesh, molasses, hint of cheap cologne
Palate -- Vanilla, sugar cookies, black cherry soda, brown sugar
Finish -- Brief, the black cherry note mostly, a little vanilla, gains in sweetness

W/WATER (approx 28% ABV)
Nose -- Now fruitier (apples), but also more sour, laundry detergent, dried fruit?, some oak later on
Palate -- Water put it to sleep.  A little bit of the black cherry and granulated sugar.  Gets more bitter and sour with time.
Finish -- Drying and sweet, but otherwise quiet.

It's interesting that the bitterness and sourness showed up only with the added water, and not when I had the whisky neat.  Interesting, but still unfortunate.  BUT this still gets a small step up from my earlier opinion of it.  It went from a low two-star to a mid two-star.  [Ed. note: it has actually dropped further in the year since.]  It's not bad, but I can't imagine ever jonsesing for The Glenlivet 12.


The winner:  Glenfiddich 12

Another BUT.  As I just mentioned 'Livet 12 was a little better than I'd expected.  I'm also going to move 'Fiddich 12 a couple spots down the rankings list.  It's still a three-star malt -- in fact it's one of the models for the three-star rating -- but there are a couple close ones that have more character.

Ultimately, neither of these offend and their prices are considerably lower than the competition within their age bracket.  It's comforting to know that a single malt can be purchased for $25.  For now.

Glenfiddich 12yr
Availability - Everywhere!
Pricing - $24-$30
Rating - 82

The Glenlivet 12yr
Availability - Everywhere!
Pricing - $24-$30
Rating - 70