...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Glenfiddich: An Introduction and History

Though he had a stable job to support his nine children, William Grant chose to quit his gig as Mortlach's manager in order to build his own distillery. Constructed from the stones of River Fiddich, the distillery was dubbed Glenfiddich, or "valley of the deer". In 1886, Grant caught a break when Cardhu distillery sold off their used distilling gear — including stills, water mill, worm tubs and mash tun — for all of £120. Glenfiddich spirit first passed through those stills on Christmas day, 1887.

When whisky broker William Williams & Company quickly bought up the distillery's entire output, Grant then increased the 400 gallons/week yield and started supplying whisky to Pattisons Ltd. Many distilleries were crushed when Pattisons went bust in 1898, but because Grant pivoted his business and started producing his own blends, Glenfiddich survived. Their most successful blend for more than a half century was Standfast (named after Clan Grant's motto).

William Grant had a stroke in 1900, and in 1903 the family business was turned into an LLC known as William Grant & Sons. The company has stayed in the family ever since.

In 1957, the company contracted modernist designer, Hans Schleger, to rework their packaging design. The result was the industry's first three-cornered bottle, an iconic design that only changed once, in 1964, when its clear glass was switched to green glass for their new product.

Single malt whisky had existed since legal whisky production began, but what made Glenfiddich's 1963 foray into single malt unique was the decision to promote and market it, worldwide, with the same effort put towards blended whisky. This sudden, risky maneuver wasn't blind chutzpah. It was prompted by necessity.

In 1963, Distillers Company Limited ended its grain whisky contract with William Grant & Sons, putting Standfast's production at risk. William Grant's great-grandchildren adapted just as he did when circumstances became difficult. They built their own grain distillery, Girvan, within the year. And Glenfiddich 8 year old Pure Malt made its debut.

Thought it took a few years, the gamble paid off. In 1964, Glenfiddich Pure Malt (or Straight Malt in the US) sold 4,000 cases. In 1974, it sold nearly 120,000 cases. Around 1,200,000 cases of Glenfiddich's single malt were exported in 2017. With its jump on the rest of the marketplace, Glenfiddich has been the number one selling single malt brand for 54 of the past 55 years. As recently as 2007, Glenfiddich had 18% of the single malt export market, which was more than the 2nd and 3rd single malts combined. As of 2016, they still held 12.5% of the market.

In addition to trailblazing the single malt marketplace, Glenfiddich was the first single malt to show up in Duty Free shops, in 1968. The distillery was also was the first in Scotland to build a visitor center, in 1969.

The distillery has outsourced its malt supply since its floor maltings were closed in 1958. They've used the same water source, Robbie Dhu, since the 1880s, but their production levels have increased slightly, approximately 173x. The distillery now has 32 stills (some of which remain direct-fired), 32 Douglas Fir washbacks and two stainless steel mash tuns. The fermentation time is either 60 or 72 hours (depending on one's source).

Though Glenfiddich's entry level single malt has kept the same bottle shape for more than five decades, its name and label design has shifted more than a half dozen times. It's been known as a Pure Malt, Pure Single Malt, Straight Malt, Unblended and Single Malt, though it's always been 100% malt whisky from the same distillery. It went by the same Special Reserve or Special Old Reserve name for at least 30 years, but is now labelled as "Our Signature Malt". It's been an NAS, 8yo, 10yo and 12yo whisky at different times. Its balance of sherry to bourbon casks (15/85 in 2008) has also likely changed a bit over the years.

Glenfiddich 12 year old was the first single malt I ever tried, 20-ish years ago. I've been curious to find out how the liquid has changed, so I collected eight bottles from batches produced over the past four decades. Now I'm going to open them up and drink 'em. Gird your loins, it's going to be a 'Fiddich February.

--MacLean, Charles. Whiskypedia. A Compendium of Scotch Whisky. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing, 2010.
--MacLean, Charles. Scotch Whisky, A Liquid History. London, UK: Cassell Illustrated, 2005.
--Ronde, Ingvar (Ed.). Malt Whisky Yearbook 2018. Shropshire, UK: MagDig Media. 2017