I love that distilleries are experimenting with their maturation processes, and Scottish spirits have been leading the charge in that area. They were among the first to start “cask finishing” their whiskey in barrels from other types of beverages (wine, sherry, port, beer, etc) and they’ve continued to find new and interesting ways to add unique flavors to their spirits. Today we’re looking at a highland scotch whiskey that has undergone not only an aging stint in bourbon and sherry casks but also spent time in a solera-style process.
In 1886, William Grant invested his entire life savings (and the help of his wife and their nine children) into opening the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown, Scotland to make scotch whisky. He had been working at the Mortlach distillery but had dreamed of opening his own facility one day. The first whisky was successfully run through the Glenfiddich stills on Christmas Day 1887, and the business was launched by selling to distributors who combined this product with that of other distilleries to make the blends that were popular in those days.
His business was successful, and in 1892 he decided to expand to another facility and started converting the Balvenie mansion into a distillery. The process took fifteen months and on May 1st, 1893 the first distillation run at the new Balvenie distillery took place. Like the Glenfiddich distillery, for the first 78 years of operation the whiskey would be combined with other distilleries’ spirits and used to produce blended scotch.
Over the years, William Grant & Sons (as the company would be known) would have many firsts — the first “single malt” scotch from the Glenfiddich distillery, as well as the first distillery to open up to the public for regular tours among others. The Balvenie distillery would continue to receive upgrades and enhancements, including a modern malting floor in 1929, and produced its first single malt whiskey in 1971.
Nearly a century later, in 1990, the Kininvie distillery would finally join the three distilleries that William Grant & Sons continue to operate to this day.
- Learn More: What Is Scotch Whisky?
What we have here is an interesting combination of the Scottish and American whiskey traditions, with a Spanish flair at the end.
This starts out as a standard single malt scotch whisky, as required by Scottish law. Malted barley is ground and cooked before being allowed to ferment, creating a mildly alcoholic beer. That beer is then passed through two pot stills, which concentrate the alcohol content and leave us with newly made white whiskey.
The next step is maturation, when the whiskey is funneled into oak barrels. Glenfiddich seems to follow the usual pattern from other distilleries and puts their newly-made whiskey into previously used American bourbon barrels. American bourbon requires a fresh barrel each time, while scotch has no such requirement — so Scottish distilleries will typically buy those used barrels, wash them out, and use them a second time for far less than the price of a new barrel.
For this version of their spirit, the distillery uses a combination of old American bourbon barrels, sherry casks, and new oak barrels. There they sit for fifteen full years before being blended together to form the right flavor profile. This is where the modified solera method maturation process comes into play: rather than directly bottling each run of spirits, they are instead added to a massive vat and allowed to mellow out. The trick here is that the vat is never emptied beyond halfway — meaning that there’s always a portion of the previous batches that remains behind and this leads to a more consistently delicious finished product.
I really like the bottles that Glenfiddich is using these days. It’s a nice, modern twist on a classic design — with just enough eccentricity to keep things interesting.
On first glance, this isn’t much to write home about: a slender body bottle with a gently rounded shoulder and a medium length straight neck, all capped off with a wood and cork stopper. This sounds like any number of dozens of bottles, but what makes this a bit different is that the bottle has an interesting triangular cross section instead of just being circular. That small change makes the bottle feel different and unique among the rest of the field.
(It’s also a very intentional design choice. This design was created in 1961 by Hans Schleger as an homage to the “holy trinity” that goes into making scotch whisky: water, air, and malted barley.)
On the bottle is a nice looking label that’s large enough to be noticeable, but not so large that it obstructs our view of the contents. The branding is bold and distinctive, but without being flashy. And I’m a fan of the brown, white, and metallic gold color combination that’s going on here. It feels modern in its minimalism while classic in it’s color palette.
This spirit is a beautiful dark amber color, almost closer to a bourbon than to a traditional scotch whisky. The aromas coming off the glass are spot-on for a highland scotch, though: malty cereal, honey, some flower blossoms, dried apricots, banana, and even a touch of nutmeg. Deliciously brunch-y, just the way I like it.
Those aromas do a fantastic job of translating through into the flavor. The first thing I get is a solid hit of that nutmeg spice, which lays the groundwork for the rest of the components. The dried fruit is up next, combined with a bit of caramel that probably came from the bourbon barrels. I’ll note that the caramel has a bit of bitterness associated with it, like it was just slightly scorched in the pan, but is otherwise pleasant. On the finish, those floral and honey aspects really develop and linger for quite some time,
Adding some ice, the more bourbon-y aspects of the spirit seem to be coming through strongest at this point. The floral components have been shelved and barely make an appearance now.
On the aroma, I’m getting a lot of the brown sugar and toffee caramel that I’d expect from a bourbon, but with a touch of honey added in for good measure. The same goes for the flavor, which has gone from a delicious bouquet of variety down to just those few hand-selected items from the aroma.
I will note one thing here: that slightly scorched caramel flavor has developed into something closer to a dried fig. It is bringing a bit of richness and intensity to the experience, which keeps this from seeming too watered down. It’s just enough to make this still interesting to sip even after the ice goes into the glass.
I’m not mad at what’s in the bottle here. Either as a sipping spirit or on the rocks, there are some flavors in here that make it a delight to enjoy. But there’s also a touch of bitterness when taken neat and a lack of flavors on the rocks… both of which do detract from the experience a bit.
Honestly speaking, I don’t think there’s a huge part played by the pseudo-solera process being used here, except that bottles should be a bit more consistent. It’s an interesting story but not something that materially adds value in my opinion.
If you told me this was a $50 bottle of whiskey, I think I’d be happy… but for the price they are asking, I don’t exactly feel like I’m quite getting my value for money.
|Glenfiddich 15 Year Solera Scotch Whisky
Produced By: GlenfiddichProduction Location: Speyside, Scotland
Classification: Single Malt Scotch Whiskey
Aging: 15 Years
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $72.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 2/5
A floral, fruity, bourbon-y scotch spirit that might be a bit over-engineered (and over-priced).