Curiously enough, the company that owns the biggest-selling single malt brand in the world doesn’t have a large portfolio of single malt whiskies. Until recently, William Grant & Sons had only two labels: The Balvenie and the flagship Glenfiddich.
This makes the introduction of a third label, Kininvie, somewhat interesting – how does it fit in with the rest of its kindred?
This was one of several ‘pressing’ (at least for a whisky geek, that is) questions that we put forward to Matthew Fergusson-Stewart, regional brand ambassador for Glenfiddich at William Grant & Sons (WGS). In the second part of our interview (Ed: you can find the first part of the interview here) we explore the relationship between WGS’ core single malt brands, upcoming releases, and what makes Kininivie tick.
SS: Let’s talk about Glenfiddich specifically. Many distilleries these days are very aggressive in promoting their products whereas Glenfiddich, in our opinion, has been comparatively low-key. Does Glenfiddich feel a pressure to compete?
MFS: We actually put a lot of time, effort, and money into marketing; perhaps we’re not as flashy and showy with our efforts?
We are the biggest selling single malt whisky worldwide currently, and we are the most awarded single malt. I can tell you that the former is not nearly as important to us as the latter; particularly to me. Bottled water outsells whisky – it doesn’t really mean anything.
I think we’d long had a commitment to actually making a really good quality product.
We’ve changed the industry in significant ways, such as when we effectively launched the single malt category around the world, and introduced innovations like the Glenfiddich Solera 15 (Ed: for more on what it is and how it works check out our article on this unique whisky here).
Yet we still do a lot of things in traditional ways: we still have wooden washbacks, we still have direct fire stills, and we still use marrying tuns for all our whisky. These are things that do add to time and cost, but they do help us to make a really good spirit.
We will not compromise in order to maintain the position of being world’s best selling single malt, so i guess you’re right in that respect, we won’t be going all out to stay number one. But we will be going all out to ensure we make a great whisky.
SS: Any plans to introduce new ranges of Glenfiddich?
MFS: We have a 26YO, which is purely aged in Bourbon casks, which is for domestic markets and outside of travel retail. So you might not have seen it yet, as it certainly has not been launched in South East Asia; but it will be. Glenfiddich, I don’t know if you’re aware, has recently launched a 38YO (Glenfiddich Ultimate) which is exclusively for the China market.
SS: Why 38YO and not a more conventional 40YO?
MFS: There is a good reason for it. We have a lot of stock around that age. In the past, when we were bottling our 30YO, some of it was 30YO, a lot of it was actually 38YO. And we still have a lot of stock at that age. We probably wouldn’t have enough to do a bottling around the world, but we can pick an important market; a market that we expect to grow a lot, and a market that likes to spend on premium products. That aside, it’s a really nice whisky though – lovely, I must say.
SS: Is there no desire to offer products that appeal to the guys who want higher ABV, non-chill filtration, etc? These are characteristics that many online influencers look out for, and some distilleries are making quite an impact through these sort of bottlings.
MFS: Well there is some vintage cask stuff that’s all cask strength and non-chill-filtered, and usually single cask as well. So we do have some whiskies like that, we just don’t do it for our core range. Our 15YO Distillery Edition is of a higher alcohol strength and non-chill filtered. So yes, we do a bit of it. Most distilleries will have something like that in their portfolio, but they still have that core portfolio that’s 40% or 43%, and they have been making it like this for the last couple of decades.
Would I personally like to see more things like that? Yeah, probably. But I don’t think it would be necessarily a great business decision. This is one of those areas where I think that as whisky geeks, we tend to think we are the public opinion on whisky. We’re not – we’re a very small subset. We’re not the same as the person who has been drinking a basic, blended whisky for the past 20 years and is now looking to get into single malts. They’re not at that level (of obsession). Most of the market is not at that level yet.
It’s a smart move for a smaller distillery; they can innovate, and gain awareness and prominence for themselves. We have almost the opposite problem.
Everywhere you go, for the malt geeks it would be like “oh Glenfiddich, well I tried that 20 years ago.” Part of my job sometimes is to re-introduce them to it and remind them that it is actually a great spirit, and I encourage them to come back and drink it.
SS: I guess when you are as big as Glenfiddich is, you can always have that as the core and experiment on the side?
MFS: Exactly. So we do have other ‘horses’ in our stable. In the old Balvenie range there’s the 15YO Single Barrel, which is at a higher alcohol percentage, and from just one cask. We took that out of the core range, because we created a whole new range for it. There’s now a 12 year old Bourbon cask and a 15 year old sherry cask, with more to come. They’re all presented at higher strength, and they’re pure expressions of single casks. Yes, we haven’t done that with Glenfiddich, but we’ve done it with other parts of our portfolio.
SS: Speaking of The Balvenie, I hear that its Tun 1401 series has been discontinued and will be replaced by the Tun 1509, which is a bigger marrying vat. What’s the difference?
MFS: Well we’ll be making it in exactly the same way. Same mixture of casks, same quality of wood; it’ll just be a different Tun. The reason for the change is basically down to size – you know, it was becoming tough doing these different batches, because each batch was necessarily small. And then you get people who’re selling them up to five times what they paid for them around the world, to people who want to collect the full set and things like that. People talk about the rising price of whiskies and part of what drives it is trading.
So we thought, let’s make it a bit easier for people; we’ll get a bigger Tun, a bigger bottling range, and hopefully preserve the quality of the spirit. We’ll be aiming for the same flavour profile, proportions, and ages of cask. The intention is that we don’t have to do a batch for a specific market, so we can have bigger batches and we can distribute the same batch everywhere. This hopefully will alleviate that problem.
[FYI] Quick background on The Balvenie ‘Tun’ series
The new Tun 1509 is based on the successful Tun 1401 and Tun 1858 (Taiwan exclusive) series. The original Tun 1401 series is named after The Balvenie Malt Master David Stewart’s favourite marrying tun – a large vat, which is essentially a huge-ass barrel. (I apologise for the language, but it is the most succinct way of putting it) The vat holds the whiskies David chose – roughly seven traditional whisky casks and three sherry butts, but varies from batch to batch – and is left to ‘marry’ for three months or so before being bottled.
The series has since amassed a formidable reputation as well as a cult following, thanks a combination of competitive pricing – it could be had for just a little over S$300 at the Duty Free – and excellent quality. It looks like a bargain on paper, and delivers on the palate too. No wonder, as the casks used can range from 20-50 years. However, with Tun 1401 you can only eke out 2000-odd bottles for each batch, which creates a shortage pretty quickly. The Tun 1858 follows the same formula, but allegedly with older casks on average.
Now the Tun 1509 is roughly four times as large as Tun 1401, and for the first release, holds 41 casks (34 traditional American oak barrels, seven European sherry butts). Aware that the Tun series appeals to enthusiasts in particular, David added as much information as he could to the packaging, even listing the component casks used and rating them for character. While no local release date has been announced, it should be priced at S$450 RRP.
SS: How is WGS positioning Kininvie in its portfolio?
MFS: Our messaging on Glenfiddich these days is hardly about biggest selling and most awarded, but mostly about its family run status; we talk a lot about the family history. Our messaging for The Balvenie is very much around craft – we call it the most handcrafted single malt because the five rare crafts used to make Balvenie. We grow our own barley, we malt our own barley, we have our own coppersmiths, we have our own cooperage, and we have the industry’s longest serving malt master, David Stewart. So we talk about those as our five rare crafts in making a lovely spirit.
Glenfiddich was built in 1887, Balvenie was built in 1892, but Kininvie was built much, much later, in 1990. It was originally built mainly to give us capacity for blends like Grants, for trading with other houses, and also as a component for Monkey Shoulder as well. But it’s a great spirit. The Glenfiddich is light and grassy, and a lot of its character is orchard fruits, Balvenie is more malty and dried fruits, whereas Kininvie has some floral notes, so it’s a very different profile. We’re positioning it as the world’s most reclusive single malt.
[FYI] How reclusive is Kininvie, really?
The only recorded single malt bottlings of Kininvie, prior to the release of the 23 YO under its actual name, were specially bottled under the name Hazelwood, which essentially were tributes to the late grand-daughter of the company’s founder, Janet Sheed Roberts, who was then, Scotland’s oldest living person, aged 110.
The first and the last bottling in the series aside – Hazelwood Centennial Reserve and Hazelwood Janet Sheed Roberts – the remaining two bottles, the Hazelwood 105 and Hazelwood Reserve (the only one that was publicly available), are the only known single malt bottlings of Kininvie.
The website Malt Madness reports that there have been attempts by independent bottlers to sell ‘teaspooned’ Kininvie, which essentially is Kininvie, blended with a small amount of malt whisky from another distillery in their stable. Aldunie Blended Malt is an example of this.
Whenever anyone builds a distillery these days, they can’t wait to get some new make or some three year old spirit out the door to try and make some money off them; and understandably so. After Kininivie was built in 1990, aside from a few things that came and went, we never released anything until we released a 23 YO in Taiwan – hence its status as the world’s most reclusive single malt.
SS: The talk about Kininvie is that it’s not exactly a distillery and it’s just a stillhouse. Is that true? MFS: Online people talk about the fact that it’s just a stillhouse, which is not exactly accurate. (Ed: you can check out a video which shows glimpses of the Kininvie stills and its operations here) It just happens that its mash tun and washbacks are located next to the Balvenie ones. Legally it’s part of the Kininvie Distillery – you know, draw an imaginary line on the floor, that part of the building is Kininvie, and the rest of it is Balvenie. It’s a strange setup, but definitely its own single malt.
SS: Will there be a regular range for Kinnivie?
MFS: There will be Kininvies – the current release is a limited edition. Right now it’s Batch 1 and there will be more batches coming. Ultimately it’s going to depend on the response but I think people will like it, because I think it’s very good, and I think we’ll see more of it. Probably not right away, but eventually I expect that Kininvie will have its own standard range.
SS: Last question for Kininvie: why this bottle size (350ml)?
MFS: The idea is that you can easily buy two, keep one and drink one; or drink one and give one as a gift. It’s also intended to reflect the limited nature of it – we’re not putting a lot of it out.
SS: OK, let’s end this on a light note. What is it really like to be a WGS brand ambassador?
MFS: I like to ‘brag’ and joke a lot when people ask me what I do. I say my job is actually to travel around South East Asia, talk about whisky and drink whisky with people, and you know, everyone laughs but it’s pretty close to the truth. It’s not necessarily easy and in that respect you do need to have an exhaustive knowledge of the brand of whisky, a generally good understanding of the market, and a strong ability to communicate with people. The most challenging part, is all the traveling. I love going places and meeting new people, but it’s a lot time spent away from home and a lot of time spent on aeroplanes. But I love the job, I honestly do. I really enjoy it.
While he’s not busy with his baby girl, Matthew spend his time dissecting whisky molecules and planning world whisky domination with his whisky interest group Dram Full (Ed: way too many ‘whisky’ in a sentence, save it for your glass instead).
Photo credits (unless stated): WGS