Last time around, we spoke of Cardhu, the spiritual home of Johnnie Walker and one of the most enduring Scotch Whisky brands of our time. At one point in its history, the Cummings built a new distillery to meet an increasing demand for their spirit. The new distillery would be equipped with new stills and the old ones were then sold to a certain gentleman named William Grant, and aspiring distiller who had recently left Mortlach to start his own distillery with his family.
This family distillery, which of today lies 19 kilometres away from Cardhu, is none other than The Glenfiddich. It is a distillery that has remained in the family of the original founders, five-generations-going-on-six, and has established itself to be the world’s best selling single malt. That’s no mean feat when you consider that it’s up against the likes of conglomerates like Diageo and LVMH.
Thanks again to DFS Singapore, we had the opportunity to visit the distillery. Receiving us was Alan McArthur, the distillery guide who wasted no time in getting us up to speed. While this is not our first visit to the distillery – you can read more of that here – this is a slightly different look at one of Scotch Whisky’s best known whiskies.
A History Lesson
Unlike many distilleries where changes in ownership often resulted in the tellings of its day-to-day history to be lost in time, the Grants are still around, and so are the tales of the family and the distillery in its infancy – which is great if you’re into that sort of thing. The Grants used to be a powerful clan in the north of Scotland who owned much of the lands between Inverness and Elgin. Their fortunes waned due to their involvement in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 when they threw their support behind the Bonnie Prince Charlie’s claim to the throne. Following the English victory and subsequent reprisal, Alexander, William and Daniel changed their names, fled to Dufftown, and settled down as farmers.
It was there that William Grant would be born a hundred years later. At the age of 27 in 1866, he joined the Mortlach distillery as an accountant and took an interest in the liquid gold that the company produced. There, his dreams were set in stone, at least metaphorically, that one day he would own and operate his own distillery, producing the best whisky in the valley.
He rose through the ranks quickly and spent a good number of years as distillery manager, and he saved as much as he could so that he could pursue his dream. Eventually, William saved about £775 (about £98,000 today) – about eight to nine years’ salary for a distillery manager – to set him on his way.
In 1886, some land with potential had been made available. It was surrounded by good quality barley fields, fed by a fresh underground water source known as the Robbie Dhu spring, which they still use to this day, a train line next door, and a ready supply of skilled labour from Dufftown. With his family – his wife, seven sons, two daughters, plus one stone mason – they built the distillery by hand. It took him over a year; 371 days to be exact. And on Christmas Day, 1887, the first drops of spirit ran from the stills.
People may be surprised that Glenfiddich, despite its large volume production, tends to have many old-fashioned processes – they don’t just have a couple of people running a computer to keep things going. The misconception is that large producers often computerise or at least, are in the business of heavily optimising their processes in favour of volume. While Glenfiddich is often running a peak efficiency to maintain a steady, high volume of output, they are essentially optimising whisky production in other areas.
Alan shared that Glenfiddich uses a fairly standard ratio grind – 7:2:1 for their malt (70 per cent grist, 20 per cent husk, 10 per cent flour). Each mash tun holds about 10.5 tonnes of barley and extraction is carried out thrice with water from the Robbie Dhu. In the first run the water (striking water) runs at 65C and turns the grinds to a mash; the water is drained and a second run is run at 75C. The process is repeated one last time at 90C. At Glenfiddich, the barley spends 4.5 hours in the tun before the wort – water containing the sugars – is separated from the draff (the remnants of the malted barley) and the next step can begin. Each mash tun produces about 41,000 litres of wort every cycle. When you consider that the distillery runs 24/7 except during Christmas, the numbers are staggering.
The next step of the process takes place in enormous six-metres-tall wooden washbacks made from Douglas fir, which is a variety of Oregon pine; Glenfiddich houses 24 washbacks in its premises, and that works out to about 1.08 million litres at any one time. The distillery makes so much whisky that the customs and excise office no longer visits the distillery to take a census, as that would require the distillery to stop operating every three months – they basically have to calculate the taxes due based on an educated guess. Despite the large volumes they’re producing right now, Glenfiddich is still bottlenecked and they’re looking to expand their mash tun and washback capacities so they can keep up with demand.
Though some distilleries have transitioned to stainless steel washbacks, Glenfiddich has maintained the use of wooden washbacks despite the extra maintenance required. Extra care has to be taken to prevent wood rot and bacterial growth, and these washbacks will last up to 30 years if taken care of properly.
These washbacks can hold up to 45,000 litres of liquid, though a typical batch contains about 41,000 litres of wort. The hot sugary spring water is cooled down to 16C and 250 litres of Mauri cream yeast is added. One distinct characteristic of Glenfiddich is that it utilises a very long fermentation process – 72 hours. Alan explains that it’s the long fermentation that is responsible for the sugary compounds and esters that deliver the distinct apples and pears that are synonymous with Glenfiddich. At the end of the process, the wash measures 9.6% ABV and this is what will go into the stills.
While the stills are modern, they are in fact, replicas of the original wash still and two spirit stills (one witches’ hat and one potbelly) that William Grant purchased from Elizabeth Cummings for £120 when she rebuilt Cardhu. As you’d imagine, the stills are fairly small and hence, Glenfiddich has built 10 wash stills and 21 spirit stills (one spare) to maintain optimum production numbers. The Witches’ hat or lantern still gives you a heavier, oiler spirit with more ethanol quite quickly, which develop distinct grassy notes. The potbelly still has more reflux, i.e. it gets trapped in the middle section and slows the process, which in turn encourages more interaction and removal of impurities and produces a lighter, fruitier and more floral spirit, though the process takes a lot longer.
Because these two stills produce very different character, William Grant got both of them so that he had the flexibility of making different styles or by creating a balance between the two by blending them together, which is essentially what Glenfiddich is.
The stills are fired directly, ahem, still, even though steam and electricity are more prevalent these days. A direct-fired still has many drawbacks. It is a fire hazard for one, as you have to prevent the mash from scorching and not to mention that a constant, intense flame is very hard on the stills over time. For perspective,’modern’ stills can last about 40 years while the stills at Glenfiddich have to be replaced every eight to ten years.
The main reason why the practice is still carried out despite its apparent inefficiency is that direct firing tends to create hot spots within the still that may burn the wash. This may cause Maillard reactions, which give you furfural and sulphur compounds, which can account for some burnt, nutty notes as well as vegetal notes in some cases. All these add to the intrinsic character of the spirit, which is why some distilleries choose not to make the switch. In all and out of that initial 41,000 litres of wort, each distillation gets you between 4.5 to 5,000 litres of new make spirit (not counting recycling the foreshots and feints). Each day, an average of 30,0000 litres of spirit is produced, though it can be as much as 50 to 60,000 litres. To this day, despite the high level of modern equipment and process controls available to distilleries, Glenfiddich relies on good ol’ stillmen who have been at it since the ’70s and ’80s. A hygrometer and thermometer will do very nicely, thank you.
When it comes to waste, however, the approach is more modern. Draff, which is high in protein and low in sugar, is typically sold back to the farmers as it is excellent cattle feed, but Glenfiddich had recently opened a biomass plant in 2016 and is currently using its draff and discarded pot ale to produce commercial gas, which goes back into the operation of the distillery in the form of electricity. A shame for the cows, but yay for sustainability. The other byproduct – spent lees from the spirit still – is treated as effluent water and returned back into the ecosystem. Glenfiddich takes a lot of pride in its eco-practices, which now has the added incentive of partially supplying its energy needs.
After distillation, the new make spirit makes its way to a variety of casks, which are filled at 68 per cent and 63.5 per cent ABV depending on the purpose. Glenfiddich is a little more traditional in this sense, where bourbon and sherry casks form roughly 95 per cent of its inventory; we’re told that a good guess is about 75 per cent bourbon and 20 per cent sherry. We’re also told that Brian Kinsman, the Malt Master at Glenfiddich, is able to create over 70 profiles of Glenfiddich simply through the judicious use of ex-bourbon casks alone. That said, most Glenfiddich that you find on the shelves compose of a mix of bourbon and sherry, though in recent years, more experimental offerings have been hitting the shelves, such as the Cask Collection, the Experimental IPA and even ice wine casks in the form of the experimental series Winter Storm.
The casks are all stored in the 47 warehouses located on site and stored in a mix of traditional racks and modern pallets. When batch blended, the whiskies stay in the vat for three to six months. For the most part, the bottling is usually done onsite but typically some bottling of the 12 YO may be done at SBP because of an increased demand in the run-up to the festive season.
The Upside of Being ‘Commercial’
It’s very easy to pick on Glenfiddich for the fact that they make their whiskies accessible for the masses and for that reason the whisky tends not to be of interest to a seasoned whisky drinker. It’s easy to forget that despite their ‘commercial’ status, they make whisky in a fairly traditional fashion as you can see – albeit on a far larger scale than many ‘craft’ distilleries. So credit where credit is due.
There is an upside to being ‘commercial’ as well. It’s very well set up for visits, as the original distillery still stands; in fact, the old maltings house is now occupied by The Malt Barn restaurant (which is rather good, by the way). So there’s a good blend of rustic charm and polished professionalism throughout your entire visit. To complete the experience, you should arrange a visit for both Glenfiddich and The Balvenie, which we highly recommend. In doing so, you’d be able to experience the entire traditional whisky making process (you can check out traditional malting and the cooperage at The Balvenie) in its entirety – plus large-scale modern production to boot. To put it simply, if you could only visit one distillery and you wanted a crash course of sorts, there aren’t many alternatives that are better in terms of comprehensiveness.
If you still have any doubt about the quality of the spirit at the end of the distillery tour and still have any doubt about the quality of spirit, then stop by the gift shop and pick up the distillery exclusive: the 15YO Solera. It’s the same as the regular 15YO, but at cask strength. Previously sighted only at special occasions hidden under a suspicious person’s kilt or at deconstruction workshops, this is an entirely different beast to the regular 15YO (basically a far richer version) and makes a strong case for why they should have higher strength offerings designed expressly for the anoraks.
DFS Singapore also carries quite an extensive range of Glenfiddich offerings ranging from competitively priced daily drams in the form of the Cask Collection to regular 18YO and 21YO bottlings to limited editions. This article is part of a series of distillery visits made possible by DFS Singapore. Many thanks for the hospitality!