A Vintage Day: Selecting the next Glenfiddich vintage cask
I’m standing outside the Glenfiddich Distillery Visitor’s Center with my Managing Editor Lew Bryson waiting to tour the distillery when I notice four guys ripping branches off plants in the beautiful landscaped lawn. I’m thinking, “If someone from the distillery sees this, they’re going to call security and boot these guys out of here.”
But instead, the distillery reps come out of the door and shake their hands. One of the four guys lifts a plant up, smells it, and proclaims, in French, “sarriette.” Another person nods his head in agreement and, in English says, “summer savory.”
Another member of the group chimes in: “Thyme too!”
“Is this a scotch distillery or a horticultural school,” I wondered.
The distillery rep then recognizes me, comes over to me, and says, “John, I’d like you to meet the people who will be helping you pick next year’s vintage of Glenfiddich whisky.”
Suddenly, it all made sense. You see, Glenfiddich invited a master perfumer from France (Aurelien Guichard, perfumer for Givaudan), a Michelin Star chef from London (Anthony Demetre of Arbutus restaurant), and a whisky “expert” from the United States (yours truly) to select next year’s vintage of Glenfiddich. Each year, Glenfiddich’s “Malt Master” David Stewart picks a new vintage, generally 30 years or older, and this whisky is bottled and sold in very limited quantities.
Lately, David had been getting a group of people to help him pick the vintage. Last year, seven coopers helped him select a fantastic 1973 Vintage cask of Glenfiddich. This year, he chose expert noses and tasters from different professions. On top of this, the distillery asked each of us to pick a “pupil”-someone relatively new to each of our respective professions-to come and join us. The owners of Glenfiddich, William Grant, thought this would tie in nicely with their current marketing concept, “Every Year Counts.” The idea here is that every year counts, whether it is a barrel of Glenfiddich aging in a warehouse, or if it is a chef, perfumer, or whisky writer becoming more experienced in his field.
At first, I told Glenfiddich “I’m honored that you chose me, but I’m going to decline.” I have made a career out of evaluating whisky, and I, as a rule, don’t cross over the line and get involved in the business of picking casks for companies. Plus, it was the week of July 4th, and my family already made plans to spend the week at the Jersey Shore.
But about one week later, they called me back and said they changed the date to later in the month, after my vacation was over, so I could make it. And then I thought, “I’ve never spent a day with a perfumer or a master chef nosing and tasting whiskies. This could be a great learning experience for me-and for Lew, who I chose as my ‘pupil.’” On top of this, I never really spent much time with David Stewart, a man who has spent over forty years working at Glenfiddich. So, I accepted their kind invitation.
Which brings us back to the Glenfiddich Visitor’s Center. After a morning tour of the distillery with David, a stroll and tasting in the warehouses and lunch (I fondly remember a fantastic sherry cask of Glenfiddich from 1959-Lew’s birth year), we were ready for the business at hand. There were eight of us-whisky maker, whisky writer, master chef, master perfumer, and each of our “pupils,” sitting around a table with six whisky samples sitting in front of us.
David gave us the background: “Brian Kinsman-my apprentice and pupil-and I asked the distillery to select 30 different cask samples to start, all from three different vintages: 1974, 1975, and 1976. They picked ten from each vintage. Then, Brian and I narrowed it down to six, two from each vintage. We obviously picked what we felt were high quality casks. We were also looking for variety.”
All six whiskies were laid out in front of us on a place mat. Normally, when I evaluate whisky, it’s in my office and I’m working alone. Today was a little different. Besides the eight of us around the table, there was probably another eight or more in the room-including a photographer and someone filming the event. Nevertheless, we’ve got whisky to taste and evaluate, and I soon forget that they’re there.
David took us through one cask at a time, starting with 1974. The first one was from a used bourbon barrel. It was creamy, pleasantly sweet with notes of vanilla and coconut. With water, more fruit emerged. A very pleasant, even-keeled whisky, but somewhat conservative in nature. I get the feeling that there’s one better than this in the bunch.
Our second one from 1974, also aged in a bourbon, behaved much differently-even though it was distilled from the same spirit on the same day, put into the same type of cask, and stored in the same location. This one was darker, much drier, and very spicy with a resinous texture on the palate. It was quite the bully. Suddenly I feel like Goldilocks tasting the porridge. The first one was too cold; this one is too hot.
We move to two from 1975. Once again, both share the same distillation run and were matured in the same warehouse. And both were aged in sherry casks. Once again, it’s surprising how different each is in flavor. The first one was heavy and thick on the palate, with notes of maple syrup, toffee, raisin, stewed fruit and maple syrup. But it was somewhat sluggish on the palate-and a little cloying.
On to the second one. What was there tasted good, but the flavors were tightly bound and reserved. Bordeaux wine drinkers talk about how a First Growth Chateau from a great vintage will “close up” for a few or several years during maturation before releasing all its aromas and flavors after additional aging. That’s how I felt about this whisky. It was clean and still quite youthful-tasting line a whisky half its age. The whisky just seemed like it needed more time to mature and blossom. It seemed like the flavors were hiding from us.
I’m getting worried now. There’s only two whiskies left, and I want to help pick a whisky that I can fully endorse. I tasted the previous year’s vintage selection, from 1973, just prior to heading to Scotland for this event, and I was certain that the 1973 Vintage bottling was superior to the four whiskies we tasted so far.
But sample #5, a sherry cask sample from 1976, changed all that. The nose was fresh and clean, fragrant and floral with tropical fruit galore. On the palate, there was a continued array of complex tropical fruit-particularly mandarin and pineapple-leading to a clean, gentle, subtly spicy finish. A very more-ish dram that was at the same time well-organized, crisp, and very sophisticated. I found my favorite whisky.
Our last whisky of the evening, while delicious in its own right, lacked the fruit necessary to go along with the vanilla wafer and honey notes. It was a bit anticlimactic.
We decided that we would pick our two top whiskies and tally up the scores. Whisky #5, Cask #516 and my favorite, was the overall winner, although there were two people who chose other whiskies as their favorite-for valid reasons.
So, what did I learn from my experience with the perfumers and chefs? I was impressed by their ability to judge whiskies. For the most part, we all felt the same way about the majority of the whiskies. The perfumers focused more on the emotions and mood that the whiskies evoke (e.g., this one was very romantic, that one was very bright and cheery), while the chefs were more focused on flavors (e.g., vanilla, raisin). David and I were perhaps a little more scientific and analytical in our responses, which isn’t surprising given our science background.
There’s just one thing I don’t know the answer to: is the 1976 vintage cask we chose for the next bottling as good as the current bottling from 1973? They didn’t have a single bottle of the 1973 at the distillery-not even in the gift shop-to compare to the whisky we selected. It sounds like a good excuse to get together with David again-in the U.S. or Scotland-with both vintages in front of us, and drink some more delicious vintage Glenfiddich whisky.