The Minds Behind Project XX

23 September 2016

Shrouded in secrecy, twenty of the whisky world’s finest experts came together to choose one intriguing whisky each from our private warehouse; a gargantuan building stacked to the rafters with barrel upon barrel of unusual malts. Our Malt Master, Brian Kinsman married the chosen single malts, resulting in our most ambitious experiment yet: Project XX. Brand Ambassadors Beth Havers and Mark Thomson, are two of the twenty experts who took part. Today, they tell us the story behind their chosen single malts.


How did Brian recruit you to this secretive project?

Mark Thomson: During our annual Ambassadors conference, we were invited to Conval Warehouse. The experience of going through the old warehouse, seeing those incredible casks and the excitement of being able to draw out of any one you wanted was heaven in itself. It wasn’t until half way through the day that Brian revealed what was actually happening. It’s been a year since then, and a very difficult secret to keep.

What makes Project XX so unique?

MT: Project XX (pronounced Twenty) was concocted from twenty different casks, which Brian said in his own words that he would ‘never have picked in a million years’, because they are so varied. Twenty individual experts have brought their own understanding and appreciation of whisky and together they have created this magical alchemy of a bottle.

Tell us how you chose your cask. 

MT: As an ambassador, you have a good knowledge of cask type, size and shape. We use over 75 different types of oak cask at Glenfiddich and you never know just by looking at a cask exactly what the flavour characteristic is going to be. However, you do know how certain cask types will affect a whisky. My love of Glenfiddich comes from its lightness, its delicacy and its floral grassiness. That is best expressed, in my opinion, from American oak. I went for a slightly smaller barrel because it has a higher wood to whisky ratio and you can get lots more flavour. To be exact, mine was a 1999 refill barrel at 60% alcohol, which at 17 years old is very unusual. Normally you lose about 1% alcohol per annum in evaporation, so this was obviously a very well-made cask.


Beth Havers: I wanted to find something unique, so my particular cask was a port pipe. I come from a big wine background, and it was something that I’d never really come across in our warehouses. Port is very similar to bourbon and sherry in the sense that it adds those fruit characters. For me, the port pipe smelled exactly like apple pie at Thanksgiving. It was just such a familiar smell, but something really unique as well – because it’s not something I’ve gotten from the Glenfiddich whiskies I’ve tried in the past. This whisky brought back such fond memories from my childhood. For my palate, it was exactly what I was looking for.

Was the final whisky everything you expected?

BH: They always say ‘Is whisky science or magic?’ Each malt might be filled in exactly the same cask type in the same year, but every single whisky is completely unique. There were quite a few people who selected sherry casks and a few who selected bourbon, but even in and around the same age, they were all completely different. Project XX is really reflective of that magic and of each individual person that selected each whisky. The results were complex as well as being incredibly delicious. It has all those notes that you would expect from Glenfiddich - rich fruit with depth of character and slightly higher in alcohol. It was an exciting taste.

MT: When I got to try that final product it was exactly what I had hoped for. Immediately it is recognisable as Glenfiddich. And then after that, something delightful emerges. It's the pure variation of casks each Ambassador chose, combined with Brian's knowledge and understanding of how they should come together. Beth's Port Pipe for example - whisky from a port pipe usually comes out quite pink, it also tends to give a fruity, raspberry note to the whisky. And it's in there. What's bizarre is that you start to identify individual people’s choices coming through. But the overriding spirit is still Glenfiddich, which is outstanding. You can be as geeky as you want about the process but at the end of the day it's actually a bloody fine whisky.

How did the marrying process work?

MT: There was a great moment when everybody thought they had found their eureka whisky, and we each took it to Brian. He vatted them together there and then. It was good, but needed refinement. And that is where Brian’s skills came in. He spent a considerable amount of time adjusting the ratios – because clearly not every cask in equal measure would work. He saw the beauty in each of the individual casks. But he also saw the greater benefit of the sum of those parts coming together, creating something amazing.

What does this mean to Glenfiddich?

BH: We are so well known for our pioneering advancements, and I think that this is just an example of something else that we’re doing to really push the boundaries of whisky. Project XX goes back to that essence that we do things differently.

Why does Project XX work so well?

MT: It’s classic Glenfiddich – it is light and approachable but there is also a great balance of sweetness with something unusual. If we start doing things that aren't in the DNA of our distillery, we will lose what William Grant started. To me this is creative and maverick without losing sight of where we come from.


Can we expect more experiments in the future?

BH: All I can say is: wait in anticipation, and you surely won’t be disappointed.

Read more about Project XX and the Experimental Series here.