Home To Glenfiddich: Part 6

9 April 2014

Liquid History

by Joel Harrison

The process of combining three natural ingredients - barley, water and yeast – a generous helping of time and an oak cask to create a golden whisky, is the closest thing I have ever experienced to alchemy.  
It is this magical process that was used by William Grant when he opened The Glenfiddich Distillery on Christmas Day 1887 and the one still employed at the distillery today. 

It all begins when malted barley is ground into grist, a rough, flour-like substance, which is then steeped in warm water to wash out the sugars. Once cooled, yeast is then added to this water (known as the wash) and the beer-like substance is transferred to copper pot stills, the same shape and style as the originals, to be distilled twice. The result is a clear spirit, only the heart of which is taken away to be matured into Scotch whisky.

What makes a great whisky is attention to detail at every stage, from the strain of yeast used, to the type of barley grown and, most importantly, the quality of casks chosen to mature the spirit in. The attention to detail at Glenfiddich is the same today as it always has been and, being a family-run operation, it is the passion and expertise of the family that continues to fuel the stills.

Tending to a 2nd fill cask

On my journey to witness the very roots, literally, of how Glenfiddich sources their casks, I find myself back in the heartland of Scotch whisky production, Speyside. Standing opposite the distillery just on the outskirts of Dufftown, the startling differences between Kentucky, the home of bourbon whiskey, and this rural idyll hidden away in the rolling Scottish countryside are abundantly clear.

One of the most immediate and striking differences is the environment in which casks are left to mature. In Kentucky, maturation warehouses are huge; designed and built in the mid-1900’s, they can be eight stories high and stand like monoliths on the horizon. The humid atmosphere and high temperatures combined with the use of fresh oak barrels, produce a fast maturation and a strong, sweet liquor. 

In Scotland, the story is very different. Small warehouses, only three barrels high, have earthen floors and stone walls. With a much cooler average temperature then their American counterparts, these warehouses are ideal for long maturation; Glenfiddich leave their casks to rest for a minimum of 12 years and often much, much longer.

Scotch whisky warehouses are simply amazing. The thick stone walls give an eerie silence, a hushed reverence as the casks slumber away, maturing Scotch whisky until it is perfectly flavoured. The darkness is punctuated by shards of light streaming through gaps in the wooden roof, providing windows for angels to fly through and claim their share of the evaporating spirit.

It was in one of these century-old cathedral of casks, dotted around the distillery site, where I met Glenfiddich Malt Master Brian Kinsman, only the sixth person to hold this important role since William Grant himself, for a real treat: sampling Glenfiddich directly from the wood.

Using a "Copper Dog" to sample the liquid

The casks that Brian had chosen are set to be used for a forthcoming new product, currently in the final throes of development. All the casks were, of course, American oak and of the six chosen, five where traditional barrels and one was a larger, fatter Hogshead.

Drawing the liquid from each by hand, the golden hue enhanced by the bright rays penetrating the darkness, Brian explained with great fondness how his predecessor oversaw the filling of the casks in anticipation of the day they would finally be ready. On the palate, this extraordinary single malt was smooth, with hints of vanilla, oak spices and honey, each cask with its own special unique properties, but all sharing a lineage of quality and flavour. The building blocks for a very special new product indeed.

From branch to barrel, the journey of the whisky I tried is steeped in such great history: A 70 year old tree, an apprenticeship in American whiskey maturation, a journey to Scotland and years of care and attention in a Glenfiddich warehouse. This is not just whisky, this is liquid history.

If you missed my previous blog, A Slice of Speyside, read it here, or start from the beginning.