The sister distilleries Glenfiddich and Balvenie are two of single malt scotch’s big five producers. The misconception is that Glenfiddich, Macallan, Balvenie, Glenlivet, and Glenmorangie make smoke forward, peaty whiskies. The reality is that 90% of their products are in fact not peated. If you’re like me, the thought has always been that scotch whiskey is something you drink neat, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
A pair of fall events recently changed my view on the subject. One was an intimate masterclass at one if the city’s newest hotels. The other was a launch of new impressions at the fern bar above Slippery Slope.
The Glenfiddich Experimental Series
Heavy Feather, Logan Square
A welcome drink featuring 12yr, the youngest whiskey they sell. Scotch is fine the way it is, but by all means don’t be shy about playing around with it. The Glenfiddich 12 year has been on the market for 50 years.
India Pale Ale Cask Whiskey
Glenfiddich partnered Speyside Brewing in Forrest, Scotland and brewed an IPA for the purpose of seasoning a barrel with it for 5 months. A blend of 9 and 10 year old whiskey is then added to the barrel 4-6 months for finishing.
Dark chocolate and scotch are amazing but the most classic pairing are a beer and a single malt. The thought is that since the scotch making process basically starts by making a beer that they would be a natural compliment.
When you taste this IPA Cask Whiskey there’s a biscuity malt creaminess. It’s all very subtle, don’t expect for it to have a hop aroma. But when compared to the other offerings in the lineup the distinction is clear. There’s a dry, clean finish here that only exists with this impression. When you sip then breathe out there is a pleasant beer sensation.
This project began when Speyside brewery left a voice mail about acquiring whiskey barrels to age a beer in. Glenfiddich is a family owned operation that saw the value in partnering with the brewery to create a new whiskey instead.
Challenger is the popular English hop varietal selected for the beer after several trials. The base beer design was brutally hoppy, but it was perfect to rest in whisky barrels. Even if you’re not a traditional scotch whiskey fan this is an intriguing take on a classic. The experience is very light without a tremendously long finish. IPA Scotch is S70$ per bottle, 40% ABV.
Project XX Whiskey
The cool thing about whiskey is that every barrel is unique. Each cask takes on its own characteristics. The Glenfiddich group sampled 150 barrels one day, all the same age. Some were darker in color others were really light and had different flavors.
The only way to find consistency is through blending. It’s not just a magic that appears after resting a liquid in wood for 20 years. No age statement on this impression. The process began when a small group entered warehouse number two at the distillery. The group put initials on different barrels and everyone ranked their picks from 1-6.
The selections included a sherry casks, 7 year old bourbon barrels and a 16 year old port wine barrel. The final blend of 7-16yr old whiskeys is an amalgamation of styles. A thumbprint on the bottle represents the collaborative nature of the process.
This variant is 47% ABV when most whiskeys on the market are 41-43% The best whiskeys are high strength and non-chill filtered; these are things that whiskey geeks look for.
Chill filtration is a process that was introduced for commercial reasons because the whiskey would turn cloudy based on fatty acid and esters. They chilled the whiskey down and passed it through a series of paper filters. This allows the whiskey to retain its purity and was done for cosmetic reasons. The downside is that when filtering whiskey you are going to lose something. Color, aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and tannins can all be affected.
This XX has not been filtered, no loss of or flavor texture to report here.
For brand ambassadors, one of the biggest asks from consumers is for high proof strength. The 1% of whiskey geeks care more about whiskey than the people making it. They are hypersensitive to every detail. This group is beloved and that’s why this shit right here is high strength at 47%. Anything lower and it would get hazy when chilled.
A goal with XX was to be as cask strength and unfiltered as possible. 80$ per bottle.
The Untitled Riff On a Tiperrary
This was an intimate 30 person event. The staff didn’t have a name for this cocktail remix but enjoyed the flavors. Typically made with Irish whiskey, sweet vermouth, and green Chartreuse. It was switched up to include Project XX. Because the Chartreuse can be very aggressive it was replaced with a juniper-forward spirit to let the whiskey shine through.
The Glenfiddich Winter Storm
There were only 3 barrels available of this 21-year-old blend. This distillery has been making whisky for 130 years, its aged for 12 years + in most cases.
Beth is the Glenfiddich Canadian brand ambassador from Toronto that mentioned the idea of incorporating whiskey into ice-wine casks. They have a partnership with a small ice winery up in Canada. The technique is apparently to only harvest the wine under moonlight at the coldest temperature possible.
There is such a small amount of the base liquid that only 20-30 bottles will be shipped to Binnys in Chicago and another 30 in January. Once those are gone, it’s gone for good. The 21 year old whiskey spends much of its life in a bourbon barrel, then for the last 4 months it goes into a French oak barrel that once held ice wine.
With the IPA whiskey there was a focus on younger blends so that there would be more of a hop presence in final blend. For the ice wine casks it was decided that older whisky would be used here for desired effect of less sweetness. The end product is definitely sweeter but the older whisky balances out the ice wine barrel in a way that its younger counterpart wouldn’t be able.
There is a slight touch of smoke on the 21, it’s a departure from the previous two offerings. Winter Storm is 43% ABV and 250$ per bottle. There will be 650 cases total available in select markets.
The Balvenie Rare Craft Mastersclass
Conrad Chicago, Streeterville
Balvenie is affectionately known as most beautifully inefficient distillery in Scotland. The tour lasts three hours when you visit. The masterclass was a cocktail party disguised as a course. With two whiskeys in hand, We sat around a cocktail table with host Jonathon Wingo and started discussing peat.
Peat, as a thing is compressed moss in the ground, think of it as a coal. It’s about a foot under the topsoil and looks like dirt. The peat is pulled out and dried into bricks that can be used as fuel.
When you’re talking about peat in whiskey, you are speaking to the drying out of your malt with peat. When it’s used as a heating element it gives off a thick smoke and draws out a very distinctive phenolic character in the malt.
It binds heavily so whether you’re making a beer or distilling a spirit or sitting it in a cask for 10 years you will still taste it. Most people relate the smell of iodine to a band-aid, but don’t understand the association. Phenols are the chemical bond used to keep the antiseptic on band-aids. So really…we should be saying that bandages taste like scotch.
It’s indigenous to Ireland and Scotland but some bonds can be found in the US. Much like the grapes in wine, peats are branded by their terroir. Balvenie uses Highland peat, which is floral, robust and earthy when compared to Islay peat. It is not a requisite of scotch to have peat; in fact most scotches do not have peat.
My favourite whiskey was Balvenie 12. Finished in Spanish oak sherry casks, this one punches outside of its weight class.
12 is suppose to be the most approachable blend. It still somehow manages to be much more complex than a 12 year old should be. In part because its riding that mix of tannins from the sherry cask and that oily wave underneath from the American oak barrel. People sleep on this whiskey but there are big tannins here.
80% of malt in scotch comes from Speyside. The drying process is clean and the grains produced are a honey like pale malt instead of roasted malt.
Scotch has a big grain difference in malt bill when compared to American whiskey. For example bourbon uses corn as a main grain. But the largest difference in flavor comes from the type of barrels. Bourbon has to go in a new charred American oak cask every single time.
After prohibition America immediately went into The Great Depression. Also this is when the FDA got more involved and made a big push through lobbying to protect industry.
The coopers union represented the people who make barrels. They also lobbied for the definition of bourbon to include using a new cask every single time. This genius move not only guaranteed labor and work but created a new wonderful world of barrels to sell in places like Scotland.
Maturation emphasis in Scotch wasn’t popular until the 1940s. Single malt as a category didn’t exists until the ’60s. No one was marketing what they were making, it was all about making a whisky to go into a blend. The competition was always based on how good your blend was.
It was Glenfiddich who had the idea to sell their whiskey straight to America, the scotch industry laughed at this idea. The family came over in 1963 and hand sold the first bottles of single malt whiskey in the US starting a revolution.
The differences and nuances in single malt whiskey in this country is really a concept that is only about 50 years old.
Balvenie lucked out in that the whiskeys that they were making for blends were an approachable style. These weren’t jerky, sulfuric, backbone whiskeys. They were lovely, honey, vanilla whiskeys that showcased American oak very well.
Typically if you have a spirit with lighter characteristics you can age it longer in American oak. With just a little bit of manipulation, there can be a vast difference in taste on the 12 year because of how light the spirit is.
Both the Balvenie 14 (finished in rum oak casks) and 21 were exceptional. Their higher, sharper alcohol levels, aromatics and silky feel moved the conversation.
These sophisticated scotch whiskey producers shared history, style and culture from their part of the world. Balevenie and Glenfiddich have an advantage being family owned with very a small group of shareholders. Their long-term view is not to make money for the next 3-4 years but to focus on passing a healthy business down to the next generation. The company has doubled their profits in the last 5 years and is on a pace to repeat that feat in 2019.
-In Gaelic, Sláinte just means good health. but if you want to be less formal amongst friends and good company you just say ‘Up Yours’
-The only country in the world where they couldn’t just use IPA in the name of the whiskey was here in the U.S. because the feds thought it was misleading. They didn’t have an issue however with the phrase India Pale Ale.
-First neat whiskey of the night was paired with Founders All Day IPA, something special but not overly hopped as to dominant the whiskey profile.
-Glenfiddich currently only has a 21yr scotch in their portfolio, it is finished in rum barrels.
-You can make single malt whiskey anywhere in the world, but it can only be called scotch if the process takes place in Scotland.
-Usually when you age scotch whiskey its done in an ex bourbon barrel, 95% of scotch whiskey is aged this way.
-In Scotland whisky ages 3yrs as a standard.
-Peat Week, 14 years ago the distillery began making a peated Balvenie. Now it’s a tradition every year for one week to make this variant.
-Many distilleries are based in the glen because you need a good water source to make whiskey. It makes sense not to build your distillery at the top of a mountain, but near the bottom where rivers and springs flow. Glenfiddich means valley of the deer.