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Reserve Judgement

by Gavin D Smith, 10/08

Glenfiddich is the world's best-selling single malt whisky, and the family-owned Dufftown distillery that produces it boasts the largest capacity of any in the Scotch whisky industry. No fewer than 24 traditional, wooden washbacks and 28 direct-fired stills can turn out some 10million litres of spirit per annum, and up to 88 tonnes of malted barley are used each day. Glenfiddich is popular with the public too, and around 80,000 of them visit the distillery each year, taking in the tour.

So much for the statistics of scale, and it has to be said that sometimes the very success of Glenfiddich works against it in terms of perceived product quality and prestige. Too often supposed connoisseurs dismiss the whisky, principally on the grounds that it is not exclusive enough to be good.

  

Nonsense, of course, as an unbiased dram of the core 12-year-old will quickly show, but Glenfiddich is also about older and rarer bottlings. A 30-year-old is part of the permanent range, while in 2002 just 61 bottles of 1937 Glenfiddich were released under the 'Glenfiddich Rare Collection' banner. Each had an initial price tag of £10,000, and this release was declared to be the oldest Scotch whisky on the market.

Additionally, since 1999, Glenfiddich has bottled at least one 'Vintage Reserve' each year, making a virtue of inviting a small panel of non-professionals to assist Malt Master David Stewart and his assistant blender Brain Kinsman make the selection.

Back in May I was lucky enough to be invited to join the 2008 panel at Glenfiddich distillery, in the company of Professor Walter Schobert, German whisky author and expert, now resident on Islay, New York restauranteur and chef Jimmy Bradley, and Erkin Touzmohamedov, Russia's leading whisky and tobacco writer.

David Stewart and Brian Kinsman had done much of the hard work for us, selecting a 'shortlist' of six potential casks from which we would make our choice. Three were filled in 1975 and three in 1977, and all were ex-Sherry, European oak butts.


   Samples were ceremoniously drawn from the casks by veteran warehouseman Eric Stephen in warehouse no 8, one of the distillery's original dunnage warehouses with earth floors, stone walls and a slate roof - reckoned by David Stewart to provide the optimum maturation conditions for fine whisky.

Here we made an initial assessment of the samples.

At this point we retired to the plush formality of the Robbie Dhu Centre - named after the distillery's prized water source. Now things became considerably less relaxed, as we faced a full-blown media crew, recording the event for promotional purposes, complete with lighting, microphones, cameraman and sound recordist, as we were seated at a large table with sampling glasses containing the six whiskies set out in front of us, along with printed sheets on which to record our impressions. If there had been any doubt before, it now became apparent that this was a Serious Business, and pre-exam nerves appeared, in this panellist, at least.

David Stewart acted as chairman, saying that “They're all top quality whiskies, but there's a lot of diversity even between the six.” He advocated reducing the samples considerably with water before assessing them, as their strengths varied from 50.0%abv to 58.0%abv, and suggested we evaluate the three whiskies from 1975 first, and try to decide on a clear favourite, before moving on to the trio of 1977s.

I considered two of the three samples to be very good, with one displaying less obvious Sherry wood characteristics than the other, perhaps because it had contained an extra previous 'fill' of whisky, or had originally housed a lighter style of Sherry. The third sample, however, had a bitter oak finish that led me to sideline it immediately.

Whisky tasting is, of course, a very subjective art, and all three samples had their advocates, so we passed on to the trio of 1977s, hoping for consensus here. This time around, I dismissed one for having an overly sulphury nose, the sort of effect that is not uncommon from a first-fill Sherry cask. Once you got past the nose the whisky improved considerably, with molasses, smoke and rich fruits. However, there was a general agreement that it would be unreasonable to expect consumers to do that, and so we focused on whisky from casks 4084 and 4414, either of which, I felt, would be excellent choices as the 2008 Vintage Reserve.

Overall preference was for 4414, which elicited comments from the panel such as "quite tobacco-y and leathery on the nose, with fruit and figs, smoky and spicy in the finish," "wild flowers, sweet, fruity and spicy, with lovely balance," "intriguing, complex, spices and herbs, beautiful," and "butterscotch then leather on the nose, refined, elegant, yet robust on the palate."

Several panellists also noted approvingly that it was the 'right' sort of rich amber colour to signify to the consumer that this was whisky matured in an ex-Sherry cask. David Stewart also made the important point that “…it shows more of Glenfiddich's character” than some of its rivals.At this juncture it was agreed not to revisit the 1975 samples, and 4414 was declared the Glenfiddich Vintage Reserve 2008.

Commenting on the chosen cask, David Stewart noted that "The selection panel really experienced the wide possibilities of aroma and flavour produced from one cask to the next. In our shortlist we had two casks filled on the same day, yet they were markedly different in colour, nose and taste from each other. The selected Glenfiddich has a hint of malt cereal, lemon balm, light smokiness and leather characteristics that the panel all agreed would be worthy of a Glenfiddich Vintage Reserve."

  

It seems ridiculous to say that evaluating whisky can be physically tiring, but I retired, exhausted, to the bar for a reviving drink; the day's serious, though most enjoyable, work done. And after all that wonderful, cask strength, Sherried whisky, I opted for a cold beer…

You can now judge our selection for yourself, as the Glenfiddich Vintage Reserve 2008 has just hit the shelves. 482 bottles have been produced, with a retail price of around £375. See www.glenfiddich.com.

  

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