I have only 100 metres to go!
I'm still in Speyside and yes, just out of Balvenie Castle for my last tasting (see here the tasting), I have only a few meters to go to GLENFIDDICH !
Today I'm going to tell you about the mysteries of an atypical place, the Chai n°8, and to see the close link between the distillery (certainly the most famous in the world) and the world of Spanish wine-making methods and...rum! We're going to make some big splits and taste three reference distillates: the surprising 15 year old SOLERA RESERVE, the noble 21 year old GRAN RESERVA and the atypical FIRE & CANE.
I know you'll say, but he's overdone the single malt, he's comparing distillates that are a bit far apart! Don't worry I'll explain.
But first I'll tell you what happened !!! Jérôme (Kaftandjian brand ambassador in France), told me: "if you are in the area, take a look at Chai N°8 of GLENFIDDICH, there are some unusual things going on! You know me.... I was 100 metres away...
So here I am in front of THE distillery (a production capacity of 20 million litres and 20% of the world single malt market). If you have read my previous adventure (see above), you know that we are on the lands of WILLIAM GRANT & SONS and that for almost 140 years (1887 to be precise) we are on the very place (the "Deer Valley") where the first stones of the history of this family were laid. And when we say first stones, we mean it in the true sense of the word, for William Grant himself fetched the stones for the first building from the bed of the River Fiddich, which runs at the foot of Balvenie Castle.
Just a reminder about this distillery, which like its sister, integrates the production from barley growing to bottling. But it is still since 2020, 43 stills (including 16 wash stills) which makes it simply the biggest in Scotland (even the new distillery THE MACALLAN has "only" 21!). Nevertheless, even if it is not to be missed, this makes it one of the most honourable distilleries, owned by the same family since the beginning.
So here I am in front of Chai n°8. The door was open too, so I allowed myself to enter this dark and mythical place. Of course, there were barrels everywhere stored on the dirt floor. I heard people talking and I approached them. After a few steps I found myself in the company of Mike Dawson (cellar master) and Brian Kinsman (cellar master) with his Valinch in hand, both of them in front of a barrel of rum, surely preparing a fine achievement.
Just to set the scene, Brian Kinsman has been in the business for many years and has been the master blender for many of the Grant whiskies since 2009. Before that, he worked under David Stewart (now head of blending at THE BALVENIE). Nowadays being in close and sister distilleries, their partnership continues and they often work in duo.
I explain to them the reasons for my visit on the advice of Jérome, and David quickly leads me in front of one of the particularities of this winery, which will lead us to the first tasting of the day: the SOLERA VAT N°1.
Here we are in front of a cask (very large Oregon pine barrels) set up in the distillery in 1998: the SOLERA VAT. What is it? Mike explains that this cask is "simply" inspired by the solera ageing process which originated in Spain. Originally used for wines and then for sherry, it is also used for the ageing of rums (here is the link between the three tastings of the day).
So what is the Solera system? It's an ageing method that consists of stacking casks on several floors and mixing (topping up) the lowest casks on the floor (soleras) with the casks above (criaderas) each time spirit is drawn from the lowest casks for bottling. This means that the bottom cask is always full and, above all, always retains some of the original distillate.
This principle has been adapted by GLENFIDDICH in an XXL version in this cask which contains no less than 7,500 litres. It consists of regularly filling the cask with 15 year old whisky previously aged in sherry casks, ex-bourbon casks and finally new oak. In fact, the cask is always filled with a minimum of 15 year old whisky (and more since some of the liquids in the cask date from 1997).
Once out of the Solera Vat, the distillate is transferred to large Portuguese oak vats (known here as "vat à marier") for another 9 months.
So, while one might imagine that this distillate gets better year after year, what does it do?
Since its inception in the early 2000s, this distillate has a surprising copper colour when you consider that it has been through a large proportion of bourbon casks, new casks and also a large cask. The colour may come from the small amount of xeres and the old residual distillates of the Solera vat.
The nose is warmer than a usual glenfiddich with apple notes (more than the usual pear). The notes are very soft and sweet. They are vanilla and honeyed but with a hint of wood in the background. It's as if our glenfiddich had become fuller with the contact of its big brothers.
The second passage reveals a little more red fruit at first, then opens up with spicy notes of clove and pepper.
The third passage is fresher and more "Glenfiddich" and still spicy with ginger.
The entry in mouth is made in softness but with a taste of almond. Then we notice the arrival of the spices which gradually rise to become spicy. They then soften to develop honeyed and biscuity notes in the mouth, while reminding us from time to time.
This whisky shows a great stability of aromas. It is still a 15 year old reference. After a while, the perry taste of "glenfiddich" reveals itself. One can also note a touch of woody astringency. And when we swallow, the spices make a baroud d'honneur to remember us.
The finish is long, with cinnamon and woody notes.
The empty glass conceals woody and sweet aromas.
A little further on in the cellar, Brian leads me to the rum barrels to explain the ageing process of the second tasting: the super 21 YEARS GRAN RESERVA.
On the barrel on the floor is a GRAN RESERVA mark. Brian humbly explains to me that the genesis of this whisky is to be credited to his predecessor David Stewart (since at THE BALVENIE) and that he was committed to preserving its excellence. It was back in 2002 when David decided to bring in rum casks from Cuba to make new finishes. He calls his whisky the Glenfiddich 21 year old Havana Reserve.
In 2004, he explained that the Cuban embargo prevented the use of the name Havana and especially the sourcing of casks from Cuba. So it was decided to use the distillery's own casks, but to season them for 6 months with a mixture of raw rums from casks aged 3 to 5 years from Barbados, Trinidad and Cuba.
Brian then takes his valinch and plunges it into the cask, explaining to me that the liquid that is now rising and being poured has spent almost a quarter of a century (21 years to be precise) mainly in ex-bourbon casks and more marginally in ex-sherry casks. He explains that to give it its exotic touch, it was then slipped for 4 months into the now Caribbean cask we have in front of us!
The 21 year old Gran Reserva has a more pronounced copper colour than the 15 year old, despite the lower proportion of sherry. Nevertheless, it has been aged longer in Spanish wine casks.
The first nose is going to go for marked and intense aromas close to those of a rum but less sweet. The cane aromas have become banana. We feel that the spices are lurking behind and are just waiting to be released. The first nose is very sweet and warm.
The spices are released in the second pass with a wave of freshness of ginger, it is he who will reveal a more "glenfiddich" smell on the pear.
The third passage softens on the spices but remains woody and even conceals notes of cooking.
In the apple of the hand we feel sweet and warm aromas but also a touch of smoke.
As Mr. Kinsman explains that for the past three years the bottle has been dressed in a suit of lights by the artist Rion Wang for the Chinese New Year, we move on to the tasting.
When it enters the mouth it will be sweet.
Nevertheless, despite its respectable age, it will very quickly regain its strength with spices that bring powerful peppery notes. It remains warm and sweet and not covered in spices (the latter only reminding us of them from time to time).
After a few seconds, we note the presence of smoke which adds to a certain freshness. It is advisable to keep it for a while given its age and at the end it becomes velvety on the palate, keeping some spicy banderillas here and there.
The spices are very well controlled and just prevent you from falling asleep in the velvet.
The finish is long and warm and mellow. After a few seconds it comes up with a fresh sale with a hint of smoke.
The empty glass retains sweet, warm and woody notes with a hint of smoke.
Brian Kinsman, turns to me and says "PEATDREAM? It's that ?...follow me" ....
In fact, he leads me to a new cask of rum and with one swipe of the vallinch, pours a gold coloured liquid with copper highlights into my glass.
He explains to me that this is the 4th expression of the Experimental Séries range, the FIRE & CANE, and that as a good lover of subtle peat, I should like it.
While serving me, he explains the concept wanted by his house at the time of the launch of the range: innovate, get off the beaten track but keep the "Glenfiddich touch"! A fine programme.
He explains to me that these EXPERIMENTAL SERIES began with a first experiment (the IPA EXPERIMENT) of ageing house distillate in Speyside craft beer casks.
He then tells me that the experiment was repeated through PROJECT XX, where he took a back seat and asked 20 brand ambassadors to make a new distillate.
A first step was then taken with WINTER STORM (which I had the opportunity to taste for you here) where he "dared" to slip a 21 year old whisky into a Canadian ice wine cask (a successful gamble once again).
And now he tells me that he has taken a step that no one at Glenfiddich has dared to take: in 2002, distilling peated malt !!!! The foundations for EXPERIMENTAL SERIES No. 4 were laid. But as it was a future Glenfiddich (and as it would be difficult to make amateurs swallow a full peat), it was decided to marry it with a house distillate aged in bourbon casks. However, as this was an experiment, it was then decided to slip the result into a rum barrel (from Latin American rum in American white oak barrels) for 3 months!
It's almost like a Hogwarts potion! By the way, for the anecdote at Glenfiddich, since 2003, it is only during one week (the one in the year just before cleaning the stills) that the distillery produces its smoked whisky.
So, peated or not?
As you approach the glass, a vanilla scent takes over.
But yes, this is a whisky with peaty notes. When the nose plunges into the glass, there is no mistaking the smell of smoke from the corner of the fire (but not too close to the hearth, just enough). But it is accompanied by a nice sweet warmth with a hint of spice which then emerges like a crackling sound.
In the second pass, it becomes fresher with more grassy and woody aromas but with the spices still in the background (without being too aggressive).
The third passage will be marked by the strength of the alcohol but especially the spices brought by the stay in rum cask. A beautiful smell of peat comes out.
The 3 noses seem to describe its ageing. 1-Peat, 2-Glenfiddich bourbon and 3-Peat and bourbon. All sprinkled with rum barrel spice!
The experience in the palm of the hand confirms its mastered peaty character with a smell of heather smoke and straw rather than tyre.
Before it enters the mouth, the scent of smoke jostles the aromas and leads to freshness.
But when the liquid overtakes it, it is accompanied first by ripe, sweet apple and then by spices.
The smoke has not said its last word as it re-emerges. Then the spices take their place again to remain fixed on the tip of the tongue. The distillate then becomes more mellow and velvety even if from time to time some peppery spices reappear. On the way down it becomes citrusy and ginger again, but with a wisp of smoke.
The finish is quite long with a disconcerting smell of smoke when you have a glass of Glenfiddich in your hand!
The empty glass is indeed that of a peated whisky because a smell of smoke persists. On the other hand, it also contains a persistent hint of spice.
My God, this stay in cellar n°8 was interesting. And I'm sure that it still holds some beautiful secrets. Besides, knowing that I am French, Brian tells me that he is going to make me taste another distillate, but for that we are going in the comfort of a club chair...I will tell you about it another time!