In the galaxy of Scotch whisky distilleries there are many stars, but few burn as brightly as Glenfiddich. Nestled in a valley bordering the small village of Dufftown, its 1,200 acre estate sprawls out over rolling hills under endless skies in such a way that at times it feels like there is no need to venture anywhere else ever again. Arresting in its beauty, nearly flawless in its construction, and operating with an attention to detail that goes beyond obsessive; it leaves one with little wonder as to why its whisky has gone on to win more awards than any other.
From the moment of arrival it becomes clear that this is one slick operation. Pulling into a proper car park with well manicured grounds and a glorious visitor centre is not something one is likely to encounter at too many of Scotland's distilleries, then again there really isn't much that is like this distillery anywhere. The cafe in the visitor centre is offers some of the best food that we had on our trip, and is likely only rivaled by Ardbeg's cafe for honours of the best distillery to grab a bite at. But what really matters is what goes on in the buildings surrounding the public entry point. Those buildings have been producing some of the finest malt whisky to ever come out of Scotland's vaunted stills, and for over 125 years have done so with such consistency that most whisky fans take it for granted, some even considering it boring.
But consistency in execution is no accident. It is what separates superstars from all the other players in the league, and it was with this thought in mind that we set out to discover just what sets this distillery apart from the rest.
As we arrived early in the morning under clear April skies to meet Global Ambassador Ian Millar in the perfectly appointed visitor's centre, the first thing that struck us is the sheer size of the grounds. Rolling over hills in every direction they take on more than just the feeling of being at a whisky distillery, and seem to encompass all that is Speyside. On one side sits the castle, the other: the warehouses, and in the middle alongside a pond providing cold water to cool their produce, the direct-fire stills hum away behind stone and mortar. There is whisky in the air, and from the first step this place just feels special.
Upon clearing our collective cobwebs with a cup of coffee, Ian began leading us through the distillery in production sequence. Established in 1886 using parts sold by Cardow (now Cardhu), founder William Grant took his knowledge gained from working for almost 20 years at nearby Mortlach, and used that in his designs, developing a remarkably efficient layout making use of the natural grade of the landscape to aid in production. Over the years this efficiency was not only maintained in its physical form, it was made the utmost goal of every step in the process, including the very beginning whereby the weakest yielding malt supplier will be dropped every three years "to keep them on their toes". Ian explained this to us as we moved through the mill area and into the hall containing the 24 massive 50,000L washbacks where, through the use of a combination of two types of yeast, the spirit begins to take shape over a 70 hour fermentation.
With the shock of seeing 4-story washbacks just beginning to fade, we made our way to the truly awe-inspiring still house. Redolent with the signature Glenfiddich scents of pears and honey, the air is also incredibly warm as it houses some of the last direct-fire stills still in use in Scotland. The roar of the fire under each bellows like a steady thunder as their purposefully slow distillation, designed to provide maximum reflux and copper contact, deliberately develops the delicate fruit tones that are their hallmark. Here we paused to take it all in, and while the pictures can show the scene, they simply pale in comparison to the feeling of absorbing the sensory overload that awaits within. It turns out that Glenfiddich uses higher cut points than just about any distillery we have visited; ranging from the high 70% range down to 65% for the heart of their run, with all else marked for re-distillation.
After a brief check-in on the spirit safe to ensure that everything is as it should be, Ian quickens our pace. Suddenly we have gone from the school tour to a march. We are off to his favourite place in the distillery, and soon we will see why Warehouse 8 would cause anyone making a return visit to it to become fleet of foot. Arriving at the heavy wooden doors, the first sight is that of the massive marrying tuns housing future 18 and 21 year old expressions; their contents being given the time they need to come together to consistently deliver the high quality profile that the world has come to expect. The smell of this place is incredible! Rich earthy and woody scents fuse with a strange sweetness in the cool, damp air to give rise to a sense that there may be more to this place than purely perfected processes; rather that there is a culmination of crafts mastered as art going on in all phases of production.
Moving deeper into the warehouse, we are brought to the hulking Solera vat. It is a truly massive tun, never emptied below 1/2 full, that is used to marry the whiskies for the 15 year old expression and its cask strength variant, the Distillery Edition. Given the opportunity, we clamber up the steps to take in the scents emanating from the top of the vat: deep sherry notes abound, infused with cocoa, toasted almonds, and rich woody spices. A chance to taste its contents reveals much of the same, while cementing the fact that the 15 year old Distillery Edition is the closest thing to sticking one's face in this iconic vessel. Following this, we were treated to nose cask samples dating back as much as 40 years, some showing that too much wood influence can be overwhelming, others that with the right cask, simply sublime results can be achieved. Throughout, there seems to be one constant: the older the expression from Glenfiddich, the greater the presence of an orange citrus note regardless of the cask, but the depth of this compared to the other scents varies from one to the next.
Over the remainder of the time in the warehouse, Ian continues to remind us to "keep up, we're on a mission" and while the objective of that mission is to understand the finer points of warehousing, the sheer ability of the master blenders of Scotch whisky becomes apparent. It is simply astonishing how well trained they must be, and it is now, jumping from one row of casks to the next, that it dawns on me just how truly peerless a talent Brian Kinsman must be to have been able to produce something like the Snow Phoenix. The sensory overload surely must fade with experience, but I cannot fight off the olfactory fatigue that begins to set in around the 1 hour mark going from cask to cask.
Thankfully, or perhaps mercifully, Millar decided that now was the time to depart for the friendly confines of the cafeteria. To take in some food and restore our strength before heading to a neighboring distillery. Stepping into the light outside the warehouse, Glenfiddich seems even more grand now. The enormous estate purchased in parcels to protect its water supply from encroaching development while a castle stands guard, it becomes clear to us: this is all the by-product of a relentless will to be the best at their craft. To maximize efficiency and consistency simultaneously, and to do so from the ground up; from the most entry-level apprentice, to the the malt men, the still house, and the master blender; this is the mission that all associated with this distillery seem to be on.
Incredibly, some seem content to pass on the products of Glenfiddich as simple, some even calling them mundane. But I call that the hallmark of commitment. How else could a distillery that produces so much whisky be so consistent when nearly all others are currently suffering supply shortfalls, batch variation issues, or even completely reworking of their core product lines?
There is nothing commonplace here. On the edge of Dufftown sits the distillery that changed the way the world drinks Scotch whisky. A distillery that, back in the early 1960s, was confident enough in their product to release their whisky as "straight malt", now known as single malt, rather than hide in a blend like so many others at the time. Rather than see a distillery whose simple whisky seems to be everywhere, I see a whisky that is so consistent, thanks to the incredible attention to detail of its people, that I can safely order one in every single respectable bar, restaurant, pub, or airport anywhere in the world and know what I'm getting: excellent single malt Scotch whisky.