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A Visit to One of Scotland’s Last Family-Owned Whisky Distilleries

By Jessica Colley Clarke

Mar 31, 2020

From the May/June 2020 issue

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Glenfiddich has more than 30 copper stills.

Photo by Robert Ormerod

Glenfiddich has more than 30 copper stills.

The bucolic Speyside region is home to Glenfiddich, where Scotch whisky is a story of water and wood, patience and people.

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Note: Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.

On a warm summer morning in Speyside, Scotland, I walked along a gravel path at the base of the Conval Hills, listening for the sound of the Robbie Dhu spring. I stopped to ask for directions from a local passing by, who pointed up the nearest hill: “Go that way,” he said. “Keep climbing, the spring will be on your left.”

As I walked, first I heard a trickle, then a gentle rush of water. I marched off the path and found a splintered wood staircase that led down to the banks of the spring. It looked overgrown and treacherous.

Through wildflowers I finally caught a glimpse of water flowing over stones—the very water that, downstream, becomes a key ingredient of Glenfiddich, the world’s best-selling single-malt Scotch whisky.

Left: the distillery’s architecture mirrors its picturesque surrounds; right: At Glenfiddich, whisky is served in a special glass known as a Glencairn.

Glenfiddich is one of about 50 distilleries in Speyside, including other well-known makers such as Macallan and the Glenlivet. Glenfiddich produced its first batch of whisky on Christmas Day in 1887. Today, the distillery produces more than 14 million liters of whisky annually, enough to fill five Olympic-size swimming pools. And for the past 133 years, the Robbie Dhu spring has been the distillery’s only water source. Even at peak production in the hottest summers, the spring has never run dry.

“Water defines how the distillery operates,” malt master Brian Kinsman told me later. “If we were to try to replicate the Glenfiddich process with another water source, the whisky would change,” he said. “Water is fundamental.”

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That afternoon, I stepped inside the distillery to learn how the spring water becomes whisky. The first thing I detected was a strong, oatmeal-like aroma. Ian Millar, the former Glenfiddich distillery manager and my guide for the day, explained that I was smelling the mash, a thick mixture of ground, malted barley and spring water. (Single-malt Scotch whisky is always made from barley, not from cereal grains such as corn or wheat, which are used in blended Scotch whisky. Single malt also refers to whisky made by a single distillery.) Millar led the way deeper into the distillery, and we peered into the mash tuns, 10-ton vessels where powerful blades transform the mash into a sugar-rich liquid called wort. In the next room, I caught a glimpse of wooden fermentation vats known as washbacks. After the wort cools, it’s pumped into these vats to ferment for 72 hours. The result is a low-alcohol liquid known as a wash, which is similar in potency to a strong beer.

Jason Taylor is one of Glenfiddich’s in-house coopers (craftspeople who repair barrels).

Distillation comes next. I followed Millar into the stillhouse, where we stood in the shadow of stout copper stills with long necks, listening to their steady hum. He explained that after two distillations, the new spirit has reached its full strength and is ready for aging. Glenfiddich ages its single malt in oak barrels for a minimum of 12 years. “Wooden casks are responsible for up to 65 percent of the final flavor,” he told me.

We left the still house and walked through towers of casks to reach the cooperage, a warehouse alive with the sound of hammering and the smell of smoke. Glenfiddich is unusual in Scotland for continuing to operate an on-site cooperage, where skilled craftspeople repair casks that once held sherry, bourbon, and rum. In the cooperage, workers roll casks from station to station, replacing the metal rings that hold barrels together and toasting the interiors over an open fire to bring out a caramelized note in the wood. Millar told me to stick my nose in a barrel, and I bent down to breathe in the scent of charred wood and a sweeter note, like a mix of brown sugar and bourbon.

And then it was time for me to taste. We sat outside at a picnic table and Millar poured my first dram, Glenfiddich 18, then added a couple drops of water. “Water opens it up, ice closes it down,” he explained. The first mouthful of the dark, golden spirit was remarkably smooth, its complex flavors bringing to mind baked apples and toffee. A common misconception about Scotch whisky is that it’s smoky, but there are regional variations, and Glenfiddich is fruity, often compared to a green pear. It has a subtle sweetness, a pleasant viscosity, and no burn in the throat.

The blending room where malt master Brian Kinsman works

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Blending, the process of marrying spirits from different casks to make the perfect single malt, is the final step of whisky-making. And that’s where Kinsman’s nose comes in. Between blending and checking in on maturing stock, Kinsman often noses 100 whiskies a day—and he spends much of his time in the Blending Room, a laboratory-like space overlooking the distillery. Inside, I got to put my own nose to the test: Millar tasked me with re-creating a 15-year-old Glenfiddich using only my sense of smell. I sniffed Kinsman’s version, then used beakers filled with three different single malts to try to match the original’s aroma. Millar didn’t even need to taste it; we kept sniffing, swirling, and adjusting until the balance lined up and he gave a firm nod of approval. 

The last leg of my Scotch whisky immersion took me to the warehouses. Glenfiddich has dozens of buildings where nearly 1 million barrels of Scotch whisky are aged. Inside Warehouse 12 it was silent, dark, and several degrees cooler than outside. I noticed a barrel stamped 1958; it has been resting in this place since before Hawaii was a state. Throughout the day, my nose had sniffed out the oatmeal of barley mash, the smoke of the cooperage, and my very own whisky blend. Now it was finally hovering over a cask of Scotch whisky that began as water in the nearby hills more than 60 years ago. Millar removed the stopper from the top. I leaned down to the opening and inhaled. 

Glenfiddich produced its first batch of whisky more than 130 years ago.

Know Your Scotch Whisky

If you want to go to a dinner party and sound like you know what you’re talking about, here are the basics. Scotch whisky must be made and matured in Scotland, it can’t be less than 40 percent ABV (or alcohol by volume, which measures the strength of a spirit), and it must be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years. Single-malt Scotch whisky is always made from barley (not from corn or wheat, which are used in blended Scotch whisky) and must be distilled in copper stills. Need a stat for that dinner party? Only 1 percent of single malt in Scotland is aged for more than 20 years. (Most Glenfiddich single malts are 12, 15, and 18 years old.)

When it comes to savoring whisky, malt master Brian Kinsman has some unusual advice. “At home, you pour yourself a whisky and the obvious thing to do is drink it,” he says. “But instead, try nosing it for long periods. Smell it again after a few drops of water. Take the time for the whisky to open up, to appreciate it for aroma first.”

How to Visit

The Glenfiddich distillery is open every day and offers four different tours. Each tour includes an exploration of the distillery, but they differ in experiences and tastings. The two-hour Spirit of Innovation Tour, for example, includes a tasting of five Glenfiddich single malts ($39). To make your own whisky, sign up for the 2.5-hour Solera: Deconstructed Tour ($65). Or skip the tours and taste a Scotch whisky flight at the on-site Malt Barn restaurant and bar. Travelers can also taste rare whiskies, but be prepared: A dram—that’s about an ounce—of 1958 single malt goes for about $1,080. Reservations for tours are recommended. 

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