How Glenfiddich Is Disrupting The World Of Scotch Whisky
Glenfiddich’s rewriting the rulebook, and introducing the world to single malt whiskies that no one’s ever seen before. After some 130 years in the Scotch business, here’s the story behind the brand’s ground-breaking Experimental Series.
Brian Kinsman has been Glenfiddich’s malt master since 2009. For anyone who understands a malt master’s role, it’s solitary work, requiring a profound amount of patience and passion for the craft. After all, making a superb single malt is no easy feat.
At the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown, Scotland, Kinsman is always tinkering. Over the years, the brand has come up with all sorts of experiments. (You may be familiar with the award-winning, 15-Year-Old Glenfiddich Solera, finished in solera vats, created by Glenfiddich’s fifth Malt Master David Stewart.) While some of the experiments make it to market, there are a plethora of others that don’t – and that’s just the nature of the whisky-making business.
But what if a distillery could take their experiments and showcase them to the world? Enter Glenfiddich’s Experimental Series.
“We’ve got a very simple test for an experiment: are you able to stand up in front of a room full of whisky enthusiasts and connoisseurs, and talk about [it],” Kinsman explains. “It doesn’t mean we want all the whisky connoisseurs in the world to love every product. Clearly, [certain whiskies] are suited to different palates. But from a pure, whisky-aging discipline, we want to hit that mark, and we want to stay true to the brand.”
In 2016, Glenfiddich released IPA Experiment, the first expression of the Experimental Series. Kinsman collaborated with local craft brewer Seb Jones of Speyside Craft Brewery, and together they created a special IPA craft beer (a beer intended to sit inside whisky casks). Later, the casks would be emptied of the beer, and used to finish Glenfiddich whisky. The result? A single malt imbued with zesty citrus notes and tangy hops from the IPA.
Earlier this year, Kinsman embarked on another, more unpredictable experiment: He invited 20 of Glenfiddich’s worldwide ambassadors and whisky experts to the distillery, and gave them the task of choosing one malt each, from thousands of stacked casts in the warehouse. The final 20 malts, matured in everything from port pipes to virgin bourbon barrels, were combined. The final whisky maintains that same warm and fruity character of a Glenfiddich, but its multiple personalities are revealed through notes of cinnamon spice, almonds, and licorice. The expression was dubbed Project XX (project 20).
The latest expression is closer to home. Winter Storm is a limited-edition whisky, finished in French oak icewine casks from Peller Estates Winery in Niagara, Ontario.
Kinsman first heard about icewine from Glenfiddich’s Canadian brand ambassador Beth Havers: “She talked about it, she preached about it, she sent me bottles of it,” he explains. In the middle of a stormy Canadian January, he finally took a trip out to Peller to learn about the process of making icewine, from start to finish. He discovered that rare malts (aged 21 years) finished well in icewine casks, revealing a surprising and delicious whisky, rich with flavours of Turkish delight, tropical fruit, and fresh lychee.
For Kinsman, the best bit about all this experimentation is that he gets to collaborate with others who excel at their craft. “It’s massively rewarding,” he says.
As for the future of the Experimental Series, there’s certainly no end date. How the expressions and releases will evolve is still a mystery. “The Experimental Series has become vehicle for the things we do naturally anyway,” Kinsman says. “Because there are so many great experiments, some of the really nice ones get left behind if we can’t scale up. We have to figure out how we’re going to let people hear about them, taste them, and be part of it.”
Picture this: one enters the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown, and gets to sample a multitude of small-batch whiskies that no one’s ever tried before. That’s the essence of disruption – it’s rooted in experimentation, innovation, and discovery.