Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Put a Little Glen in Your Glass

Recently, Dominic Roskrow wrote an interesting piece in Whisky Magazine encouraging people to revisit the three Glens: Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and Glenmorangie. The 12 year old versions of Glenfiddich and Glenlivet and the 10 year old Glenmorangie are gateway whiskies, often the first tasted and the ones that open up the world of whisky to the uninitiated. Yet many aficionados turn away from these basic whiskies once they have explored the rich world of Islay Scotches, limited editions and 20 year olds. Roskrow encouraged us to go back to these whiskies::

All three of them are successful for a reason, and if it's been some years since you've tasted them, should they really be dismissed as lightweights and not worthy of consideration by the connoisseur?

He went on to compare his return to the three Glens to falling in love all over again.

Well, I was persuaded, so I picked up mini-bottles of each to revisit the basics, which I haven't tasted in years and haven't ever written up. To eliminate any possible biases, I tasted them blind.

Glenfiddich [pronounced glen-FID-dick], 12 years old, 40% alcohol ($20-$25).

Glenfiddich is a Speyside whisky which is the top selling single malt in the world. Along with it's Speyside sister Glenlivet, it is the most ubiquitous single malt in the US. If an American bar stocks any single malt, it will more than likely be the 'Fiddich or the 'Livet. Glenfiddich is owned by William Grant & Sons.

I have a special affinity for the 'Fiddich as this was my own gateway Scotch. I was mostly a wine and Tequila drinker, but when I sipped my first 'Fiddich those many years ago, I was instantly converted to malt whisky, and for a few years, before I became a malt adventurer, the 'Fiddich was my main drink, unless they didn't have it, in which case I settled for the 'Livet. The 'Fiddich I started on though, may have been the earlier version without an age statement, which is no longer in production.

In any case, I tasted these whiskies blind mostly to cover up any sentimental bias I might have had for the Glenfiddich. The result of the blind tasting was that I preferred one of the three samples far more than the other two, and that turned out to be the 'Fiddich. Where the others emphasized sweetness and fruit, the 'Fiddich emphasized malt. It was the only one that had strong malt on the nose, and this was followed up in the flavor with some sweetness. Since starting with the Glens, I've mostly graduated to the Highland and Islay malts, and the 'Fiddich had the most similarities to those malts which I love. (Even though Glenmorangie is a Highland, it drinks more like a Speyside).

Glenlivet, 12 years old, 40% alcohol ($20-$25).

Glenlivet is the second best selling single malt. Like the 'Fiddich, it is everywhere. The 'Livet is owned by spirits giant Pernod Ricard. In the tasting, the Glenlivet ranked a distant second to the 'Fiddich. It had a heavily fruity nose, with scents of sweet white wine and green grapes. The taste was sweet and had some malt, but lacked any real umph.

Glenmorangie [pronounced glen-mor-AN-jee], 10 years old, 43% alcohol ($35-$40).

Glenmorangie is not as ubiquitous in the US as the other two Glens. In the UK, however, this Highlander is the second biggest seller behind 'Fiddich, far outselling Glenlivet. Worldwide, it is the fourth biggest seller, separated from the other two Glens by Macallan. Glenmorangie gains somewhat more respect in the US than the other two and lately, the distillery has become a real innovator. It was among the first distillers to experiment with cask finishes, in which a whisky aged in used Bourbon casks is transferred to some other cask for its last time in the barrel. Of late, they have been experimenting with barrel wood and the use of darker roasts of barley. Glenmorangie is owned by Moet Hennessy.

In our tasting, I liked Glenmorangie the least. The nose was a bit musty and alcoholic. The taste was exceedingly fruity and sweet, with dried fruit notes (prunes). It was also a bit harsh with alcohol on the palate, even though it was only 3% more alcohol than the others. In some spirits, the alcohol taste simply isn't integrated into the whisky as a whole.

It was fascinating to go back to these power-selling malts after years of drinking them only under the duress of bad selection. Next time I'm in an airport bar, I will take some time to ponder the Glen in my glass.

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