Whisky and Words Number 70: Battle of the Speyside Giants: Glenfiddich 12 vs. The Glenlivet 12

Glenfiddich is the world’s best-selling single-malt whisky” according to Wikipedia. Though not quite as ubiquitous as Jameson’s (a blended), you can find Glenfiddich in about any bar. More remarkable is that Glenfiddich is a marque of William Grant & Sons, a family business, not a multinational, and yet they are number 3 in Scotch whisky production behind Diageo and Pernod Ricard. I have an unscientific survey (visiting bars for 30-odd years) and in my estimation, their closest competitor is The Glenlivet, another Speyside distillery (owned by Pernod Ricard) with a near-equal global reach. I’ve reviewed a number of their whiskies recently but the comparison for this head-to-head will be the Glenlivet 12-year.

To produce their worldwide reach, Glenfiddich employs an astonishing 31 stills to produce 13 M liters of spirit per annum. Their spirit stills are rather small (4550 l.). Compare to Glenmorangie’s 12 stills (6M liters per annum) or the Glenlivet’s 14 stills (10.5 M liters per annum). Even the mighty Macallan, which also uses small stills, has only 24, but produces 16M liters a year (per whisky.com).

So, what do we know about this whisky? On their product page and elsewhere we read it is the world’s most awarded whiskies. As always, the marketing folks have a qualifier:

The Glenfiddich range has received more awards since 2000 than any other single malt Scotch whisky in two of the world’s most prestigious competitions, the International Wine & Spirit Competition and the International Spirits Challenge.

Specific, but note that is for the range, not just the 12-year. Glenfiddich, like most distillers, has a number of specialty and limited run releases. Otherwise, they note the spirit is aged in both American and European oak casks. The European oak tends to be a bit spicier than American and, as in the Glenlivet, these are ex-Sherry casks. The last interesting bit is that Glenfiddich still do their marrying—the ‘blending’ of casks from the distillery for the final product—in oak marrying tuns. It’s doubtful much flavor is imparted in their short stay in the marrying tun, but it’s nice they hold to tradition. That got me wondering if they used pine washbacks. You can see that this is so (at least 24 of them) on this video.

The two behemoths side-by-side, not much between them.

Let’s get to it. As you can see from the side-by-side of the two drams, the Glenfiddich is very similar to the Glenlivet…maybe a tad lighter in color. It has a delicate nose, malty, floral and sweet: rose and Lyles syrup. In addition to sherry overtones, there is a deep earthiness to the nose as well, speaking of the source of their water, a nearby spring. There is a lot more going on than I expected for a mass-market single malt (if Wikipedia is correct, it accounts for 35% of all Scottish single malt sold worldwide…that’s huge.) It’s a broader, more interesting nose than The Glenlivet, which surprises me. The Glenlivet though has a sturdier nose, less delicate, more forward.

On the palate Glenfiddich is very smooth, not overly sweet, with gentle tannins cleaning up…but there is not a lot going on there; golden syrup with rose floral mid-palate carries over from the nose and a hint of peat comes through with some oaky spice. “Pleasant but not exciting,” says the wife and I agree. The Glenlivet has a sturdier palate, with chunkier (toffee) sweetness, the oak spicier and more a part of the flavor; the tannins move forward as well. I would not say the Glenfiddich has a lasting finish, but it is smooth and well mannered.

Glenfiddich 12-year, Speyside Single Malt, 40% ABV

Nose: Delicate and fairly complex: malty, floral and sweet with rose and sherry overtones. Earthy peat.
Palate: Golden syrup, floral mid-palate with a bit of peat and oaky spices. Very smooth mouthfeel.
Finish: Mild-mannered, modest tannins, smooth.

Bottom Line: As Kimi Räikkönen would say, ‘It is what it is.’ At $45, Glenfiddich 12 is a well-made dram that won’t blow your socks off or scare away a newbie to Scotch. It has a more interesting nose than the $52 Glenlivet 12, though loses by a shade to the more expensive whisky for intensity of flavor. It’s a step up from even the 12-year premium blends, and given the price, a good choice for an after-work Scotch when you don’t want to feel guilty about not obsessing over every sip.

Head to head, the Glenlivet 12 wins, but not by a nose. The Glenfiddich 12 nose noses, but Glenlivet delivers more on the palate.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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