The distance from J&G Grant’s Glenfarclas distillery to William Grant & Sons’ Balvenie location is but 13 miles by road; it’s a much shorter distance by helicopter. Both are Speyside distillers, and both offer whiskies finished in sherry casks. Like J&G Grant, William Grant & Sons is an independent company. Both started in the 19th century: William laid down his distillery in 1889 (finished in 1892); John Grant of J&G Grant bought Glenfarclas distillery (built in 1836) in 1865.
However, the William Grant company has since grown into the largest independent distiller in Scotland. In fact, with over 10% market share, William Grant and Sons represents the third largest producer of Scotch, behind Diageo and Pernod Ricard. Not bad for a family company.
The Balvenie distillery is a bigger operation than J&G’s Glenfarclas by about double (5.6 M litres vs 3 M litres per year) and William Grant have a more varied range. Furthermore, they achieve their market share by operating a constellation of associated distilleries. This was pointed out in the Monkey Shoulder review, as that blend from this same distiller boasts of 25 composite single malts. Similarly, Grants Family Reserve blends a similarly numerous number of malts. This Grant is a giant. We know from these reviews they make respectable blends, so let’s investigate a single-malt whisky.
I’m an engineer of sorts…I don’t hold an engineering degree but my entire post-military working life has been designing, writing, testing and explaining software and computer systems. There is a natural dynamic between the messaging folks (marketing) and the engineers. We techies like to know what’s what and make our own decisions. Marketing’s job is, as we see it, to spiff up, deflect, and entice. That might be fine for the hoi polloi, but we engineers like to think we’re immune to such blandishments.
Well, of course we aren’t, marketing is a powerful force and here to stay, but it sets my heart all aflutter to encounter a company like Glenfarclas. To say they are transparent about how they create their product would be an understatement. This starts at their website, which is professional but not the most visually stunning. It’s probably considered a couple years behind the times as far as design, yet I appreciate it for the amount of information they place at your fingertips. It is amazing. Furthermore, their brand ambassador manning the email trenches is similarly forthcoming (thank you, Myriam). This is a huge benefit to those of us who want to know just what it is we are drinking, how it is made, why it tastes as it does.
So, you have someone you know is ‘into’ Scotch and you want to buy a nice present. You don’t want to set a foot wrong, and certainly don’t want to see her writing about your present as “the Scotch I save for folks who don’t know Scotch, or drown it in Coke.” Yes, I’ve read that on many a Scotch blog. Rude, I think…but it happens — because A) The styles of Scotch vary wildly in their aroma and taste (why it’s a fascinating obsession, yo!) and B) Scotch drinkers are often quite partisan about their preferred style.
Prep: Single malt vs. blend, and U.S. availability
We’re going to focus mostly on single malt scotches — this refers to a whisky that is made totally from one distillery’s production. They can (and do) mix casks and even years of production for a single malt. But as soon as they mix casks from another distillery and add grain alcohol (mass-produced, typically), then it is a blend. Common blends are well-known, like Johnnie Walker, Chivas, Dewars, Whyte and MacKay. These are the province of the casual drinker, not the Scotch enthusiast. Single malts will have more character, as the peculiarities of water and still are not blended out — hence they appeal to folks looking for adventure. Note: my focus is on brands available in the U.S., as that’s where I live.
There is a bit more to learn, so let’s do this in steps. We’ll gather some intelligence, align that to some facts, and send you shopping with a budget and some suggestions.
When you see Aberlour’s A’Bunadh, it is quite obvious this is not your run-of-the-mill whisky: the deep tawny-red color is highlighted by a clear glass bottle, short with a high shoulder. The spirit is clear, and when backlighted has tones of polished oak, but when in shadow, the whisky looks like an alchemist’s reagent for making dragon blood. Or maybe it is dragon’s blood—it’s strong enough! Bottled typically around 60% (my bottling, #46, is at 60.4%), A’bunadh has enough kick to get anyone’s attention. This is a spirit to be approached with respect.
Tobermory is one of those was-mothballed, now-resuscitated distilleries which is now producing a high quality product. It’s considered an island distillery, being on the isle of Mull (north of Islay and Jura, south of Skye), but the style isn’t like what we think of as an island malt. It does not have the medicinal quality of a Talisker or Caol Ila, nor the peat of an Ardbeg, nor the smoke of a Laphroaig or Lagavulin. In fact, Tobermory reminds me of a Speyside or lowland malt (as we’ll see, this is no great surprise).
Bought in 1993 by Burns Stewart, the Ledaig distillery, as it was known, has since been expanded and sold a few more times. The current owners are embracing the craft expression, with 46.3% ABV and (since 2010) a non-chill filtered finish. I like the former, as I can add water to taste, but frankly I haven’t been amazed nor confounded by the absence or presence (respectively) of chill filtration to date. Others may carry the torch for that battle (and they do). I need a head-to-head comparison to sort that out.