Ever looked up in the sky to see a large bird of prey and thought ‘Wait? Is that a Golden Eagle?’ Then, with disappointment you realise the raptor is not quite large enough, doesn’t have the breadth in its tail, and the plumage is perhaps a little white. No, it is a buzzard, you decide wearily and carry on your walk, ignoring the majestic bird soaring above you.
Glenfiddich 12 year old is like a buzzard. It is so common, that single malt hobbyists ignore it in favour of rarities, rather like the birders who chase shy, inaccessible, but often rather dull birds. Yet on most bars around the world a very well-made single malt exists at a very fair price. Light, fruity, with a grassy and biscuity heart and a refreshingly elegant finish; it is delicious. Our customers also come to us for the unusual, so Royal Mile Whiskies sell very little Fiddy 12 and there is little commercial reason to sing its praises as I am now. But I like what it says about the single malt, and it makes me proud to be a small part of the whisky industry.
A buzzard's (possible) eye view of Glenfiddich Distillery
Take the best-selling brands of other popular drinks. Budweiser is extremely light and fizzy, has rice not barley at its heart, and is hardly representative of a glorious history of brewing. Over a third of the world’s tequila sales belong to Jose Cuervo which, whether you enjoy its flavour or not, is a mixto tequila (meaning as much as 49% of the liquid can be made from something other than the agave plant). Bacardi has quite consciously presented itself as something other than rum for many years, so probably wouldn’t mind a spirits geek like me asking whether it is as close to a vodka as to a rum in style. All of the above I have drunk and enjoyed if that’s what’s on offer, and they are just about representative of the category they head in my eyes. The best-selling wines in the world show quite clearly how Glenfiddich is a noble flag bearer for single malt. The sweet, confected and seemingly doctored world of Barefoot and Blossom Hill bear little resemblance to what most of our staff consider wine (not natural wine, not particularly fancy wine. Just wine).
Interestingly, review sites seem to back up my thoughts. Bud scores an average of 30% on ratebeer.com, and Bacardi gets just 28% on rumratings.com. Barefoot Merlot and Cuervo fare a little better (68% on vivino.com and 61% on Tequila.net), but Glenfiddich 12 receives a creditable 78% from whiskybase.com.
Essentially while craft is trendy, and small is appealing, single malt whisky is well suited to scaling up. If you want to make more, you add more mash tuns, washbacks, or more pairs of stills. Providing you avoid the temptation to increase pace of production, continue to invest in good wood, and have a good blending team putting the bottling together, then volumes can be grown without changing the inherent character of the single malt. A family run company like William Grant and Sons have done this, and our industry is lucky that this is often people’s first experience of single malt whisky. So next time you are stuck in an airport, order yourself a dram and remind yourself how good it is. And if you spot a buzzard on a fencepost, stop, and admire it.