Raising the standard

Raising the standard

Glenfiddich,The Glenlivet and Glenmorangie are\rthree of the biggest selling malts in the world but does familiarity breed contempt? Dominic\rRoskrow suggests they're worth revisiting.

Tastings | 27 Feb 2009 | Issue 78 | By Dominic Roskrow

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When’s the last time you sat down and had a glass of Glenmorangie Traditional or a 12 Years Old Glenlivet or Glenfiddich? And not just drank one, but savoured it and thought about it?Chances are you’re like thousands of malt lovers who started their journey into the world of whisky by enjoying one of the three great Glens. For some that association fired a lifelong love affair with one or more of them.For many, though, they were little more than the gateway to a journey of discovery, and they have not only been left a long way behind, but have been discarded and dismissed along the road in search of the perfect malt. They’re often considered by the connoisseur as little more than ‘apprentice malts’, a stepping stone to something more substantial and serious.But is this really fair? 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?A few months back my daughter went through a phase when she wouldn’t go to sleep unless someone sat on her bed. So night after night I’d take a whisky (yes I know, any excuse), and sit in the dark for 20 minutes sipping and thinking. It just happened that the drink I chose was the new Glenmorangie, and in the darkness and with nothing to distract from the taste, I grew to love it. So much so that the evening sleep sessions became a daily treat.But it got me to thinking. So I tried it with Glenfiddich and finally Glenlivet. It was like looking at your partner after many years and falling in love all over again, remembering why you were attracted to her in the first place, and experiencing that surge of warmth and wonderment after years of overfamiliarity.All of which means that if you left Glenmorangie, Glenlivet and/or Glenfiddich behind years ago, then perhaps now is a good time for a revisit. It may be you’re depriving yourself of a treat.“If any malt drinkers have shied away from any of the three and have dismissed them as less serious than any other malts then quite honestly they’re not doing themselves any favours,” says Glenmorangie’s head of distilling and whisky creation Bill Lumsden.”They are the three biggest selling Glens for a very good reason and that’s because all three of them are absolutely fantastic.“It’s understandable that people do move on to something else because it’s human nature to want something different.“The sort of people who like malt whisky are those who don’t want to wear the same label on clothing as everyone else and they want to discover something different for themselves.“But there is a strong argument that between them these three whiskies we’re talking about represent Scotch whisky at its very best.” Ian Millar, global brand ambassador for Glenfiddich agrees. Part of his remit is to not only bring new drinkers to Scottish malt, but persuade existing drinkers who may have moved away from Glenfiddich to revisit it.“These brands are the perfect starting point for people because they are all perfect examples of a complete all-round Scottish malt style,” he says.“They’re perfect examples of a fruity Speyside style, and while Glenmorangie isn’t from Speyside it, too, has the same fruity taste. But they’re also very fine whiskies, as good as anything you’ll find elsewhere.Perhaps that gets forgotten as people move on to different things.” There’s something else, too. While the whisky industry has traditionally shied away from discussing the evolving nature of the whisky in our glass, in recent months there has been a greater willingness to address it openly.“I think people realise that malt changes,” says Neil MacDonald, director of malts for Chivas Brothers, owners of The Glenlivet. “There are the obvious aspects of this – the industry is investing more in better casks and is making use of better quality ingredients. But also making malt whisky is an evolving industry, and we’re learning more and getting better at it so inevitably over time whisky has changed, and for the better.” In practice this means that should you revisit any of the three Glens after a long time, it may well be the case that they not only seem to taste better than you remember them, they actually are better. In the case of Glenmorangie Traditional this shouldn’t come too much of a surprise as the malt was changed this year. But in all three cases and particularly in the case of Glenfiddich, the whisky is better, and markedly so.“I think that if people who have become over-familiar with the 12 Years Old and haven’t treated it seriously as a malt for a long while were to return to it now their reaction may well be ‘wow’ because of the improvement,” says Ian Millar.“People sometimes forget that it’s successful for a reason, and it’s stayed at the top despite the surge of new brands and other whiskies. It’s where it is not just because it won’t let you down. It’s because it delivers on flavour and has kept up with industry changes and is better than it ever has been.” The argument that familiarity breeds contempt is a powerful one, and it doesn’t hurt to once more remind ourselves that we have much to thank the likes of Glenfiddich for, because owners William Grant used it to open up the world of malt whisky.And while you’d expect its representatives to claim that it remains a leading malt, don’t just take their word for it. Glenmorangie’s Bill Lumsden has the same view.“Undoubtedly brands can become tired in the minds of people buying them and they can suffer from over-exposure. That may have happened to Glenfiddich,” he says.“But I know David Stewart at Glenfiddich very well and he’s been doing similar things with wood experimentation as we have and the effects on the whisky in my view have been to improve it noticeably and significantly.” The reference to over-exposure is something of a euphemism for the destructive and ultimately pointless pursuit of supermarket discounting that has caused incalculable damage to many brands, Glenfiddich included.Last year was when it was all going to change as world shortage of malt and escalating oil prices gave the producers an out clause. Then the credit crunch struck and at least some reverted to type.Talk to an independent retailer, though, and they will tell you many customers shopping for Christmas gifts wouldn’t touch ‘cheap supermarket brands’ a dreadful indictment on beautifully-made malts matured for 12 years in the finest wood.“It is a problem,” admits Glenfiddich’s Ian Millar. ”I wish the people who make the decision to do it would stop.“Supermarkets are doing the industry as a whole or a brand such as Glenfiddich 12 no favours at all because they undervalue malt whisky and use it as a tool to get people through the door. There are people who won’t touch a 12 Years Old for this reason and turn to the 15 or 18 instead.” Neil MacDonald of Chivas Brother admits the same problem, but says that all three Glen brands have saved themselves through outstanding special expressions.Brands such as the Glenlivet French Oak Reserve, Nadurra, and Glenmorangie Astar and Signet have ample in the tank to keep even the most elitist whisky drinker happy.But this is all about the more common expressions, each of which deserves a reassessment.If you haven’t tried them for a while and there’s a bottle down the pub, treat yourself.Have it as your first drink, and savour it.There. You never really forget your first love, do you?
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