By Richard Thomas
David Stewart was Master Blender and Malt Master at William Grant & Sons for more than 30 years before handing the reins over to Brian Kinsman in 2009, so long that many forget just what a major innovator Stewart had been in the scotch industry. This is so much the case that I sometimes find scotch enthusiasts who know Stewart’s name, but don’t quite realize why he was such a legend.
Stewart’s biggest contribution was the pioneer of two-cask maturation, commonly known as finishing, a now commonplace practice in Scotland that has spread as far as the United States. But that was not the only new idea he had during his tenure.
Another Stewart invention was the Solera marriage, embodied in Glenfiddich 15 Year Old. This middle aged single malt is drawn from whisky matured in Portuguese sherry (not Spanish), American bourbon and new American oak. The latter is a particularly special touch, since aging scotch in new oak is uncommon. The whisky is then blended and married in a Solera, in this case a tun made of Oregon pine. The tun is always kept at least half full with fresh injections of whisky, creating an ongoing, consistent process. Batches drawn from the Solera are bottled at 40% abv.
Solera-aging is common enough in the realms of vinegar, sherry, port, madeira, rum and even beer. Yet unlike finishing, Stewart’s use of the Solera didn’t catch on in whiskey-making. To date, Glenfiddich 15 Year Old is the only expression using it.
In the glass, Glenfiddich 15 has a light, but dim copper appearance. It’s an interest-drawing, faded color, as if it were desaturated or somehow absorbing a little more of the light that passes through it than it should.
The nose carries a heavy scent of musty old raisins, like an old box of them discovered in the back of a cabin pantry after several years. I also found a whiff of pine resin, adding to the musty, woody character, and a solid note of caramel.
The liquid was a touch oily on my palate, but only a touch. The flavor had more of that musty old wood, with distinct currents of stewed, seasoned plums (especially strong on the cinnamon) and tobacco leaf. It’s a dry, moderately spicy, woody whisky. The finish runs off on notes of tobacco and pepper, but is surprisingly light and cool.
While I do not think of Glenfiddich 15 Year Old as being complex or subtle, I do think it has a certain sophistication. I dithered for a few days over whether to give the whisky a B or a B+, but ultimately settled on the latter because it is such an interesting and pleasant sipper.
Glenfiddich 15 Year Old usually retails for between $40 and $45 in the United States, in keeping with its status as a bang for your buck brand of single malt scotch. In the UK, expect to pay around £33. In Europe, the price range is generally between €35 and €40.
Among its recent garlands, Glenfiddich 15 Year Old collected a Speyside Single Malts 13 to 18 YO Gold at the 2014 Scotch Whisky Masters and a Master from the same event in 2013; Double Gold Single Malt Scotch, 13 to 19 YO at the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits Competition; and Scotch Single Malt, Speyside Gold at the 2013 International Wine and Spirits Competition.