Reports 14 October 2019

Glenfiddich releases 23-year-old cask-aged Grand Cru

Glenfiddich's latest expression - finished in casks from Champagne - was revealed in London last month

Words by Ian Wisniewski

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Glenfiddich has released its latest expression, a complex blend of Bourbon and Sherry ageing, finished in casks from Champagne.

The Grand Cru, which was revealed with a flourish in London last month, continues Glenfiddich’s tradition of using unusual casks to endow a whisky with additional flavours.

Grand Cru has classic credentials: it’s a blend of 23-year-old malt whisky aged in Bourbon barrels and Sherry casks. The distinguishing feature is an additional four-month sojourn – known as a finish – in what Glenfiddich is calling “cuvée” casks. These are oak casks of varying size, previously used by Champagne houses for fermentation of the still wines that will become Champagne after the second fermentation in bottle.

As the wine is not yet Champagne, Glenfiddich can’t call its new expression a “Champagne Cru”, even though part of the idea of Grand Cru is to make fine malt into a “celebration” drink. And steal some of Champagne’s market, of course.

The Grand Cru continues Glenfiddich’s tradition of using unusual casks to endow a whisky with additional flavours

During the fermentation process the casks gain a distinct character, which is clearly picked up by the Grand Cru, manifested first on the nose in the form of grape aromas, before notes of melon and honey appear. On the palate we saw citrus – lemon and grapefruit – before notes of gingerbread, caramel and vanilla. 

Other signs of the cask’s influence followed: brioche (a classic flavor that Champagne gains from contact with lees, the dead yeast cells, in the process known as yeast autolysis) accompanied by hints of grape and raisin.

Grand Cru’s connection with Champagne means it’s being promoted to celebrate special moments. After a few minutes the nose showed more distinct vanilla and lemon meringue. The second sip also differs from the first, not surprisingly as your palate has acclimatised to alcohol: the result was more immediate vanilla and caramel, with lemons and digestive biscuit maltyness. The finish was also maltier, and the dryness gentler than first time around.

To underline the Champagne associations, the folk at Glenfiddich served our Grand Cru in a coupette, the short, shallow saucer that is the opposite of a conventional tasting glass. As the size and shape of glassware influence the characteristics malt whisky shows, I asked for the latter. The difference was amazing. In the tasting glass the palate developed luscious juicy orange characters, lemon and apricot, while dry, lightly spicy oak added counterpoint. What a versatile malt this proved to be, deeply fulfilling in either glass, particularly the interplay of patisserie and biscuit notes.

Adding a finishing touch to malt whisky has become widespread since it was pioneered in the 1990s. The influence a finish exerts depends on various factors, beginning with the master blender’s philosophy: to add subtle or more emphatic flavours. The longer the finish the greater the influence; typically it would be six to eight months, while longer periods are referred to as secondary maturation. 

What a cask achieves also relies on the amount of residual liquid left behind by the previous incumbent (whether sherry or bourbon, Amarone or Champagne base wine), absorbed within the staves and ‘released’ when the cask is re-filled. The sooner a cask reaches Scotland after being emptied the fresher it is, and the greater the level of residual liquid.

Various wine, fortified wine and spirit casks have been recruited to finish malts, which means opportunities to innovate are more challenging. Meanwhile, the rate at which new expressions are released has accelerated, driven by the huge appetite of whisky fans. But even if several distilleries used the same cask type, and the same finishing period for the same age of malt, each distillery’s house style ensures it remains distinct.

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