Whiskey lovers know that whiskey is not merely a drink but an experience. In the world of whiskey, Glenfiddich and Glenlivet stand as tall as any.
The palates of connoisseurs tingle at the mention of their names while even novices recognize them. These whiskeys offer something for everyone.
Glenlivet has banana and pineapple notes, while Glenfiddich has hints of smoky peat and chocolate. Glenlivet has a more robust malt aroma, while Glenfiddich is oakier. According to some, Glenlivet tastes like orange and vanilla, while Glenfiddich has wood and cream notes. Both are smooth.
Glenfiddich and Glenlivet are two of the best-known Scotch whiskey brands around the world. As the word “Scotch” suggests, they are both made in Scotland.
Both are single malts, which means they are produced by one distillery and are made with barley grains. To fully understand these two iconic whiskeys, we must first explore some terminology.
What is Scotch?
To be classified as Scotch, a single malt must be distilled in a pot still and must contain only water and barley, and distillation and fermentation must occur at the same location. It must be bottled in Scotland and made in a permitted Scottish warehouse.
Scotch is whiskey, but not all whiskey is Scotch.
What Is Meant By Single Malt?
Single malt whiskey can come from several different barrels, but they must all originate from a single distillery. Also, single malts are made from a single type of grain, malted barley. By contrast, Blended whiskey is made from many different grains such as barley, corn, rye, or wheat.
The makers of single malts ensure that their whiskeys preserve their carefully crafted profiles that have evolved over the years.
The result is that you know what to expect when you buy a single malt from a particular distillery. They all have their own distinctive malted barley flavors.
Blended whiskeys are cheaper to produce because they don’t need as much time as single malts to mature before becoming drinkable.
Connoisseurs tend to prefer single malts to whiskeys made from other grains, but that doesn’t mean that other whiskeys are always inferior. The famous Chivas Regal is a blended Scotch.
What Distinguishes Speyside Whiskeys?
Glenfiddich and Glenlivet are Speyside whiskies. They come from the River Spey area, or “Strathspey,” as it is called locally. Knowing where a whiskey originates is useful because the quality of the water, the peat, and other local features define their characteristic taste.
Speyside whiskeys are less peaty and tend to have a nutty, fruity flavor. Mellow notes and sweetness distinguish them and, when compared to other scotches, they are often described as “elegant”.
Whiskey connoisseurs also describe these whiskeys as “smooth”. This is one reason for their popularity. They are easy on the tongue and so appeal to connoisseurs and beginners alike.
Don’t be deceived that they all taste the same though. A wide variety of Speyside whiskey comes from this area as more than half of Scottish distilleries are located here.
Speyside whiskeys are generally lighter tasting with grassy, floral tones. Glenfiddich and Glenlivet are not the only Speyside whiskeys, but they are probably the most famous.
There is a variety of whiskeys within the Glenlivet and Glenfiddich range. They all carry the Glenlivet or Glenfiddich name and are all single malts, but some age for longer, and they are also distinguished by being matured in different types of barrels.
These whiskey variants are called “expressions” within the range. Different expressions vary in price depending on their age and maturation process.
What’s The Difference?
Glenfiddich has been described as a mellow creamy spirit that carries notes of pear and oakiness, with a sweet and fruity palate and a long finish. Glenlivet has a light, honey, and floral sweetness. To appreciate their differences, you should taste them both.
The aroma of the whiskey is called “the nose”. Your nose is the most vital sense organ for tasting whiskey, followed by the palate. Experts say that your palate just confirms what your nose has already told you.
So pour yourself a dram of Glenfiddich and another of Glenlivet of similar age and carefully sniff each one. Find words to describe the aroma in your nostrils.
Then take a small sip and see how it feels in your mouth. Is it silky or rough? What flavors can you distinguish? After you’ve swallowed, pay close attention to the aftertaste, which is called “the finish”.
What does it remind you of? Apples? Pears? Smoky peat? Caramel? How long does it last on your tastebuds?
Choosing between two whiskeys is a matter of personal preference. Different palates pick up on different notes.
Glenlivet and Glenfiddich are fierce competitors. In the United States, Glenlivet pips Glenfiddich to the post in the number one selling spot, but globally, Glenfiddich is the winner.
Price-wise, they are well within reach of the average whiskey enthusiast and make welcome gifts. They both offer much older and more expensive expressions that may be out of reach of some pockets but are very appealing to the more discerning drinker.
What Makes Glenfiddich?
Glenfiddich comes in an iconic triangular bottle. The water used to make it is from the Robbie Dhu springs in the Conval Hills near the distillery.
Distilleries guard their natural springs jealously because the water is part of their secret for making good whiskey. Glenfiddich uses older methods for making whiskey than Glenlivet, although the latter is the slightly older distillery.
Glenfiddich is unique in the Scottish highlands as, unlike other distilleries, it grows its own barley. Malted barley mash is a crucial ingredient. Glenfiddich is matured in different types of casks, which make subtle differences in taste.
The whiskey spends at least 12 years maturing in these wooden barrels, slowly acquiring its unique color and flavor. Coopers make the barrels on-site and tend to each cask individually.
At Glenfiddich, the wood makes the whiskey. The used casks are mellowed and kept at just the right temperature to ensure the best maturing conditions.
Highly popular and award-winning 15-year-old Glenfiddich is readily available. It is aged in European, American, and New American oak before being mellowed in a Solera vat and married in Portuguese oak tuns.
A tun is a large vat. “Marrying” is a technical term in the production process to describe the blending of different casks of mature malts and the addition of water to adjust the alcohol’s strength.
The Special Reserve Twelve Year Old is the most popular single malt in the world. It is matured in American bourbon and Spanish sherry oak casks for at least 12 years. This Scotch has sweet and fruity notes, which develop into butterscotch, cream, malt, and oak flavors. It has a long smooth finish.
The 18-year-old Ancient Reserve is matured in casks that previously held American bourbon and Oloroso Sherry. Gran Reserva 21 year old comes out of rum casks from Cuba.
- Read my comparison of Rum VS Whiskey here.
It takes great skill to select the right casks to keep the established flavor profile. Each barrel is unique, and so exerts a particular influence on how the whisky is matured.
Glenfiddich’s Cask Collection is made in oak vats in which the whisky is married with matured whiskey for several weeks. It comes in Select Cask, Reserve Cask, and Vintage Cask variations.
The Select Cask is matured in aged Bourbon, European oak, and California red wine casks to extract the fruity notes and a touch of spice.
The Reserve Cask, which costs slightly more, comes from Sherry casks and has a drier, sweet, and spicy flavor that’s oakier. The Vintage Cask is made smokier with peated barley and aged in European oak and Bourbon casks. It is the most expensive of the Cask range.
What Makes Glenlivet?
French company Pernod Ricard now owns Glenlivet. This whiskey was trademarked as “The Glenlivet” by its founder to deliberately distinguish it from other whiskey made by illegal distillers in the Glenlivet area at the time. Glenlivet is light, crisp, and fruity. It has an exceptionally smooth taste and is a famous starter whisky for the novice.
Like Glenfiddich, it is made in copper pot stills. Founder George Smith developed these, and the design remains unchanged to this day. The great height of the stills ensures that only the lightest vapor is used to make the whiskey.
Water for Glenlivet comes from the famous Josie’s Well supplemented by the Blairfindy Well. Its purity is an essential part of Glenlivet. Barley from Crisp Maltings in Portgordon is the other critical element in the making of this whiskey.
Glenlivet is matured for at least 12 years but usually much longer. When whiskey is marketed with reference to its age, that reference is to the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle. The other whiskeys in the mix can be far older. Glenlivet has remained mostly unchanged for 150 years.
The Glenlivet 12 is the best-selling single malt in the United States. It tastes of orchard fruit, florals, and honeyed malt and feels creamy in the mouth.
Then there is The Glenlivet Nàdurra range, which is bolder with a rich spiciness and vanilla and cinnamon notes. Its taste is reminiscent of dried fruits and warm spices with a finish of raisins, apricots, cinnamon, and licorice.
It has a smooth and creamy palate. It is matured in ex-bourbon casks before finishing its maturation in casks that previously held heavily peated Scotch whisky.
The Nàdurra range is made in smaller batches and appeals to more experienced whiskey lovers. Nàdurra Oloroso is matured in Oloroso sherry oak casks from the Jerez region of Spain.
Nàdurra Oloroso, unlike most modern whiskies, is non-chill filtered, so it tastes as though it has been drawn straight from the barrel.
The Glenlivet 18-year-old is aged in French and American casks and has a unique profile, complex and nutty, with tropical fruit and creamy vanilla notes.
There is also a twenty-one-year-old, but now things are getting pricey! The distillery selects only the best casks for the 21-year-old, which is made in small batches. Each batch has a different profile, so this whiskey can vary in its profile.
If you want to spend even more money, then The Glenlivet 25-Year-Old XXV may titillate the tastebuds. It is aged in Oloroso Sherry casks and has a silky nutty, full-bodied flavor with added spice. It is best enjoyed neat or with only a few drops of water.
Brief History of Glenfiddich
Glenfiddich means “valley of the deer” in the Scots Gaelic language and is made by William Grant & Sons. Its logo is a stag or male deer.
It was established in 1886 in Dufftown in Moray and has quite a history. In 1887, on Christmas day, the first batch of liquor ran from its copper pot stills. Glenfiddich was the first in Scotland to market and brand its product as a “single malt”.
William Grant was a bookkeeper of all things, but his big dream was to create the best dram in the valley. A dram is any amount of whiskey you can swallow in a mouthful. A “wee dram” is usually a tot.
Grant first honed his craft in the Mortlach Distillery, where he learned every step in the art of distillation. He eventually became the manager there before he bought his own operation and called it Glenfiddich.
The decades of the 60’s and 70’s were hard times for small distillers, and many went out of business. W. Grant & Sons ramped up production, did advertising campaigns, and created a visitor’s center to survive.
The descendants of William Grant still manage the distillery. They pride themselves on the fact that Glenfiddich is one of the last independent distilleries in Scotland.
Brief History of Glenlivet
Glenlivet started out as moonshine, made secretly in the hidden hills of Scotland. The Glenlivet distillery is near the Scottish town of Toumit.
It was officially founded in 1824 by George Smith, but by 1822, it had acquired such notoriety as an illegal still that when King George IV visited Scotland in August, he asked for a wee dram to taste.
When the law changed a couple of years later, George Smith obtained his license, much to the dismay of the other illegal distillers in the area. They threatened to burn down his distillery and him with it, so he carried a pair of flintlock pistols wherever he went.
Glenlivet means “the valley of the smooth flowing” in Gaelic. A rather appropriate name for a whiskey that is easy on the tongue don’t you think? The Livet is the name of the river that flows in the valley.
Smith’s distillery had a close shave when it became bankrupt within three years of its official opening.
Fortunately, his landlord, the Duke of Gordon, bailed him out with £500. The distillery learned early on to package the whiskey with a bit of romance to appeal to the Victorians’ sense of story.
In 1871 Smith died. At that time, the distillery was producing 4000 gallons a week. His heir went to court to prevent the many illegal distillers in the valley from riding on the name “Glenlivet.” He trademarked the name as “The Glenlivet” to ensure that everyone knew it was the real deal.
The distillery was closed during the First World War but subsequently revived by Captain Bill Smith Grant in 1921. The US Prohibition affected whiskey makers badly, and in 1932, Glenlivet was one of only two malt distilleries operating in Scotland.
Happily, Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and Glenlivet’s fortunes revived. Passengers in Pullman trains across America could buy Glenlivet miniatures.
In 1972 the business became Glenlivet Distillers Ltd. Seagram’s bought it for the hefty sum of 70 million pounds in 1978. Chivas Regal was always Seagram’s priority despite Glenlivet becoming the leading single malt in the United States.
Glenlivet languished a little until Pernod bought it in 2001, and it became a top priority brand. They increased the number of stills and ramped up production to make it the market leader it is today.
Now you know why Glenlivet and Glenfiddich are both highly sought after whiskeys. Both have centuries-old roots in the whiskey-making traditions of Scotland.
Buy a bottle of each and taste the difference.
Bottoms up, and bring it on!