Behind the scenes of Glenfiddich’s whisky

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Touring the Valley of the Deer

Dusk fell upon Carcosa Seri Negara, a luxury boutique hotel in Kuala Lumpur, and Glenfiddich’s distillery came to life. Whisky aficionados, including Glenfiddich’s celebrity brand ambassador Godfrey Gao, were guided by the distillery’s team on a tour of the dram’s production, except that no whisky was actually being made. The experience was part of a series of interactive tours called Valley of the Deer, which is aimed at bringing Glenfiddich’s distillery closer to home. At its Speyside distillery, Glenfiddich ages its whisky in sprawling warehouses. Adjacent to them is the distillery’s cooperage, where head cooper Ian McDonald ensures that there is a constant supply of casks of exceptional quality.

How many distilleries in Scotland have their own cooperages?
Currently there are five: two of them are in Speyside, and Glenfiddich is one of them. We are the only distillery in Scotland with a cooperage next to the distillery.

What types of oak does Glenfiddich use?
We use about 11 types of oak, which are mostly a mix of European and American. European oak gives complexity to the whisky, while American oak gives a creamy sweetness, so we have to find a balance between the two.

How does the toasting of the oak impact the whisky?
Toasting opens the wood grains and breaks down wood lignin into vanillin, which can give the whisky a vanilla character. It also acts as a filter, so it’s important to have well charred casks.

How do you ensure the cask’s performance during whisky maturation?
The feel of the wood tells you the quality of the oak, but there’s no way of telling how the casks will behave in the warehouse. No two casks behave the same way, even when they are made and filled on the same day.

So you have to keep a constant eye on them in the warehouse as well?
Yes, that’s why coopering is hard physical labour that also requires attention to detail. Having an onsite cooperage means having absolute control over oak and cask quality.

Glenfiddich's Speyside distillery
Glenfiddich’s Speyside distillery

What happens when the whisky is ready to be bottled?
The whisky is watered down from cask strength to bottle strength before bottling. The water used comes from the spring that feeds into Glenfiddich, which is the same source that is used for distilling.

Can the casks be reused?
We believe in rejuvenating the casks wherever possible. Besides being environmentally friendly, it also means that there is no unnecessary cost that is transferred to the consumer.

How long does it take to become a cooper?
To become a cooper today requires four years of apprenticeship; it used to be five. The job comprises various elements; the most basic involves putting barrels together and repairing leaky ones.

How long does it take for you to put a barrel together?
It usually takes 10 to 15 minutes. I once took up a challenge and the fastest I took to assemble a barrel was seven minutes.

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Published 12th November 2015