Welcome back to another side-by-side tasting and a comparison of some great single malts from Scotland. Today I’m running through the two best-selling drams, recognizable worldwide and available in almost every country, bar, and often even a supermarket. In fact, you may have landed on this page because you also wanted to know the difference between the two. I’ve had both of these before, but how do they stand out against each other, and which one should you choose? As I write this, I am a bit excited about this experiment because I do not know the answer to this question, and so we shall discover this together. So let’s get to it, shall we? But first, we need music! Now playing: Daniel[i] & Purl – Tesseract.
For this tasting, I picked up two miniatures at 50ml each. Yes, I could have bought two 700ml bottles – after all, at the time of this writeup, the Glenfiddich is only about £36, and the Glenlivet is only two quid more. But I’m okay with just two drams. A quick note on the batches – although both distilleries strive to produce a consistent product, one can still find a slight difference between the same liquid produced in different years. The quality fluctuates and in recent years has somewhat declined in core ranges from big producers. I’ll pour half of these into my Glencairns and let them stand there for about 15 minutes before I move on to the actual tasting. Meanwhile, let’s get through some basic facts and a little history. Yes, both have the word “Glen” in their names, but that only means “valley” in Scottish Gaelic. And so, Glenfiddich stands for the “valley of the deer”, and Glenlivet is something akin to the “valley of the smooth flowing one.” The latter is near the River Livet, from where it takes its name. In fact, the entire Glenlivet was once a great area known for its Scotch whisky. So much so that you will still find some distilleries use the “Glenlivet” term on their bottlings (like Tomintoul-Glenlivet or The Glen Moray-Glenlivet). This is why, if you look closely, there is a “The” in the name before Glenlivet to signify the brand. Yes, real legal action was taken to acquire the sole permission of its usage in the title, and now the rest must hyphenate. It’s a long story, but don’t confuse this distillery with the other bottlings. The Glenlivet is now owned by the Chivas Brothers (a subsidiary of Pernod Ricard), so it’s a big corporation-run brand, while Glenfiddich is produced by William Grant & Sons (which also owns Balvenie), still big but independent. Both distilleries are located in Speyside – only about a 20-minute drive from each other. So you can claim that even their whisky should be somewhat of the same character. We’ll see about that.
So what’s in the bottle? The Glenfiddich 12-year-old is a signature single malt, and it’s a vatting (this means that it was blended before the bottling at the distillery – that’s still a single malt!) of about 90% whisky aged in ex-bourbon American casks and 10% aged in ex-oloroso European casks for at least 12 years each. Don’t quote me on the exact percentage of this blend – the recipe will vary, and yes, of course, there are some older whiskies in the vatting. The sad part is that it’s coloured, chill-filtered, and bottled only at 40% ABV. The Glenlivet 12-year-old, on the other hand, is double matured – which means that the whisky first spent its life in one type of barrel (referred to as “traditional” ex-bourbon American oak) and then later transferred to and finished in a different kind of barrel (presumably ex-oloroso European oak) for a minimum of 12 years in total. This sometimes means that the whisky will take on a little more of the flavour of the later finish versus when the two barrels are combined in a single blend. But it’s hard to be prescriptive here. The sad part, once again, is that it’s also coloured, chill-filtered, and bottled only at 40% ABV. And so, in “sadness”, they’re on par. So I will not compare the colour – both distilleries can make them look as dark as they want. Let’s see the nose on these. They’re both a little weak, but as expected at this very low ABV. The Glenfiddich is definitely more vanilla, caramel and subtle fruit, leaning more towards that American oak flavour, while The Glenlivet is less sweet, a little dry, and with a bit more fruit up front. I’m guessing the Glenfiddich will be sweeter, but I’ve been tricked before. Let’s go in for a taste. Glenfiddich comes in smooth, round, full, and easily goes down with the first sip. The Glenlivet is even softer, almost silkier but flatter. The flavour profile is nearly the same, but I feel Glenfiddich had a slightly longer finish. Let’s take a sip of water and try them in reverse. Glenlivet is much sweeter than expected, but it is milder than Glenfiddich. The latter has a sharper bite and stays much longer on the palate, but it’s a cleaner sip with just a tad more character behind.
I go on like this for quite some time, changing the order of the two, comparing the very subtle differences in the profile, and I must admit they are really close. The Glenlivet is indeed more delicate with every sip, but there are times when I almost feel like it is a little watered down, while the Glenfiddich lets itself be known with all its sharper edges, some slightly higher peaks, and now clearly longer finish than Glenlivet. You know, I feel like I can almost describe these in two ADSR functions: the Glenfiddich has a triangular arc, higher amplitude and longer decay, while the Glenlivet is a curvier sine, which arrives and ends at about the same slope level, but it is lower in amplitude and thus smoother to taste. And although I appreciate the rounder character, I must say that the Glenfiddich is slightly more interesting because of its jagged and a tad unpolished angles – but you may disagree with me on that. The Glenlivet is like a good ol’ warming friend, but the Glenfiddich is like a new and interesting person. It does depend on who you want to be around at that particular moment in time.
See also my write up on Glenfiddich 15 Solera vs Glenfiddich 18 Small Batch Reserve.