We have a strange blind spot when it comes to mega-Scotch here on MALT. Though Jason looked at a Glenlivet as part of his Connoisseurs Choice tasting back in November, just over a year ago was the last time that a sole Glenlivet – the second best-selling single malt – was reviewed by anyone on the team.
The best-selling Glenfiddich has gotten even less love; you’ll have to go back to April 2017 to read about the Spirit of Speyside festival bottling, and to September 2016 to read about a bottle you might find on a store shelf.
Show horse (in the sense of both being in third place and being the flashiest) Macallan has gained more attention from us, not necessarily in a good way. The Edition release gives an annual reason for checking in, though Jason has stopped now and again to lament that Macallan seems to have become lost in luxury land, with the whisky being an incidental afterthought. Fitting, in that no one seems to open and drink their bottles anyway.
With the three largest single malts garnering only sporadic coverage here, one might fairly ask of the MALT team: are you doing your job? To which I’d honestly reply: yes and no.
At the rate of at least one piece per day – every day – and even more in the busy season around Christmas, the team collectively reviews an incredible amount of whisky. Don’t cry for our livers, though. Mark and Jason have welcomed new voices (including my own) to the fold, which brings some stylistic variation and a greater diversity of geographic coverage.
This is much needed, given the supply side of the global whisky equation. We’ve discussed the boom in craft distilling; Adam has traipsed all over England to uncover the newest of the new, and I’ve tried to do my part to keep up on this side of the Atlantic. Yet, the number of craft whiskies that we haven’t tried still vastly outnumbers those that we have. At the same time, the established brands churn out new expressions or revamp their lines, constantly pulling our attention away from the core of old standbys.
The above is more an explanation than an excuse. I think there’s an opportunity to do more work on the whisky of most interest to the casual reader: those ubiquitous bottles on the shelf of every supermarket and convenience store. On Twitter, I recently proposed a #FlagshipFebruary -style campaign (aimed at the base range of major producers), which got two “likes” and failed to elicit any responses. Fine, forget you guys. I’ll do it myself.
I never thought I’d say this: I went out and ordered a dram of Glenlivet 12 Years Old. I couldn’t bring myself to shell out $30 for a full bottle. For context, I was once staying with my parents and found their liquor cabinet bare of whisky. The local supermarket only had Glenlivet 12 Years Old on the shelf. I left empty-handed; THAT is what little regard I hold this expression in. It costs even more in the UK from the Whisky Exchange £44.95 or Amazon will take your cash for the same fee.
The 12 Years Old had a near-death experience in 2015, when Pernod Ricard announced that it would be discontinued in favor of the NAS Founder’s Reserve, allegedly due to lack of aged stocks. Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory, however, when the company reversed course in 2017. Pernod Ricard began re-introducing the expression; it is now broadly available once again.
Like my recent exploration of Mortlach, I have paired this entry-level offering with a more distinguished single cask from the same distillery. The hope is to find points of similarity, as well as to suss out some sources of difference between the two.
Onto the dreaded review. Mark last had a crack at this one in a 2015 vertical tasting, in which he described it (and its siblings) as “bland and not worth the price tag.” We’ll see about that!
Glenlivet 12 Years Old – Review
Color: Miller Lite
On the nose: Cheery enough. Blonde wood, ripe pineapple, spearmint, vanilla pound cake. Fairly generic Speyside profile, comparable perhaps to Allt-a-Bhainne, Dalwhinnie, or – indeed – Glenfiddich.
In the mouth: Dude, where’s my whisky? To quote the MALT scoring bands, this is “astonishingly dull.” Almost totally mute on the entrance. At midpalate, this has a soapy texture the faintest vanilla sweetness, and a bit of woody heat before vanishing entirely. Vigorous swishing to hit every nook and cranny of the mouth yields nothing more interesting. At 40%, this is already at the barest minimum to be considered Scotch whisky, and nowhere is this more evident than on the palate.
I wouldn’t even put this in a highball; it’s that flavorless. Perhaps the most pointless age statement in existence. Considering they blend countless casks all together and then add enough water to produce three million bottles, it’s not really surprising that this doesn’t taste like much. What’s more astounding is that it tastes like anything at all. It’s hard to imagine this having much in common with a single sherry cask from Glenlivet; it doesn’t even have anything in common with itself.
I’d like to tell you that the second-most popular single malt whisky is also the second worst, but that would be too strong of an opinion. I don’t like this, but I don’t really hate it, either. It’s everywhere, it’s very, very, very, very dull, but it doesn’t spark the kind of passion that ignites the kindling of hatred. I feel about it the way I feel about, say, Diet Pepsi.
I’ve often thought about the Coke vs. Pepsi rivalry, and the $4 billion and $2.4 billion, respectively, they spend annually on advertising. It’s an inescapable arms race, but it’s tantalizing to imagine one of them spontaneously quitting. To analogize: what if Glenlivet just quit trying to be #1? What if they took this amazing distillery, and their access to all manner of casks, and just decided to produce 21 million liters of the tastiest whisky they could? Our second review provides a glimpse of what might result from that revolutionary decision.
As mentioned above, Jason last delved into a Signatory bottling of a sherry cask from Glenlivet. Jason is persuasive and I am suggestible, and also an incorrigible copycat, and also this was given to me for free by a friend. Thus, I too am reviewing a Signatory sherry cask of Glenlivet.
This is part of cask 166960, a first fill sherry butt, picked by Warehouse Liquors of Chicago. It was distilled on 10/30/1995, bottled on 7/21/2016 (20 years old) at 57.4%. 264 bottles were produced from this portion. It retails for $190 around me, but this sample is another dram generously shared with me by Carl. Thanks, Carl.
Signatory Glenlivet 1995 20 Year Old – Review
Color: Medium-dark sepia with crimson glints.
On the nose: This is a bit of a sleeper to start, but lingering over the glass allows a parade of aromas to gradually emerge. Ripe pineapple, leather armchair, mahogany, semi-sweet baking chocolate, beef broth, vanilla buttercream, cracked black peppercorn, stewed tomatoes, teriyaki glaze, Worcestershire sauce. Rich, though there’s an edge to this that keeps it from smelling too sickly-sweet.
In the mouth: Texturally quite variegated across the tongue and down the throat. Not much on the tip of the tongue, though this blooms quickly into the citric tartness of freshly-squeezed lemon juice. A judicious splash of water releases more nutty flavors, as well as a very subtle chalky sweetness of Dubble Bubble gum. There’s an off, bitter note of almonds before this finishes with an ashy texture, and the subtle lingering flavor of spent firewood. Throughout, spirit and cask are mostly in balance.
As Jason noted in his review of the Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve, this distillery is incapable of producing poor distillate. Rather, there’s something durable at the center of this whisky which can hold its own against a first fill sherry butt for two decades. This falls a bit short of the Mortlach, but is a decent example of the sherried Speyside style (if a bit expensive).
These two are perfect strangers. The only shared nuance is a ripe pineapple aroma. I guess the important takeaway is: hiding behind those three million bottles of diluted, feeble whisky is a distillery producing a spirit that can hold its own against the burliest of casks. So, by all means: go forth and find Glenlivet in its purer forms. And, if you should find yourself in the invidious position of having to drink the 12 Years Old: go slow, or you could miss it.
Lead image courtesy of Glenlivet