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GlenDronach 8 The Hielan’

I like a bit of sherry in a whisky

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not the type of person who will exclaim, “Wow, look at the colour of that!” when I see a malt which appears to be only a couple of shades away on the Dulux colour chart from Loch Dhu. Predominantly ex-bourbon drams are my preferred style, but – when done well – sherry maturation in whisky can be rather good indeed.

One distillery which usually gets the balance right with their use of sherry casks is GlenDronach. The 15 year old Revival and 18 year old Allardice have been particularly well received by whisky fans, myself included, since they were introduced. The earlier batches containing some older stock were the most prized of all.

The BenRiach Distillery Company, led by Billy Walker and his team, purchased GlenDronach in 2008, and transformed its fortunes and reputation in the Scotch whisky market. In 2016, the decision was made to sell the company, which also includes Benriach and Glenglassaugh, to U.S. drinks giant Brown-Forman. Brown-Forman are best known for huge brands such as Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve, and decided they wanted to get a foothold in the rapidly expanding Scotch whisky industry.

The 15 year old Revival, which had been discontinued in 2015 due to stock issues, was re-introduced by the new owners in 2018, and when Mark reviewed it that same year, he was impressed. Many feared changes as soon as the takeover was announced, but at GlenDronach things seemed to be continuing as normal… until now.

In recent weeks, GlenDronach has been causing a bit of furore amongst whisky fans on social media. The revelation that they had released bottles onto the market with the words “Non Chill Filtered” removed was met with a mixture of disbelief and consternation.

Many people approached GlenDronach about this change, and they all appear to have had the same copy and paste reply from the company. I approached them myself to see if I would receive the same, and indeed I did. I guess if you get asked the same question, why write anything different? Here’s there response:

Dear Andrew

Thank you very much for your email and your interest and support of Glendronach.  We hope this email finds you safe and well.

We have removed “Non Chill Filtered” from our packaging to provide the flexibility in our processes to optimise consistently exceptional quality, flavour, clarity and stability. 

Please be assured that our much-loved whiskies continued to be crafted to the highest standards, and the update marks no change to the taste of our award-winning Single Malts.

All of our Single Malts continue to be of natural cask-imparted colour, expertly selected and married by our Master Blender Rachel Barrie.

Kind Regards
The Glendronach Team

Plenty of pleasant words from the marketing department, but no definitive answer as to whether chill filtration is taking place already, or will take place in the future. However, using terms such as “clarity and stability” certainly suggest a move towards chill filtration.  If that is the case, the exceptional quality and flavour they talk about can only be affected negatively, with lots of the natural oils in the whisky stripped away.

The decision is more perplexing to me when you consider the type of person who drinks GlenDronach whisky. Their market, particularly for the pricier 15+ year age statements, is the whisky fan who is willing to spend extra for a product which provides a certain level of quality. As soon as they start chill filtering, they begin to alienate a large proportion of that educated, enthusiast market. Even if there is no change to the whisky inside the bottle, simply removing the words from the label would be enough to turn off a huge proportion of their current fan base. At a time when people are becoming more informed in their choices, it surprises me that any brand would want to choose to move away from a more natural presentation.

Having said that, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Benriach was recently given a rebrand, and non-chill filtered was removed from the labelling across the range. Their third distillery, Glenglassaugh, doesn’t appear to have gone the same way yet, but it will be interesting to see if Brown-Forman decides to introduce the same philosophy there too.

While we still have the chance to enjoy a better presentation of GlenDronach, I thought I would look at an expression which doesn’t get the same attention as the 15 and 18 year old releases. There is a 12 year old, which is bottled at 43% ABV, but this 8 year old matches the rest of the range. It is presented at 46%, non-chill filtered and with natural colour.  Expect to pay around £35 for a bottle.

GlenDronach 8 The Hielan’ – Review

Colour: Amber

On the nose: It’s rather bright on the nose with sweet honey, lemon sherbet, powdered sugar and floral orange blossom. There’s rich espresso coffee along with caramel, honeycomb, cinnamon buns, apple strudel and damp cellar notes.

In the mouth: Juicy, sweet raisins, dates and oranges to begin with. It packs a punch on the palate and there is plenty of cracked black pepper and ginger spice, which lingers in the development. The initial sweetness turns more towards bitter with black coffee and cream and hazelnuts. The finish is fairly long and bitter, with the continuing spice, oak tannins, a good dash of salt and green apple.

Conclusions

The Hielan’ is a slight departure from the rest of the core range, in that it is a combination of not only ex-sherry, but also ex-bourbon casks. There’s a good balance, with both cask types showing their influence in the whisky, and one not overpowering the other. It delivers plenty of great flavours on both the nose and palate, but the finish is a little too bitter and tannic for my liking. However, I will have no problem finishing the bottle, and the retail price is fair for the experience it provides.

Score : 6/10

There’s not much point trying to appeal to Brown-Forman if they have decided to go in a different direction with the brand. They have crunched the numbers and think this is the best way to maximise profits. That’s business at the end of the day. They want to appeal to a different market now, and you have to remember us whisky fans who look for a more natural presentation are still a small group, even if we are an expanding one.  It’s a shame for fans of GlenDronach, but if the quality does drop, there are plenty of other distilleries doing things right, and we can always spend our money there instead.  For example, Jason recently highlighted the excellent work Signatory are doing with Edradour

Only time will tell what is going to happen next at GlenDronach. Will a Benriach-style rebranding be on the horizon, as well as a revamp of the core range? The ultimate test of the product will be when the chill filtered and non-chill filtered versions are tasted side by side, ideally blind. I’m sure that will happen somewhere along the line.

 

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Craig says:

    I recently tried the hielan blind and didn’t have it pegged for a glendronach, I’m just not used to the bourbon influence in the brand! Like, you I could easily finish a bottle.

    Definite shame about the NCF situation and a reason to move away from the distillery. Alongside the fact the 18 has gone from £88 to £110-120 in the last year as well.

    We were discussing this recently in a whisky group and one hypothesis is that billy walker, although loudly saying he didn’t want to sell, actually masters the “distillery hop”, using up the best stock to build the brand then selling on before the stock shortages come to bite his own company and reputation. Food for thought…

    1. Andrew says:

      I know what you mean regarding the bourbon influence. It’s certainly not your typical GlenDronach.

      If the price is right then we can sometimes forgive the chill filtration, but when splashing out on something a bit more expensive, I certainly don’t want to be compromising the experience.

      That’s an interesting theory regarding the sale. I don’t have any inside knowledge to confirm or deny, but it wouldn’t be the first time a business has claimed not to be for sale in order to get the best price possible.

  2. John says:

    “but – when done well – sherry maturation in whisky can be rather good indeed.”

    Agreed. But these are rarer for me these days. And a lot more whisky are only getting finished for a few months rather than long maturations which takes years.

    Knowing the mammoth that B Foreman is, it’s not surprising that this is happening though.

    1. Andrew says:

      Sherry is an easy sell these days. You often see it when a independent bottler or a distillery release a new range, and the darker the whisky, the more likely it is to have “Sold out” next to it. Finishes often put me off, as I wonder if it has been done to enhance the spirit, or merely to mask a poor quality whisky.

      1. John says:

        Often to mask poor quality whisky. But sometimes an odd cask finishing is a selling point which turns out to be a disappointment

  3. Dan W says:

    If you look at the whiskies that are big sellers on the international stage they often built a reputation previously amongst aficionados for the quality to price ratio of the product.

    I think Glendronach are following the likes of Balblair and before them Macallan , Highland Park etc. In using switched on whisky fans to build a solid reputation for their product. Before dumping those fans, who whilst noisy don’t make give them the sales numbers they want. Then whack up the retail price, homogenise the product to make it more uniform and start advertising it in airports.

    How long before Glendronach starts being sold in a bottle that looks like a decanter?

    1. Blair Conrad says:

      Fantatsic analysis Dan W.
      There is still plenty of quality whisky out there and I thank Glendronach for producing the whisky I already have. However they are now just one more distillery that will get no more of my money.

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