The World of Single Malt Whisk(e)y
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Is This the End of GlenDronach
As We Know It?
GlenDronach was brought back to life and made into a remarkable brand by Scotch whisky legend, Billy Walker. Walker purchased GlenDronach in 2008 and spent the next 7+ years making it the Single Malt Scotch many know and love today. GlenDronach has risen to prominent respectability in the last decade for its highly sherried single malts with a real focus on quality, including natural colour and non-chill filtered. In 2017, it was sold to Brown-Forman, one of the largest, American-owned spirits and wine companies. (For a bit more of GlenDronach’s history, visit our January 2021 Single Malt article.)
What’s the kerfuffle?
There’s been quite an uproar in the whisky world ever since GlenDronach announced they are going to start chill filtering their whisky, with consumer reports of the first chill filtered bottles hitting shelves December 2020.
This change will affect the core GlenDronach range but, as of yet, not the cask strength, single cask, or high proof releases.
What does this mean? And why does it matter? Let’s take a closer look.
What is Chill-Filtering?
There’s a lot going on in whisky -- proteins, fatty acids, and short--, medium--, and long--chain esters are all found in whisky and provide texture, scent, and flavour (for example, short-chain esters, which are created during fermentation, are credited for the fruity aromas in whisky, while long-chain esters give more pungent and waxy notes); and in whiskies lower than 46% ABV, these compounds can clump together and create a cloudiness (known as flocculation, or floc) when the whisky is chilled (such as when adding water or ice cubes). It is common practice for distilleries to chill filter their whisky to avoid this potential haze.
Chill Filtering is achieved by chilling the whisky down to slightly below freezing, so the whisky is still liquid but the compounds inside it clump together; the particles are then removed via a series of filters -- the amount that is removed depends on the number of filters, along with the speed and pressure of the filtering process. While this is done for aesthetic purposes, many industry professionals and consumers alike argue that removing these parts of the whisky can affect the flavour, mouthfeel, and overall quality of the whisky.
Master Blender for Inver House Distillers, Stuart Harvey, explains: “Long chain fatty acid esters can add complexity, as they can interact with, and enhance, other flavour compounds, while not showing through in their own right. Some long chain fatty acid esters also make a significant contribution to mouth feel, adding to the sense of body and elegant texture of a malt.”
Now, it must be pointed out that chill filtering can remove unwanted and off--putting flavours as much as it can pleasant ones. There are levels of fining intensity that must be considered by the brand so as not to strip everything away, but rather use the technique to craft the whisky they’re wanting.
Why would a company do it?
PR responses to questions about the change to chill filtering have been as follows: “The GlenDronach has removed ‘Non Chill Filtered’ from its packaging to provide the flexibility in their whisky-making processes to optimize consistently exceptional quality, flavor, clarity, and stability. “
This still leaves fans scratching their heads as to WHY Brown-Forman decided to make the switch from NCF to Chill Filtering at GlenDronach -- the exceptional quality was already there, as was the flavor and stability. Their main range is typically 43% ABV, and yet GlenDronach never chill filtered until now. Many of the sites and comments I read through echoed the same question -- why change what wasn’t broken? And why upset a huge fan--base with a seemingly unnecessary (and definitely unwanted by those supporters) change -- not to mention one that’s potentially detrimental to the quality of the product?
From a statement about their latest cask bottlings earlier this year, GlenDronach stated “...bottled without chill filtration for richness, at high strength and are naturally deep in colour.” Does this mean that by moving ahead with chill filtering they are no longer seeking a rich dram?
One must also point out -- optimize stability? Are they implying all their former bottlings that were NCF were unstable? Or that other major single malt producers that don’t chill filter their single malts are churning out unstable products? Or is this an indication that they will also be lowering the proof even further, which could potentially be more prone to show cloudiness if non--chill filtered?
The most likely answer is that Brown-Forman and the brands they control are a business -- and there’s more money in marketing to the masses rather than to those enthusiastic connoisseurs that already make up their fan base. In the end, it’s all down to numbers, no matter how much that may hurt the caliber of the original GlenDronach supporter; there are more people that care about appearances and buzz words and hype vs quality. Maybe it’s easier (and cheaper?) to revert to chill filtering rather than launch an educational campaign to their broader market.
While this writer is all for expanding the accessibility of quality single malts, especially of a brand of the reputation GlenDronach has achieved, I find myself asking, along with the vast majority, why is it necessary to change foundational principles to do that?
What does this mean for the future of GlenDronach and their passionate fans?
For those whisky lovers who supported this brand in its early resurgence days, this is a disappointing blow that leaves them wary of additional changes Brown-Forman may make to their beloved whisky. Not to mention, this move has already alienated a large portion of GlenDronach lovers. Many GlenDronach fans are concerned that artificial colouring, lower proof, new--fangled labeling, and NAS whiskies will be forthcoming. But what is life if not change? While change may be painful, upsetting, or disappointing, sometimes it may be necessary -- and maybe GlenDronach will come out with something new, exciting, and utterly remarkable! Regardless, there are always new brands and new distilleries waiting to be discovered, enjoyed, and shared. In any event, it will be interesting to see what GlenDronach does next.