From first time Scotch novices to well-established pros, nearly everyone will come into contact with one of the three Glens. They are perfect beginner whiskies and excellent as familiar standbys for the more experienced. Today, we’ll compare two of those famous three: Glenlivet 12 and Glenmorangie 10 “The Original.”
Both have their claims to fame: Glenlivet 12 is the most widely purchased Scotch in the United States. While Glenmorangie is the most widely purchased in her homeland of Scotland itself.
While it is hard to pick which is officially better, there are some key differences between the two that will help you decide which is closer to your palate.
Main Differences Between Glenlivet vs Glenmorangie
The main differences between Glenlivet vs Glenmorangie are:
- Glenlivet is from Speyside, whereas Glenmorangie is from the Highlands.
- Glenlivet is crisp, light and fruity, whereas Glenmorangie is tart, herbal, medicinal and yeasty.
- Glenlivet is 80 proof, whereas Glenmorangie is 86 proof.
What is Scotch?
Scotch is one of those alcohols that everybody hears about but thinks is too advanced for them. This is definitely not the case, as we’ll see below. There is such variety that you’re likely to find something you like in most mid-range prices. But that doesn’t exactly answer the question of what it is, does it?
There is a quick and easy answer: Scotch is whisky made in Scotland. But that’s really only part of the picture and in turn, begs the question of what is whisky? Let’s start with those two definitions and work our way down.
1.Whisky – a distilled liquor made from fermented grains
The grains usually included in whisky are barley, rye, corn, and wheat. (Although some lesser-known grains will sneak their way in, like spelled.) These grains all have different characteristics and properties, but they can all be fermented and distilled into whisky.
The process of fermentation is necessary to convert the naturally occurring sugars in the grain into alcohol. And the distillation process is used to separate that alcohol from all of the leftover components and turn it into something we actually want to drink.
2. Scotch – whisky made in Scotland from barley
The definition of Scotch should make more sense now. But as I said before, that’s just scratching the surface.
You’re probably aware that Scotch can be considered pretty luxury and pretty expensive. The reason? It’s highly regulated to maintain consistent quality. Just like French wines, this drives the price up. But the bonus is, you absolutely know what you’re getting. You’re very unlikely to buy a Scotch you’ve had before and encounter a “bad bottle.”
Let’s take a look at a few of those all important rules before we move on.
To be called Scotch a bottle must:
- Be distilled at a single distillery
- Be distilled in a pot still
- Contain only water and barley
- Have been aged for a minimum of 3 years
- Have been aged in an oak cask
- Have been Distilled and Fermented at the same location
- Have been made in a permitted Scottish warehouse
- Be must be bottled in Scotland
- Have the bottle year as well as the age of the dram marked on the bottle
See what I mean? It gets complicated. All you really need to keep in mind is: it’s from Scotland, it’s made from fermented and distilled barley, and it’s quality controlled. Oh, and maybe remember the aging factor. But we’ll get to that later. There are a few other designations we should touch on. You’ll encounter these any time you buy a bottle.
There is a common misconception that “single malt,” means all the whisky in the bottle is from a single barrel. That is incorrect. (That designation would be “Single Barrel.)
Single Malt is “single” in two ways.
- The only grain is Barley (single grain)
- It’s all produced at one distillery (single distillery)
Single Malt is the chance for a distillery to show its unique character and process.
But all single malts are blends of whiskies from that one distillery. So when the distiller sets out to make a 12 Year Single Malt, they may combine whisky that has aged 12 years and whisky that has aged 20 years to get the flavors they want. The “12” on the bottle just means the youngest whisky in it has been aged 12 years. But there may be much much older whiskies blended in to contribute to character.
(Not all Single Malts are aged the same. So you can have a 12 Year Single Malt, a 16 Year Single Malt, or a 25 Year Single Malt. They would all be from the same distillery and they would all be single malts, just aged differently.) Both scotches we are looking at today are single malts!
Blended Malts get a bad rap, but I firmly believe that’s because people don’t understand them. A blended malt is a bottle with whiskies from many different distilleries. These whiskies are chosen based on very specific flavor guidelines to create a beautiful amalgamation of whiskies and a flavor profile you couldn’t get at just one distillery. The best ones really are delicious and worth trying out.
Wait, what is malt?
Fair question. This one isn’t as complicated, especially now that you have the basics. Malt is simply barley that has gone through germination. The barley is soaked to start germination, which prepares the starches and sugars for their eventual fermentation. Malt adds a rich nutty quality to barley as opposed to just using freshly hulled grain. (If you ever get the chance to taste dried malted barley grains, it’s worth the experience just to see the difference in flavor complexity.)
Glenlivet 12 Year – This is a Single Malt Scotch from the Glenlivet Distillery, all the whisky in the bottle has been aged for at least 12 Years in Oak
Glenmorangie 10 Year “The Original” – This is a Single Malt Scotch from the Glenmorangie Distillery, all the whisky in the bottle as been aged for at least 10 years in Oak. It’s called “The Original” because it’s the original version of their single malts. As we’ll see below, The Glenlivet actually has more claim to official originality!
What does Scotch Taste Like?
What a question! There are so many scotches out there, it’s nearly impossible to give a generalized answer. You’ll tend to find oak, vanilla, and malt but there are so many other notes you can’t hope to squeeze in a list. Especially since every region has its own style!
Hard to pin down since the region is so large. Some are sweet and light and fruity. Others have a touch of sea salt brine. Still others have a faint touch of peat, though heather and wood smoke are more common.
The Lowlands tend to be mellow and citrusy with hints of floral elements. Often considered the most feminine of Scotch drams. Their nickname is “The Lowland Ladies.”
The peat amount varies, but their peat is strong in heather so those notes shine through. Heather is also used in the malting process. Honey and smoke are the two main components. But touches of dried fruit in some bottles make all the difference!
Sweet, light, fruity, and floral. You drink a Speyside when you want to just float away to happy land and not think too much. But don’t be deceived, they are remarkably complex with notes of cream, orchard fruit, and grass hiding in the depths.
Some of the most identifiable of all scotches. Peat, sea salt, brine, sea minerals. These are strong and smoky, but oh so delicious.
Smoke, salt, and typical vanilla, toffee and fruit notes. But what sets them apart is the signature wet wool flavor. They are highly distinctive.
So instead of trying to analyze the general flavors of scotch, let’s focus on these two we’re discussing today: The Glenlivet 12 Year Single Malt Scotch and the Glenmorangie Original 10 Year. One Highland and one Speyside. One tart and fruity; one honeyed and bready. What makes these two as different as they are?
Since both of these are single malt scotches, the obvious answer is: they are both from Scotland. Scotland’s climate is uniquely suited to growing barley and creating whisky, which might be why they have so many identifiable whiskies on the market. The cool, damp air is perfect for long, slow, controlled aging – one of the key components of Scotch production.
And Scottish distillers will swear on their lives that the local water quality affects the flavor of their whiskey as well. It’s easy to see in a place like Islay but in other areas of Scotland the effect of water is harder to notice. One thing that is easy to note: the water is low in pH and iron but high in calcium – all of which makes it easy to use in Scotch production.
More than just labeling them Scottish, both of these whiskies are from distilleries in the northern part of Scotland known as the Highlands. The Highlands are the largest scotch-producing region in Scotland, and altogether produce around 85% of the world’s Scotch. But we can get even more location specific than that!
The Glenlivet distillery is located in the Glen of Livet near the town of Toumit. While this is in the Highlands, Toumit is located in the heart of one of the country’s most recognized Scotch regions: Speyside. Speyside is located in a small tract of land on the northeast branch of the Highland region. Right along the coast of the North Sea, the region itself is full of rivers, bogs, and little glens. There are nearly 60 distilleries in the area, but each produces a scotch that sets them apart.
Speyside distilleries, in general, make a very unique whiskey with their own special characteristics that are as recognizable as Islay. And about as different as you can get.
What is a Speyside?
A Speyside is a Scotch that was born and bred in that singular region of Scotland, of the shoulder of the Highlands. They are classically rich and full in flavor, but light and sweet on the palate. The heavily aged bottles show notes of caramel and nuts. The lighter bottles highlight citrus and floral notes. They are beautifully easy to drink and can become deliciously complex based on which whisky making techniques are used in their production. Speyside accounts for roughly 60% of the country’s Scotch production!
Glenmorangie is an example of a Highland whisky. The Highlands are a little harder to define since they essentially encompass all of the north of Scotland except Speyside. Not much of a definition, but there you have it.
Glenmorangie itself is located in the village of Tain in Ross-Shire, just off the south shore of the Dornoch Firth estuary and right over the Tarlogie Springs. (This seemingly arbitrary piece of information will come in handy later!) Because the Highlands are such a huge region in Scotland, pinpointing an overarching effect of terroir is pretty difficult. That said, there are a few general classes of Highland scotches that we can narrow down.
What is Highland?
A Highland Scotch is very simply a scotch that comes from The Highland region of Scotland. Their output is incredibly diverse and ranges from light and grassy to deeply rich and fruity to smoky and woody.
They do tend to shy away from the use of peat, especially in the southern area of The Highlands. (I guess Islay cornered the market on that one!) Instead, much of their scotch has notes of wood and heather.
History Of Scotch
The history of Scotch itself is centuries old. The first mention is in 1494, and in that day whisky was known as “aqua vitae,” meaning water of life. (Ain’t that the truth!)
Single Malts were some of the first scotches created and are considered the “original” whisky of Scotland. In the 1600s taxes were imposed on Scotch and illicit distilling became the word of the day as various distillers tried to evade the taxman. Many of these distilleries still exist today as they cropped up in tiny little glens around Scotland. One of these was, in fact, Glenlivet.
Glenlivet’s founder George Smith learned his craft from the illicit distillers in Livet and opened his own legal distillery, the first in the area, in 1824.
The history of its opening and early years sounds like something you’d hear from an Old Western. The illicit distillers in the area were naturally less than thrilled that he was following the law. They threatened to burn down his distillery and he carried a pair of flintlock pistols with him everywhere he went for self defense. His son, John, carried a cutlass.
By the 1830s Glenlivet was producing huge amounts of legal dram and slowly making a name for itself. Both Charles Dickens and King George IV both reference Glenlivet as “the whisky.”
In fact, that important little three letter world plays a huge part in the history of Glenlivet. Their whisky was so popular that newer distilleries were piggy-backing off their name and creating brands like “Macallan-Glenlivet.” In 1884, John won the right to brand his whisky as “THE Glenlivet,” the one and only.
Glenlivet struggled and survived through World War I, Prohibition, World War II and rose to become hugely popular and sold all over the world.
Alcohol has been made on the site of the Glenmorangie distillery for centuries. It was originally a brewery, and in the 1600s it was the site of illicit distilling.
In 1738 the Morangie Farm brewery began distilling and in 1843 William Matheson converted it fully to a distillery. Since he spent nearly all of his money on the purchase of the site, he wound up buying second hand stills. Gin stills, in fact, which are much taller with thinner necks than most whisky stills. The distillery had to be built taller to accommodate them, giving it the look of a cathedral.
Even today, the current stills used in the Glenmorangie distillery are exact replicas of the original 1843 stills. The tallest in Scotland, they stand 17 feet high.
Whisky production began in 1849 and a few years later in 1887 they had to expand the site to accommodate growing demand for their product. (What a problem to have!) The expansion also modernized the site, and the stills became heated by steam coils rather than wood fire. Glenmorangie was the first distillery in Scotland to take this step. The distillery closed off and on in response to Prohibition and World War II, but they are now owned by the liquor conglomerate LVMH as of 2004.
Production of Scotch
All scotch follows the same basic production process.
- Harvest – barley is harvested and transported to distilleries. It is a whole grain including the husk and hasn’t been pearled or milled.
- Malting – the whole barley is soaked in water for a short time to allow it to germinate and just slightly begin to sprout. But the germination is quickly stopped as the barley is drained and dried over hot air. This preserves the flavors of just-barely-germinated-barley. This “malt” then proceeds to the next step.
- Milling and Mash – The malted barley is milled into a fine grain and combined with water. This new “mash” is poured into giant turns. These turns operate by mixing the barley with water. Since barley is one of the few grains that can ferment on its own, this step is where those first starches begin to break down into sugars. The syrup is called “wort.”
- Fermentation – The wort is removed from the turns, cooled, and poured into washbacks for the addition of yeast. Many distilleries have a specific strain of yeast, unique to them, that they keep onsite to assist in consistency of fermentation. The yeast ferments barley sugars that have been released, turning them into alcohol. This early low-alcohol is brown in color, contains only 8-9% ABV, and is called “wash.”
- Distillation – The wash is is filtered into copper stills and heated. Because water and alcohol boil at different temperatures, this separates the alcohol from the waste water. The first distillation goes through a wash still. The low-wine result is then transferred to a spirit still to be cut.
- Many distillers still cut their Scotch by hand, although this process has been automated. The cuts include head, heart, and tail. Head is usually too high in alcohol to be useable and tail is too high in water. The heart contains the best alcohol and the best flavor. It runs around 70% ABV and proceeds to the next step. (Head and tail are recycled or distilled again.)
- Maturation – The heart of the whisky is transferred to barrels to age for a minimum of 3 years. This is one of the most important steps in scotch production as it is where most of the flavors are imparted to the whisky.
Let’s get into the production decisions and whisky-making techniques that set these two apart!
As one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, Glenlivet has had many years to determine their own unique twists on the process.
Glenlivet’s copper pot stills are lantern shaped and uniquely hand-crafted. They claim these shapes have a very special effect on their whisky taste. The upper part of the still does influence the taste of the resulting Scotch. The thinner and taller the neck, the more pure and precisely separated the alcohol will be.
During fermentation, many scotches are poured into stainless steel washbacks, but Glenlivet built large Pine-wood washbacks to ferment their scotch. They take the extra opportunity to imbue their scotch with extra Pine-wood flavor which adds to some of the greener notes we’ll illustrate below.
Chill filtration is a method of clarifying whisky. The alcohol is cooled down before it is bottled. This reduction in temperature causes certain compounds to clump together. These compounds can then be filtered out leaving a clearer whisky with no haze.
Many distilleries feel these compounds are necessary and useful for the flavor of their scotch, so it is something of a controversial method. But it does make for a very crisp and clear liquid in your glass.
While much of their process is similar, there are a few notable differences to look into before we move on to taste.
As explained above, if you have a taller and thinner neck on your copper still, your whisky will be much more pure, light, and precise. Since Glenmorangie still uses replicas of massive gin stills, their necks are remarkably tall and thin – resulting in the flavor profiles we’ll discuss below!
Remember when I told you their distillery built over Tarlogie Springs would be important?
There is great belief among the whisky industry that the water used in the process, from barley growth to distillation, can have a huge effect on the flavor of their whisky. Most distilleries use soft water as it is thought to have the best flavor.
Glenmorangie uses hard water that comes bubbling up from the underground Tarlogie Springs and onto the surface. It is thought the intense flavors from the bedrock underground influence the flavor of the whisky produced at Glenmorangie. This water was so important to them that the distillery purchased every bit of land where the Tarlogie Springs emerge.
Glenmorangie has been on a quest to determine which woods create the best scotch flavors. They settled on American white oak. Glenmorangie matures the majority of their whisky in these charred American white oak casks. You know, the ones used by the American bourbon industry. Glenmorangie actually owns an oak forest in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri. There they build their oak casks and char them, then rent them to the Bourbon industry. Once the Kentucky distilleries are finished with them, Glenmorangie ships their hand-made used ex-bourbon barrels to their home distillery in Scotland.
But that’s not where the difference ends. Glenmorangie puts many of their scotches through extra maturation in different casks. They use ex-Port, ex-Sherry, and ex-Sauternes, so their selections are an excellent way to see for yourself just how much aging can affect flavor.
No Water: Sweet fruits and hints of grass. Mandarin orange and vanilla are key. Maple syrup sweetness and just the faintest hint of green herbs. Very bright and crisp and citrusy.
Water: Water causes quite a bit of fading on the nose, but if you sniff close you can smell the oak. Maybe a bit of caramel sweetness.
No Water: Strong alcohol notes. Tart sour apples followed by yeast and bread.
Water: Slightly less alcohol but still present. Tartness fades a bit but the yeasty breads are still there behind a veneer of fruit.
No Water: Delicate green grass and apples. Imagine sitting in a golden orchard full of apples. Less sweet than you’d imagine from the nose but there is a hint of delicate cream. The first sip was full of oak spice, but it fades the further you go.
Water: The cream fades but the grass is more noticeable. Lots of apples. Warming spice and oak shine even brighter. Light, fruity, sweet with a note of tart Granny Smith apples and cream.
No Water: Lemon tartness with a bit of sweet toffee and yeast. Malted notes come through.
Water: The tartness fades a bit and I can pick up notes of apricot or peaches. The overwhelming flavor is something like a cream soda. It’s bright and warming, silky smooth and well-balanced.
Glenlivet 12 – $52.99
Glenmorangie 10 – $44.99
(Keep in mind these are New York City prices. They will be lower in many other areas.)
In both cases you’ll be paying $30+, so it’s a good idea to try them before you buy. Go to your local liquor store and get the tiny airplane sizes to taste test. Or order a glass at your local bar. All in all though, for such lovely quality Scotch, it’s not a bad price!
I’m going to completely ignore any notion that you would want to put a single malt scotch in a cocktail. These drams should be sipped neat by a fire or on the rocks at the beach. That said, they can pair wonderfully well with cigars and foods! (And if you’re really craving a cocktail, better to use these than a scotch over $100…)
Keep in mind the tart, orchard notes here! Don’t overwhelm it with anything too sweet. The fruit flavors love to pair with bright dishes.
- Cigar – Rocky Patel Edge Light, keep in mind Glenlivet is tart so you don’t want to mix too much smoke. Stick with a light cigar.
- Cheese – Brie or Bleu Cheese
- Entree – Seared Bay Scallops, Salmon, Pork
- Vegetable/Side – Asparagus
- Dessert – Tart Apple pie or Apple Crumble, Bread Pudding
Remember that Glenmorangie has more toffee and peach flavor. It should also be paired lightly, but it can go with slightly heavier and deeper flavors.
- Cigar – Rocky Patel Vintage, with such light and delicate scotches, you want to pair a light cigar! This one will go excellently with the toffee and maple syrup notes in Glenmorangie.
- Cheese – Cheddar, Brie, Goat Cheese
- Entree – Delicately Broiled Salmon, Crab Rangoon, Lobster
- Vegetable/Side – Creamed Spinach, Sweet potato Puree
- Dessert – Dark Chocolate, Souffle, Crème Brülée
Is There a Clear Winner?
Frankly, no. At least not in my opinion! Both of these scotches are delightful, light, smooth, and well-balanced. I try to always keep one of the Glens in my cupboard for my new-to-Scotch friends. And these two are as solid as it can get.
But even for the well-versed drinker, after a really tough day when all you want is a friendly familiar face? Yeah, they work for that too. If you’re in the mood, or tend to prefer tarter and crisper flavors – go for the Glenlivet 12. It’s fruitier and creamier with just a hint of grass!
If you’re feeling like caramel, or tend to prefer more soda-flavor – go for the Glenmorangie 10 Year “The Original.” It’s got a medicinal and bread-like quality with a touch of herb thrown in! Whichever you end up choosing and whatever level of drinker you are, you’re in for a treat!