If you want to try out a single malt scotch, you’ll probably want to start with two of the most famous whiskies in the world. Both iconic Single Malt Scotch examples, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich can probably be found at nearly every bar in town!
Glenlivet is the most widely purchased single malt in the United States while Glenfiddich is the most widely purchased single malt on planet Earth.
Which is better? Let’s find out!
The Main Differences Between Glenfiddich and Glenlivet
The intricacies and details of whiskey-making can give anyone a headache, especially if this is your first time trying a scotch. To “distill” (yay whiskey puns!) it all down, below are the key differences between these two heavy-weight single malt scotches!
- Is the older distillery, but uses newer whiskey-making methods
- Uses Chill Filtration
- The key aromas are orange and vanilla
- The key palate notes are apple and citrus
- Is general stronger
- Pairs best with smokey flavors and apple
- Younger bottles tend to be a tiny bit cheaper
- Older bottles tend to be a tiny bit more expensive
- Is the newer distiller, but uses older whiskey-making methods
- Hand cuts their stills
- The key aromas are wood and cream
- The key palate notes are pear and grass
- Is generally softer
- Pairs best with fatty flavors and cream
- Younger bottles tend to be a tiny bit more expensive
- Older bottles tend to be a tiny bit cheaper
Both are very common, especially in the United States. You can find at least one (probably both) at any bar or liquor shop around.
Keep in mind they are both single malts from Speyside, so they have very similar characteristics. But these tiny differences can make all the difference in the world depending on your mood!
For consistency’s sake in this comparison, we’ll be looking at the 12 y.o. for both brands. But there are a range of options so be sure you taste test a few!
First, a little background to get us on the same page…
What is Single Malt Scotch?
Contrary to popular belief, “single malt” doesn’t mean the whiskey comes from one single barrel. It actually means whiskey comes from one single distillery, but multiple barrels blended together!
Essentially, it’s an opportunity for a distillery to create their own unique flavor and style using whiskies created by only their hand. Creating a consistent flavor profile between barrels can be different since changes in terroir, cask size/type, and aging time all affect the quality of the whiskey. Each barrel has its own flavor.
But the phrase “Single barrel” does indicate the whiskey came from one special barrel. These whiskies focus on the uniqueness of the barrel, rather than the consistent palate of the distillery.
Single malt distillers will age thousands of barrels at a time as insurance. These barrels are then combined and tasted to make sure the new single malt is indistinguishable from the old.
However, single malts only contain malted barley, so they are single grain whiskies! These barley malts are twice distilled in copper pot stills and aged for at least three years in oak-only casks. (Though both European Oak and American Oak are allowed.)
“Blended scotch whiskey,” on the other hand, is a blend of many different whiskies from many different barrels from many different distilleries. They can also contain different grains like rye, corn, barley, or wheat. Usually, they focus on one element of the flavor characters. An example is Compass Box Peat Monster, which combined multiple whiskies to create a peat-focused bottled!
Higher-end single malt scotches can be aged for decades. In any bottle you drink, the age marks the youngest whiskey in the blend. If you’re drinking a 12 year old scotch, it is likely the majority of the whiskey is much older! But even trace amounts of 12 year whiskey lists it as a 12 yo.
There are some general characteristics of single malts, but keep in mind each distillery creates a unique character. Everything from fermentation time to type of oak can affect flavors.
General flavors of Single Malt Scotch
- malt (barley)
- dried fruit
- malted barley
- oak cask aging
The “Scotch” Label
Single Malt can only be labeled as “scotch” if the following criteria are met:
- Distilled at a single distillery
- Distilled in a pot still
- Contains only water and barley
- Has been aged for a minimum of 3 years
- Has been aged in an oak cask
- Distillation and fermentation occur at the same location
- This must all occur in a permitted Scottish warehouse
- Single Malt Scotch must be bottled in Scotland
If there is an age marked on the bottle, there should also be a bottling year included. This helps guarantee quality for the customer. (And no, whiskies don’t age further in the bottle, only in the cask!)
The two Glens are within 30 kilometers (that’s 19 miles) of each other in the Speyside region of Scotland. Both Glenlivet and Glennfiddich are classic examples of Speyside Whiskey.
What is a Speyside?
Speyside is a specific region within the Scottish Highlands, defined in 2009. A Speyside single malt can only come from this specific region.
(Over 60% of single malt scotch is produced in Speyside, all distilleries combined!)
There are two main types: the lighter, sweeter variety (Glenlivet and Glenfiddich fall into this category) and the fuller-bodied, sherried versions (like MacAllen).
Speyside single malts general have similar flavor profiles to most other single malts, but they are a little sweeter. Apple notes replace the smokier flavors.
Speyside encompasses a huge tract of land, full of rivers and glens, so its terroir is very diverse. The general rule of thumb is the sweet single malts come from Speyside. Because both Glenlivet and Glenfiddich are in Speyside and are so close, the difference in terroir are hard to pinpoint.
The Glenlivet distillery is near the town of Toumit while the Glenfiddich distillery is north of the town of Duffton.
Single Malt Scotch was the ‘original’ whiskey of Scotland. (The first record of it was in 1495!)
By 1820 it was already a popular drink in Scotland and some areas of England. Despite the fact that it was actually illegal!
- 1822 – George Smith had been studying the art of distilling in the protected glen of Livet around.
- 1824 – he and his son founded the Glenlivet distillery.
The local illicit distillers were less than pleased with this development and threatened to burn him in his own distillery.
George’s reaction? He started carrying a pair of flint-locked pistols. (His son decided to stick with an old-fashioned cutlass!) The Glenlivet rose in popularity with Charles Dickens and even King George IV citing it as “the whiskey.” (I guess if you’re King, legality is less of an issue?)
In fact, it was so popular some of the other local distilleries started using the Glenlivet name to sell their own brands. (One example was “Macallan-Glenlivet.” No no, Macallen, you’re beautiful on your own!)
- 1884 – Glenlivet added “The” before its name to indicate it was the one true Glenlivet that had become so coveted throughout Scotland!
- 1886 – Glenfiddich began as a family-run business using only second-hand equipment. William Grant and his seven children hand-built the distillery.
- 1887 – It finally all paid off when, on Christmas day, the first Glenfiddich whisky poured out luxuriously from the still.
- Between 1957 and 1959 – The Glenfiddich distillery brought in in-house coppersmiths and built a cooperage.
Their job was to maintain and care for the copper stills and oak casks. The cooperage at Glenfiddich is one of the only remaining ones still functioning today!
- 1963 – Glenfiddich made an unusual decision and began marketing itself as a single malt to places outside of Scotland.
Glennfiddich became the “First Single Malt to be Marketed to the World.” And thus, our love of single malt scotch was born! Other landmarks include their first 50-year-old in 1991 and the oldest single malt scotch, at 64-year-old, in 2001.
To this day, Glenfiddich is still a family-run business even though it is the world’s largest producer of single malt!
In order to be considered a single malt, the whisky has to go through a very specific process.
Harvest the barley
The barley is harvested as a whole grain, leaving the husk on.
Malt the Barley
The whole grain barley is soaked in water for a few days to allow germination to take place. It is then dried over hot air to halt the germination process. (Peat can be used in this step to dry the grain and impart that smokey flavor!) By the end this barley is called “malt.”
The malted barley is then ground into a very fine powder called “grist” in flour mills.
The milled barley then is transferred to mash turns and combined with water to create mash. As the mash is turned the starches in the barley convert to sugar creating a syrupy mush called “wort.”
Fermentation yeast added
The “wort” is cooled and transferred into “washbacks,” giant vats for fermenting. Yeast is added. The yeast ferments the barley sugars and raises the temperature as the alcohol content increases! When it cools, a brown “wash” liquid with 8-9% ABV has been created.
The wash is then filtered into copper stills for distillation. Each still is heated to separate out the levels of whisky since alcohol and water boil at different temperatures.
Stills are generally in pairs: wash and spirit. Wash distills first and the best liquor from that passes into the spirit still. The “low wine” leaves the wash still and transfers into the spirits still for its second distillation.
The stillman “cuts” the whisky and divides it into head, heart, and tail.
- The head is the first portion of the liquid and has too high alcohol content.
- The tail is the final portion and is mostly water. It can’t be matured.
- The heart is where most of the flavor and quality reside. It is the sweetest and fruitiest part of the distillate and usually around 70% ABV.
The head and tail are often either discarded or recycled and distilled again. The heart goes on into the final stage!
The heart of the whisky is transferred to oak casks to mature and age for a minimum of 3 years. Once the Malt Master decides they are ready to bottle, that’s when we get to enjoy it!
Both Glenlivet and Glenfiddich follow this basic process. But there are a few specifications between them that make all the difference!
When malting the barley, Glenlivet does NOT allow any peat. This retains the flavor of the barley and creates lighter, less smoky scotch.
Glenlivet’s whisky is fermented in Oregon pine washbacks. Most distilleries use stainless steel, but Glenlivet believes the pine adds extra flavor to their scotch.
The copper stills in Glenlivet’s distillery are lantern-shaped. The shape and size of a still does impact the distillation process and Glenlivet are particularly proud of these stills!
The final step for many of Glenlivet’s bottles is chill filtration. Chill filtration creates a clearer, less hazy final product in the bottle. It is a somewhat controversial method. The alcohol is cooled down allowing certain compound to clump together. They can then be easily removed leaving a clearer liquid without the unappetizing haze.
Glenfiddich definitely is the closest to the “old-fashioned” style of whisky-making. They use an in-house stillman who cuts the whisky by hand and cooperages tend to the casks on site. (Glenlivet does this all by machine now.)
Also No Peat
Like Glenlivet, Glenfiddich also does not use peat to dry their malt.
Recycling the Head and Tail
In the distilling process, any distillate not deemed pure enough, called “feints” is redistilled.
Glenfiddich uses differently shaped stills for wash and spirit distillation. This preserves the unique flavor of their whisky.
Special Cask Treatment
Glenfiddich uses only mellowed casks. These are European or American oak casks that have held bourbon or sherry before. They also char their oak casks to caramelize the wood sugars and allow those flavors to enter the whisky more easily.
Specialty Tuns to Marry Blends
After maturation, the Malt Master tastes and selects only certain barrels. These special barrels are filtered into Portuguese oak marrying tuns to blend together for a few years. This seamlessly marries the blends and smooths out the idiosyncrasies of each different barrel. This creates a smoother, more uniform end product!
Like most distilleries, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich offer more than just a 12 year old single malt!
They both have a broad range of years, flavors, and specialty bottles
Years available: 12, 14, 15, 18, 21, 25, 50.
They also have several specialty Distiller’s Reserve bottles. In terms of specialty options, Glenlivet’s best option is Nàdurra. These options are not chill-filtered and aged in different casks like Oloroso Sherry and white oak. They even have a peated option for those of us who miss smoke!
Their Founder’s Reserve is a good example of the classic creamy, pear Glenlivet. (It’s also a little cheaper at only $40. It’s a good option if you want to stay in budget but still get a Glenlivet taste!)
Years available: 12, 14, 15, 18, 19, 21, 26, 30, 40, 50 (Winchester Collection).
They also have specialty bottles like Age of Discovery (bourbon or madeira casks), Bourbon Barrel Reserves, India Pale Ale Casks. Recently they’ve experimented with less common casks and flavor combinations. Fire & Cane is blended with peated whiskies and aged in bourbon and rum barrels. Winter Storm was aged in Icewine casks.
Their Vintage Reserve Collections have mostly sold out at this point, unfortunately. But in a few years maybe they’ll have a new batch!
The classic Speyside nose is light and fruity. Both Glenlivet and Glenfiddich have elements of these characteristics. But the differences in the methods do create subtle differences!
Citrusy and bright. You can tell this is a malted whisky. Mandarin orange, vanilla, and maple syrup with some grassy notes in the background. Water brings out the fruit and oak aromas.
Softer and more delicate. There are stronger floral flavors (especially when mixed with water). Pear and cream notes are heavy followed by a bit of whipped cream and honey. A little oak and ester seeps through.
Again, most Speyside whiskies have a classic fruity and sweet characteristic. Glenlivet and Glenfiddich both have this element as well, but they do have some slight differences that set them apart!
There is a warming spice and oak quality to the first sip. Brown sugar with strong orange and a bit of apple. Not quite a sweet as you would imagine from the nose. Still light and full of golden orchard apples.
Woody and toffee notes with full creamy pear. Some dried fruits and vanilla shine through as well. Adding water brings out the classic Speyside grassy flavors. It’s light and fruity and sweet, but definitely softer and the alcohol is less noticeable.
Both are fairly comparable. The 12 year olds I got for this taste test were the same price!
12-year-old (750 mL) – $52.99 The 15 yr. is around $70. The Glenlivet 18 yr. goes up to $120 while the 21 yr. is around 300 a bottle!
12 year old (750 mL) – $54.99 Their 15 yr. is $75. Their 18 yr. is around $120 and their 21 yr. is $199.
Scotch is one of those drinks that doesn’t need food to shine. Especially when it’s something as flavorful as a single malt. However, a glass of scotch with dinner or even with a gourmet coffee is an excellent choice!
Keep in mind the light and fruity characteristic of Speyside whiskies, so avoid over-powering meats like beef or lamb. Check out some options below for a perfectly-paired feast!
Glenlivet is so light and subtly complex that it can pair with almost anything. Salmon, smoked fish, and pork all pair well.
For desserts or appetizers try cheeses like cheddar, brie, or bleu. Gourmet coffee, bread puddings, apple pie or crumble all fit the sweet profile as well!
Cigars: Cameroon wrappers, since Glenlivet is light. But if you go for the 15 or 18 year you could make a Maduro wrapper work.
Similar to Glenlivet, the light and subtle flavors make Glenfiddich an easy pair. Do be careful of overpowering it since it is a little softer.
Fatty meats, oily fish, sushi/sashimi and duck make good pairing entrees. Try goat cheese or brie for cheeses. On the sweet side, fresh fruit baked pears, toffee pudding, strawberries and cream all complement Glenfiddich well.
Cigars: Keep it to mild or medium cigars. Try sweet maduros.
So Which is Better?
I’m not big into the definitive “this is better” pronouncement. Especially not about Scotch.
They are all so different and so unique and each has their own merits. (With a few exceptions of course.) However, if you’re trying to pick, here’s a good guideline.
- Stronger: Glenlivet, full of ripe apples
- Softer: Glenfiddich, full of ripe pears
Which I choose really depends on my personal preference and the mood I’m in. If I’m going for crisp, I choose Glenlivet. If I’m going for creamy, definitely the Glenfiddich. But I’m certainly not going to tell you what your taste in Scotch should be!
My advice? Try them both for yourself and see which makes you happier.
My personal preference? I tend to prefer Glenfiddich because I find it softer and I can focus on the fruit more than the alcohol. But if you like strong, Glenlivet is probably the option for you! I will definitely go for it if I’m trying to warm up! (And if you love peat, like me, go for the Glenlivet Nàdurra Peated!)