Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Whisky Review: Glenlivet Vertical Tasting (12, 15, and 18 Year)

Glenlivet is just behind Glenfiddich as the second biggest whisky brand in the world. With a capacity to produce 10.5 million liters a year for its owner, Pernod Richard, it is tied with Glenfiddich as one of the biggest malt distilleries in Scotland (which will be matched by Diageo's new Roseisle distillery and likely the Teaninich expansion when they are finished/hit their stride). Unsurprisingly, >90% of their production ends up in various blends, but that still leaves plenty for single malts - it is the biggest selling brand in the United States and second behind Glenfiddich in the world.

I'll point you towards Malt Madness if you want the history of the distillery so I can dive straight into the tasting notes.

Glenlivet 12 Year

Nose: extremely light, malt, apples, dry oak, a touch of vanilla and something floral, light caramel and brown sugar, wood polish, slightly musty/dusty alongside vegetal notes. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes richer and more expressive, grainier with more malt sugars, more floral, apple and oak notes, plus a touch of grape.

Taste: sweet apples up front, fading into clean malt, then moderately bitter cardboard-y oak tannins with baking spices (cinnamon) and something vegetal (a touch of peat?). After dilution, a bit of grape pops up in front, there are more sweet apples throughout, less oak, but with a sour/off-putting twist.

Finish: apple skins, oak, slightly off vanilla, vegetal

This may be the most boring single malt I've ever tried - it was a struggle to get anything out of it. I think this is what reviewers charitably refer to as 'unchallenging'. Most of the standard components of single malt whisky are present: malt, oak, and some fruity accents. But they're all so tepid as to be almost non-existant. Water improves the nose a fair bit, but the palate never delivers. As far as starter single malts go, I would rate this below 'Fiddich 12 Year and far below Glenmorangie 10 Year. It'd be one thing if it was at least pleasantly boring, but this just rubs me the wrong way. However, the sales figures suggest that there are plenty of people who would disagree with me and more power to 'em.

Glenlivet 15 Year French Oak

Nose: oak dominates with a slight French oak inflection, light underlying malt, apples, a touch of something perfumed/floral, brown sugar oatmeal, berries, green/white fruits (peach, apple, pear) and vanilla. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes sweeter and creamier with honey, apple cider, and more French oak alongside something savory.

Taste: rather flat on delivery, sweetness is tucked inside the American and French oak, flat tannins at the back, diffuse apple/grape fruitiness. After dilution, it becomes a lot sweeter throughout, with more but unpleasantly bitter oak, plus a few floral notes.

Finish: flat tannins, subtle French oak influence

I wanted to like this whisky. I think French oak can provide a really nice twist on the standard ex-bourbon characteristics, but this one doesn't do it for me. I'm not sure if it's that the malt isn't particularly suited for French oak or if they didn't use quality casks, or it's just my sense of taste, but it never really came together. I might say that it's a bit of an improvement over the 12 year, but not enough to make me want to rush out and buy a bottle.

Glenlivet 18 Year

Nose: same set of notes (apple, malt, oak) with more depth and maturity, a little floral, very light sherry, a touch of cinnamon, vanilla, grainy. After adding a few drops of water, a bit of smoke pops out alongside something savory/meaty, with the other notes becoming more integrated.

Taste: apple and malt sweetness throughout, hefty dose of pepper, much more assertive oak, creamy, a touch of grape, more cohesive than the others. After dilution, there is honey and sweet vanilla up front along with a burst of fruit/floral notes, oak tannins are more bitter but accompanied by a hint of chocolate/coffee.

Finish: grape, hefty oak, bitter

This is finally approaching something that I can imagine drinking again. However, it has the same issue that I found with Glenfiddich 18 Year - the oak character seems stronger than necessary, as if their master blender is trying to create what consumers think an 18 year old whisky should taste like. If that aspect was just eased up on a bit, I think this would be fairly solid. As is, the oak unbalances the experience, especially on the finish. This one disappointed me the most, because there actually seemed to be some very nice malt whisky at its core, betrayed by either a lack of care or producing to a price point rather than a flavor profile. It is, however, disappointing rather than off-putting like the rest of the lineup, so I wouldn't say no if someone handed me a glass, but I won't be buying any with my own money.


  1. Wow, I am with you 100% on the 12 year. I'm glad to see someone else finding the "sour/off-putting twist". Glenmorangie 10 stomps this one.

    1. It’s interesting how everyone has such different preferences. To me the 12 is a solid cheap go to. I cannot stand glenmorangie 10.

  2. I used to like Glenlivet 12yo quite a bit. The newer version (in the gray carton) has gone down in quality quite a bit. I'm drinking now side-by-side a new and an older version - Jan 2013 vs. Jan 2009, the bottling dates are conveniently printed on the bottle, something other bottlers could learn from. The nose is much better on the 2009, there are some baked apples and gardenias notes that did not make it to the 2013, which instead seems more industrial. However, I do get the unpleasant bitter twist in the 2009 as well, which surprises me, since that's not how I remembered it. Maybe my tastes have changed a lot (unlikely). It's also possible that this is a fragile whisky, more sensitive to light and heat, and time in the bottle doesn't do it any favors. I'm curious Jordan, are the pictured mini bottles the ones you tried? The 12yo and the 15yo are the old style (2011 or earlier), the 18yo seems to be the new label. You didn't get them in a set, did you.

    1. Nope, I bought them individually. The 15 and 18 are from TWE (I don't think the older minis are available in the States), while the 12 was purchased locally. The 12 and 18 are from 2011 and the 15 is from 2010. The 18 does have the latest bottling date, though.