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First whisky to be marketed as a single malt

As with anything to do with whisky, this blog will be contentious. So let me be clear what we’re talking about from the start. This story is not about the world’s first single malt. Or the first single malt to be sold outside Scotland. Or even the first single malt to be advertised abroad.

I’m talking about the first whisky to be actively mass marketed as a single malt outside the UK in a sustained way – one that effectively began the modern-day boom and popularity of single malt as we know it today.

First, let’s remind ourselves of what a ‘single malt’ actually is. Legally, the whisky must be made entirely from malted barley and distilled in a copper pot still, and every drop in the bottle must come from a single distillery. This is in stark contrast to blended whisky, which mixes multiple single malts and grain whiskies together to achieve a specific flavour (grain whisky can be made from other cereals, like wheat, using the larger-scale continuous stills). So a blended whisky ultimately comes from multiple places, depending on where all its various elements were distilled.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, blended whisky was one of the most popular spirits in the world, and certainly in the UK. It owed its success to an insect called Phylloxera, which ate its way through most of France’s great vineyards, effectively wiping out the wine and brandy industry (estimates say that nine-tenths of all European vineyards were destroyed by the 1880s). As a result, the thirsty Victorian populace turned gratefully to Scotch whisky – which they enjoyed most commonly with soda – and so exploded the category.

Single malts existed – of course they did – but they proved inconsistent in flavour in larger quantities, whereas blends could be artfully mixed to achieve a desired profile time and time again. Some of the oldest whisky brands like Johnnie Walker and Dewar’s flourished, home and abroad. Even bottles and cases of single malt, from brands like The Glenlivet, Glen Grant and Glenmorangie, were advertised, requested, bought and sold, throughout England, Scotland and other parts of the British Empire but never seemed to be marketed in a sustained and permanent way (again, maturing enough aged stock was always the issue).

And so we come to 1963, when Sandy Grant Gordon launched the Glenfiddich Straight Malt 8 Year Old Scotch whisky. If the name’s not familiar to you, Sandy was one of the most important family owners and directors of William Grant & Sons, makers of Glenfiddich, The Balvenie, Hendrick’s amongst many others, of the modern era.

It was Sandy, and his brother Charles, who decided to start actively marketing Straight Malt outside the UK, most notably Canada and the USA. He was so proud of the malt and so sure it would be loved by whisky drinkers worldwide that he began promoting it on a commercial level as the great whisky he knew it was.

Glenfiddich just seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the era. Whisky matured for eight years was a relative rarity at scale in the industry, so it caught on immediately – the fact it was a single malt just boosting its popularity and wow factor even more.

In the 1970s, a few other distilleries actively started marketing their single malt. In 1980, there were 27 single malts available. The following year, that figure rose to 49. By 1989, there were over a 100 single malts vying for space on the shelves. Of course, that figure has continued to grow exponentially ever since, in and beyond Scotland.

But it was Sandy who started the boom, as recognised by his Lifetime Achievement Award from the IWSC (International Wine & Spirit Competition) in 2000, which states:

“Sandy Grant Gordon was the initiator of the prestigious category of branded Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Sandy opened up the global market for Single Malt Whisky… The Scotch whisky industry is indebted Sandy Grant Gordon for his vision and leadership.”

Sadly, the Glenfiddich Straight Malt expression doesn’t exist anymore. As whisky has become more popular, so the age statements seem to have increased – Glenfiddich’s youngest aged whisky is now 12 years old. But from looking at its flavour notes on auction sites, it would have had a distinctive fresh and fruity taste, with the signature Glenfiddich aroma of pear. You’ll also have got a lot of sherry spice – from the European oak that was predominantly used in the 1960s, whereas now American oak has become more popular.

Incidentally, Glenfiddich Straight Malt also became the first single malt to be sold in an airport travel retail shop in 1963. A ground-breaking single malt indeed!


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