Glenfiddich The Original 1963: This IS Your Grandfather's Whisky
I was taking a tumbler of scotch across the room. Two actually. One for myself, the other for the brunette in the black cocktail dress. “And Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals was spilling out of the hi-fi, the technical aspects of which would be enumerated to you in detail if you had the misfortune of being cornered by the host. I handed one of the glasses to her, which she accepted wordlessly, with a sly smile. I sipped my drink. Something new. A “straight malt,” whatever that was, from a place called Glenfiddich. She took a sip as well, our eyes meeting over the rims of the glasses. With a minute motion of her head, she suggested to me that we should take our drinks and retire to somewhere more secluded.
In 1963 -- as today -- most scotch drinkers drank blended scotch. But in 1963, they did it because that was just about the only choice. There was some small-scale bottling of single malt, but it was not a commercial endeavor. By and large, blended scotch was the only game in town. It’s what Roger Sterling would have known as scotch. It’s what Truman Capote downed, as well as James Bond’s best friend Felix Leiter (Bond, ironically, preferred bourbon). It’s what my grandfather drank. The role of single malt was to become an ingredient in a blend.
That is, until a couple guys in “the valley of the deer” decided that single malt shouldn’t just be an ingredient. It should itself be a commercial product -- and a premium one at that. The Original is a recreation of that historic single malt released by Glenfiddich’s Sandy Grant Gordon and Charles Grant Gordon in 1963. Current Glenfiddich Malt Master, Brian Kinsman, was able to draw from the vast collection of historic casks and bottles at the distillery to replicate the character of the original for The Original.
It’s not the first whisky to look to an iconic moment in the past for inspiration. Brown-Forman’s Old Forester bourbon released a “Repeal Day” expression in 2008. More recently Whyte and MacKay capitalized on the discovery of whisky left behind during Ernest Shackleton’s disastrous expedition to the Arctic to release a new blend based on samples of that long lost booze. Cutty Sark also got in on the game, with the release of Prohibition. Glenfiddich, however, is likely to top them all, not just because The Original is a salute to the “first” single malt, but also because 1963 sits smack dab in the middle of an iconic shift in culture.
Viewers might have cooled somewhat on Mad Men, but that era still holds a powerful appeal, especially for Americans, who in 1963 saw everything from the arrival of Beatlemania to the implementation of the embargo against Cuba (you can commemorate that with a dram of the Glenfiddich 21 year old Gran Reserva Cuban rum cask finish -- but not in the US); the publication of The Feminine Mystique to the US release of the first James Bond film to the assassination of John Kennedy. In the midst of such a pivotal year, the introduction of the single malt scotch category to the world was easy to miss, but the fact that it’s “just whisky news” doesn’t make it insignificant. Whisky is, after all, huge business internationally, and the ascension of single malt is more than just the story of people getting drunk.
To celebrate the release of The Original in the United States, William Grant & Sons procured Manhattan’s elegant Harold Pratt House and decked it out in ephemera from 1963, including multiple cocktail stations where one could partake of drinks made with one of the company’s whiskies -- but not The Original. That was saved for a toast in the ballroom, the official uncorking of the whisky in the US. The evening wrapped with a concert courtesy of Vintage Trouble, a band from Los Angeles described to us as “James Brown fronting Led Zeppelin.” On the whole, the music and crowd reflected the fact that conjuring heritage and the past is a good way to attract younger drinkers. Far from the “room full of rich old white guys” that is so often held up as the usual business for a scotch tasting, the 1963 event attracted a diverse swath of imbibers from across the spectrum.
As the free-for-all of the “great whisky boom” gives way to the frustration of the “great whisky shortage,” distillers are looking for increasingly novel ways to compensate for allegedly dwindling supplies of aged spirit. Many distillers are moving away from bottles bearing age statements and are bringing to market new expressions bearing an increasingly confusing proliferation of one-off names and concepts. Some of these have been better than others. The Original is a good dram. A very good dram. And a very good theme. It’s a young tasting whisky, but it’s not immature. Malty, fruity, and bright. However, like a lot of recent releases that have dropped age statements in favor of a theme or gimmick, the price is steeper than one would normally expect to pay for a youthful whisky from a major distillery. In the end, you are paying for the concept as much as you are the whisky. Whether or not the concept is worth a hundred bucks is really up to the buyer. At the very least, they’ll end up with a pretty solid whisky, and there’s no real complaining about that.