I booked an interview Glenfiddich brand ambassadors Jennifer Wren and Tracie Franklin to talk all things Glenfiddich. However, with the recent Scotchwhisky.com article calling out the sexism and elitism still around in the whisky industry, I took the chance to ask these very knowledgable women their thoughts on the subject. During the course of our chat, we touched on the women in the whisky industry, age statements, hecklers and more. Afterwards, I was invited to an unforgettable Glenfiddich tasting, which included some extremely rare and old Glenfiddich whiskies.
Please note the following interview has been edited for clarity.
BC: Do you remember your first significant whisky?
JW: My first standout whisky was Woodford Reserve. I remember I enjoyed it as a first drinking whisky. My husband and I liked it so much I bought it for him on our wedding day to drink with the boys in the room.
TF: Mine was Wild Turkey 101 and it burned the crap out of my throat. I did not like it at all. Now, I totally enjoy it. I know how to drink it. I know it’s not for shooting.
JW: Some of these whiskies that a lot of people see as a college drink or a shot – when you actually know how to drink whisky, you really see how much genius is behind them. They are actually beautifully well-crafted spirits.
BC: Back in college I remember Wild Turkey had a bad rap with some of my friends. They’d say “Avoid the brown stuff. Stick with vodka.”
TF: What’s sad is that puts people off “the brown stuff,” which includes all whisky. It includes the single malts. That’s unfortunate because people then take a long time to get back to it.
BC: When I mention Scotch whisky to bourbon drinkers, or those just getting into whisky, I often get the “I don’t like smoky whisky” reaction. How often do you get that?
JW: It’s like you hang out with me all the time. The number biggest reactions I get are “it tastes like bandaids.” “It tastes like licking a tire.” “It tastes like disappointment.” I always say to them, “what did you drink?” They generally can’t identify what it is. Secondly, it’s something someone in their family drank but they didn’t have any attachment to. So, to take them on a single malt journey in a very personal way changes everything. Also, it’s challenging for me when somebody says “I don’t like Scotch.” You’re talking about hundreds of incredibly talented distillers who bring all types of different aspects and qualities to their Scotch. It’s a generalization unfair to the category.
BC: A recent Scotchwhisky.com article called out snobbery and sexism in parts of the whisky world. There still seems to be a significant number of people view whisky as a “man’s drink.” How often do you come across that in your travels?
TF: I think that’s something that’s ingrained in the spirit of Scotch here in America. In Scotland, everybody drinks whisky. That’s just what’s in their home. And, everyone makes whisky. There are women in all different parts of whisky making. They run companies. They distill. They ferment. They move barrels. They are involved. So once it leaves Scotland, it gets this aire of aristocracy. It’s all of a sudden different and special. Then it somehow became a man’s drink, or even just a drink for the elite. Our job is to bring whisky back to the people. It’s been something we’ve focused on since before we began working for Glenfiddich. We’re just bringing from our hearts the love and passion that we have for whisky – the entire category – to everyone.
JW: A lot of the interviews we’ve done over the last couple of days had a lot to do with our partnership with Women 2.0 and Ladys Behind Bars. There’s been a lot of conversation behind women in the industry. The challenge that we face is that women drinking whisky is not a thing. Women love and embrace whisky. They are up to 40% of the market now. So whether or not women enjoy brown spirits and whisky in particular is a non-issue. In our industry, we’re seeing some particular spaces where it is unique or challenging to meet people. I would not say the whisky industry is unique with these problems, which is one of the reasons we are aligning with other industries that have the same conversations happening. Regarding the article, I have attended the same event for a couple of years running. With no converstation about the people who throw that event, which is not what this is about, I’ve experienced some of the same behaviors. Only I didn’t necessarily talk about them in such a public arena. I fully support the lady who wrote the article. I agree that those behaviors are happening. I fully support her message of inclusion, which is what I think the goal was. I’m very proud of other people in the community also supporting her message. The negative thing from that article is the people involved in that particular event may have thought it was a tearing down of them, when I fully believe it was an observation of a pattern of behavior in the industry. It is not a pattern of behavior indicative to that event. So I hope that the article inspires change and growth. I hope it inspires conversation like we’re currently having. I do not think it takes away the shine or the beauty of the event that we were at because it’s a really great place to be with a lot of really incredible people.
BC: And a lot of great drinks too.
TF: Yes! No one can deny that.
BC: How are you and the industry working to change those attitudes?
TF: I think first and foremost Glenfiddich as a brand is working to change that. They are putting people into positions that are visible, where those people have a voice. From the founding, we’ve had women strongly involved in our company. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have the amazing women that we had behind our company. We’re also doing events and tastings and creating a complete series that’s all about pushing the boundaries of whisky, making people rethink the way they approach whisky, and really getting experimental with it. We have an experimental dome that’s going around to music festivals and food festivals and places where you’re not always expecting to have a whisky experience. When you do it can be life changing. It’s getting whisky into the hands of people who don’t expect it in ways that then astound them.
JW: I also think that our fabulous brand manager Mr. Michael Giardina has made a very concerted effort to create a unique and diverse team. If you put all of us in a room together, it’s like “Wait a sec. You all represent the same whisky?” We do, and each of us represents whisky in our own unique voice. I’m so proud Glenfiddich as been at the forefront of that. I think this is the kind of visibility and leadership that, without having to hammer an idea over people’s heads, is quietly beginning to change the conversation. There is no doubt that when I walk into a room or when Tracie walks into a room, we are the Glenfiddich ambassadors. There’s no negotiation around that.
BC: You mentioned earlier that women represent up to 40% of whisky drinkers. Do you see that when you conduct tastings?
JW: Yes. I’ve been in the industry for ten years now. When I started, I used to work for a different supplier. When I attended whisky shows it was exclusively male, or it was the one long-suffering girlfriend that got dragged along. Now I would say women are everywhere. And not just women. LGBT. People of color. The audience that comes to me is so beautifully and shockingly diverse that it makes me feel like a lot of goals I set out years ago have been achieved. There’s still room to grow. I think there are still steps to be taken forward, and it definitely does depend on the event itself and how that event is priced and marketed. You want to go to events where you think you’ll be comfortable, and some of these events are selling a different way to approach whisky. If you’re marketing it as being open, inclusive, and inviting event where you come to learn, that’s when we start to get really mixed crowds who are there to learn and ask questions. That’s what I love being a part of.
BC: So at a comedy show there is always that one heckler. It’s always that guy. I would imagine, more often than not, someone in the crowd who thinks, “I’m a guy. I know more about whisky than these women.” How do you handle that?
TF: I was a bartender for a long time, so I was used to that. That wasn’t unusual. I got it from just making cocktails or talking about wine. So I already learned to put people at ease with me by just giving them knowledge, but also acknowledging that they have knowledge. That’s what they want. They don’t want to tear you down. They want you to acknowledge that they’re smart as well. It kind of nullifies the situation and that’s how I deal with it. That’s from coming from behind the bar for a while and realizing how do I make that person still enjoy being with me but also to understand that I probably have more knowledge than you and I’d love for you to listen to me.
JW: I think Tracie and I are so like-minded about this. I could not have put it better myself. There will always be somebody sitting in my audience that spends every day of their life sipping a range of whiskies and nerds out about it. They are on all the blogs. Yeah, they probably know more about whisky than I do. I would fully acknowledge that. I respect what they do and what they enjoy. On the flip side, there’s not a person on this earth that knows more about Glenfiddich than the Glenfiddich ambassadors. So I always find it funny when somebody, male or female, decides to lecture me on the whisky I represent, then tells me 15 erroneous things about the brand.
BC: They’re the jack of all trades, but you’re the master of one.
JW: Exactly. We take so much time and energy and concern and worry about process, conversation, the history of the Grant family, understanding Scottish heritage, and geography. There are so many things that go into my loving this brand. It’s funny that you said heckler, because earlier today I was talking to Tracie about how we approach presenting. I almost approach presenting like a standup comedian. It’s like I’m doing a show, right? There’s always that one person who wants the attention on them. If someone is enthusiastic about being in a room with me and learning about Glenfiddich, I am happy to share with with them. I don’t need to be the most right person in the room. I need to be the person that is collaborative and available.
BC: Let’s move on to the idea held in some circles that the older and more expensive the whiskey, the better. I call bullshit.
JW: It is bullshit. I often have this conversation with a lot of people, and not just high-end buyers. Older is hard to get. Therefore, it is a higher price. Older [whiskies] can take up to 40 or 50 years of a human’s life, or more. Think about that for a second. Take away everything else. Fifty years devoting yourself to one thing. There are men and women at our distillery who have lived and died and have not seen the whisky that they watched over drunk. It’s amazing. Generations of children, marriages, lovers, and death have seen that cask through. So there is a romanticism around the whole business. The funniest conversation I always have is somebody will come up to me at a show and tell me the like the 12-year-old. These people say this to me like they’re confessing their sins. They’ll whisper that it’s their favorite and I’m thinking, “Great!” Every whisky we make is for somebody. They almost feel embarrased like they don’t know enough about single malts or they’re not a good enough single malt drinker. My hope is the Glenfiddich that is right for you is the Glenfiddich you like drinking. I drink the 12-year-old all the time. It’s the most awarded whisky in the world. Why are you not drinking it? So when we talk about elitism, there will always be a certain amount of goods and services in this world that only certain people can afford. Something like the aforementioned show is something that a certain type of person is able to attend, and that’s amazing. As an ambassador, I will never turn my back on someone who loves Glenfiddich. Whether they love the 40-year-old Glenfiddich or the 12-year-old Glenfiddich, I’m grateful that they love the whisky that our company makes. I think what’s happening, to circle back to something Tracie said earlier – in Scotland, whisky is the drink of the common man and woman. It’s the drink you sit down with and you reach out to someone you love, or you have great conversation, or you debate politics or life, or whatever. So, there’s a little bit of an egalitarian aspect sneaking into our industry. When you attend an event, any event for any product, and someone’s celebrating elitism, it has a bad mouthfeel, for lack of better phrasing. I think there was something that was touched on in that article that it’s so incredible that certain people in our industry, ourselves included, get to enjoy extreme vintages. But, extreme vintages is not where it’s at. It is a part of our industry. It is not our industry.
BC: There’s an high end image attached to some other spirits like cognac, where you picture old guys in leather chairs smoking cigars. But whisky has a reputation of being affordable to everyone. It’s the working man’s drink.
JW: One of the things we pride ourselves at Glenfiddich is that the majority of our core range is affordable. We’re not looking to gouge consumers. That’s not a commentary on anybody else, but we actively want people to enjoy Glenfiddich.
TF: It’s meant to be drunk. However you want – in a cocktail, neat, with water.
BC: Moving on, so NAS… it’s crap, right?
JW: (Sarcastically) You should literally spit it out on the floor.
JW: Anyone in the industry knows that age statements are something that we created.
JW: We’re at fault for it. During the mid-80s to early-90s, many brands stopped producing single malt. They just kind of quieted down, had their casks and sold what they could. The problem with making whisky is that you need a constant flow of income to keep producing something you’re selling 10, 14, or 15 years down the line. So, the Grant family is a 130-year-old family company of six generations. They all huddled together and said it was pretty bad and we don’t know where this is going. This is our children’s legacy. They continued to produce whisky at full capacity. What this means for us now in 2017 is that Glenfiddich has over one million barrels in inventory. We have no lack of aged whiskies. That’s not true of some of our friends and fellow whisky companies. That puts them in a very uncomfortable place, because for an industry that focused on age statements for so long, they’re now saying, “no, look over here!” For us, whenever we make a no age statement whisky like IPA or Project XX…
TF: Or Snow Phoenix… one of the most highly regarded ones.
JW: It is a very concerted and specific choice. We are not in a position where we’re lacking whiskies. Unfortunately many whisky makers are put in a very uncomfortable place where demand is greater than supply. That being said, some of the finest whiskies I’ve ever enjoyed are no age statement whiskies. Fabulous whiskies. For us, when Brian produces a no age statement, it’s an area to play and to have a little fun with. I think the biggest problem we’re facing with single malt is that so many of the suppliers have not been as straight forward as they could have been. We’re often encouraged to be transparent. Maybe that’s not always the case. I think that a lot of whisky enthusiasts feel like the wool is being pulled over their eyes. Which is not the case, but the perception is there. That sucks, because the whiskies being created are fabulous whiskies. It’s not good or bad. It’s the same conversation between blended malt versus single malt. It’s not that one is better than the other. They are different.
BC: And they’re both blends.
TF: They are both blends. My thing with the non age statement is, if you like it then drink it. It’s about what’s in the glass. It’s about that spirit. Sometimes the price point is where some people get a little bit annoyed. There are some whiskies that have come out with a particular price point, and you think the taste isn’t worth the amount you paid. And if you don’t believe that then don’t pay it. That’s the only place where I would say I have any problem with what’s happening in the industry. There are some amazing non aged statements coming out, and I have no problem with that.
JW: I think the issue is that we, as in industry, drilled into people’s heads the idea that older is better. This goes back to our elite conversation. Older is better – the oldest you can get. This is a conversation I get at shows. “What’s under the table?” “What’s the oldest?” It doesn’t matter, especially with our brand. It doesn’t matter what the oldest is. What matters is whether or not you enjoy the whisky. Older is better… we drilled that into people’s heads. Now, when we change that conversation, people aren’t ready to accept the new marketing… norm… reality. They feel like they’ve been cheated. So why should I pay $250 for a 6-year-old whisky? Again, it’s not about the age. It’s about do you love it. Do you feel it’s worth $250. If so, buy it.
After the interview, I was invited to take part in a Glenfiddich tasting. Someone dropped out at the last minute, so I gladly filled the vacancy. This was my first opportunity to watch the masters at work as Tracie and Jennifer walked the group through nine different whiskies. They held the crowd’s attention with their humorous and educational presentation. I didn’t spot one person looking down at their phone. Now that’s saying something!
I didn’t take in-depth tasting notes, so what follows are my initial thoughts. Never underestimate the power of first impressions. I think a lot of people make their minds up about a whisky the moment upon first sip.
GLENFIDDICH ORIGINAL – This one is inspired by the first single malt that Glenfiddich launched worldwide in 1963. Light sherry, sweet malt, and soft vanilla notes. It’s nice and definitely worth and in-depth look in the near future. $100
GLENFIDDICH EXCELLENCE 26-YEAR-OLD – Surprisingly light and floral for a 26-year-old whisky. Hints of toffee and vanilla are complemented by bright fruits and some light tobacco leaf. Though light in style, it had some fascinating complexity. $500
GLENFIDDICH 15-YEAR-OLD SOLERA RESERVE – Aged in three types of casks: sherry, bourbon, and new oak. The youngest whisky in the solera system is 15 years, while the oldest dates back to 1983. Lots of spiced honey with some dark fruits, sherry, oak and burnt orange peel. It’d been a while since I last tasted this whisky, and it was as good as I remembered. $60
GLENFIDDICH 21-YEAR-OLD -Oh that rum cask finish! Tropical fruit and vanilla on the nose, with plaintain, caramel and nutmeg on the palate. A sweet dessert malt if there ever was one. $180
GLENFIDDICH IPA FINISH – This expression is the first entry in the new Experimental range. It’s finished in an IPA beer cask. The nose is hoppy with some caramel undertones. Hints of toffee, nuts and orange zest fill the palate. The IPA influence is much stronger on the nose than the palate. I am not an IPA fan, but I enjoyed this expression. $70
GLENFIDDICH PROJECT XX – Another whisky in the brand’s Experimental range. Twenty whisky experts each picked a cask of their liking from Glenfiddich warehouses. Malt Master Brian Kinsman took the 20 casks and created this single malt. Rich and fruity, with notes of orange zest, dark toffee and a very slight wine note. A standout of the night! $80
GLENFIDDICH 1978 RARE COLLECTION CASK – A single American Oak Hogshead cask aged over 36 years. 54.1% abv. My favorite whisky of the night. Hints of old sherry, baking spices, leather, slightly burnt caramel on the nose. A spicy whisky full of dark fruits, dark caramel, oak tannin, vanilla and cigar box. $3,500. 1 of 150 bottles.
GLENFIDDICH 40-YEAR-OLD – Another beautiful expression. This 40-year-old utilizes a remnant vatting, so the oldest whisky is from 1925, while the youngest whisky in this release was distilled in 1973. Every release is married with previous 40-year-old vattings. Leather, dark caramel, dark fruits, orange marmalade, expresso, leather, and a sweet oak and spicy finish. An exquisitely aged whisky! $3,500 – $4,000
LADYBURN 42-YEAR-OLD SINGLE MALT – The Ladyburn whisky was only operational for about 9 years before it was demolished in 1976. I had trouble discerning this one after trying eight other whiskies, but was able to pick out citrus, old grains, fruit and oak spice. There was an herbal (dill?) and earthy (mushrooms) quality about it that made the whisky stand out. I remember it having a nice, dry finish. What a way to end the night! $2,500