Glenfiddich is the giant of Scotch whisky. Its single malt Scotch whisky sold 16.8 million bottles in 2018 and is either the biggest or second-biggest single malt Scotch brand in the world (depending on which figures you consult), challenging The Glenlivet for the top spot. 

The claims it’s also the world’s most awarded single malt Scotch whisky, saying the Glenfiddich range has received more awards since 2000 than any other single malt Scotch whisky in two of the world’s most prestigious competitions, the International Wine & Spirit Competition and the International Spirits Challenge. 

Its 35-hectare site is a whisky Disneyland, a tourist utopia in the heartland of Scotch whisky with a gift shop the size of a supermarket and a comprehensive visitor experience. The Speysider boasts 16 wash stills and 27 spirit stills to give it a huge production capacity of 21 million litres per year. 

But Glenfiddich also claims another huge title: being the favourite whisky of the fictional detective Inspector Morse. No wait, not that. I mean it does claim that and it is cool but that wasn’t the important bit. 

Glenfiddich says it is the first single malt. 

Glenfiddich whisky

We love Glenfiddich single malt. But was it the original?

Glenfiddich: not inventors but pioneers

So, did Glenfiddich invent single malt? 

The short answer is no. Thanks for reading.

Ian Buxton had a good go at answering that question in more detail in his article Was Glenfiddich really the first ever single malt whisky? There’s no need for us to go over it all again, but suffice it to say that history is long and very interesting. Other essential reading is The secret history of single malts by Iain Russell.

What cannot be disputed is Glenfiddich’s role in the development, marketing, and understanding of what single malt whisky is today, a contribution that ranks as unparalleled in the Scotch whisky industry. Its owners, William Grant & Sons, don’t just know how to make a good whisky, but how to get it into people’s hands too. 

William Grant & Sons – savvy operators 

The Grant family has demonstrated its business acumen going as far back as the foundation of the company. William Grant himself spent two decades learning the trade at Mortlach, then spied an opportunity when equipment from the old Cardow Distillery came about for £120. He built the Glenfiddich Distillery himself with his family. Just five years after founding Glenfiddich in 1886, he built a second distillery, Balvenie. Turns out that was a pretty good idea too. 

The Pattison Crisis of 1898 may have crippled the young distillery as the Pattison brothers were Glenfiddich’s biggest customers but the Grant family simply responded by blending in-house, establishing a Glasgow branch office and blending operation in 1903. They were soon exporting to Canada and the USA and in 1909, William’s son-in-law Charles Gordon started a very successful tour of the Far East marketing the family goods. By 1914, the company had more than 60 sales offices, supporting its exports to 30 countries. In 1923, with Prohibition in full swing, William’s grandson Grant Gordon joined the family firm and surprised everybody by increasing whisky production. It paid off.

No decision, however, was as savvy as the one to proiritise the malt side of the business. In The Schweppes Guide to Scotch, Philip Morrice explains that Glenfiddich had been bottled off and on as a single malt throughout the distillery’s unbroken history, “but from 1920, when Grant’s blended whisky activities first overshadowed the malt whisky side of the business, until the 1960s it had never amounted to more than a sideline to Grant’s considerable volume business in blended whisky. By the late 1950s deliveries scarcely amounted to 500 cases per annum”.

The new stills at Glenfiddich Distillery

Glenfiddich is one of the biggest-selling single malts in the world

The era of Glenfiddich single malt

Morrice goes on to explain that “The dominance of blended Scotch whisky, indeed the expansion and very survival of the industry itself, had been based on the assumption that Highland pot-still malt was too strong in flavour and body to be welcome to the plates of the educated masses… it was members of the Grant family who realised that if even a tiny proportion of that market could be turned back to the original Scotch, the rewards would be considerable”. 

By the early 1960s, if you drank Scotch whisky, you drank blends. These marriages of malt and grain whiskies from various distilleries ruled the roost. Single malt whisky, meaning whisky whisky from a single distillery using only malted barley, was a relic of the past and rarely seen, especially outside of Scotland. Part of the reason for Glenfiddich doing something drastic was due to an issue with grain supply. This led the firm to build the Girvan plant that supplies William Grant & Sons and more with grain whisky today but also meant there was a time when the distillery had a lot of malt whisky to use. The brand also references the impact of Sandy Grant Gordon, however, the great-grandson of William who was so proud of the single malt that he made Glenfiddich the first to be actively promoted outside Scotland.”

Morrice reports that by 1964 new marketing plans had been drawn up and allocations had increased eight-fold with sights set on new pastures in the south of Scotland and England. “For the first time, a single malt whisky was being advertised nationally throughout Britain. Nor did the people at Grant’s overlook the United States… By 1963, 2000 cases of Glenfiddich were being exported, by 1666 8000 cases”.

What was the original Glenfiddich single malt like?

What was that whisky like? Well, we can consult some sources from the time to find out. First published in 1967, the second edition of R.J. McDowall’s The Whiskies of Scotland was released in 1971 and reports that “The whisky produced today is Glenfiddich Straight Malt at 10-11 years old in a triangular bottle 70 proof. I describe it as a good fruity Glenlivet-like whisky with a distinctly peaty flavour, but it does not use the name Glenlivet,”.

The Schweppes Guide to Scotch was published in 1983 and shows us how the brand was viewed in this era. Author Morrice comments “When it comes world availability, the only single malt to enjoy anything like an international reputation is Glenfiddich, which has been an outstanding success in marketing terms”. 

He goes on to describe it as the “one outstanding example of marketing which has done more for malt whisky than perhaps anything else” and that, while Glenfiddich Highland Malt may not have been the best malt whisky in Scotland, it is “certainly the most widely available and must take much of the credit for capturing a place in the consumer spotlight for single malt whisky, a product which previously been the preserve of the connoisseur and the privileged, and almost exclusively in Scotland”.

The Nightcap

Glenfiddich has been an innovator from the beginning

Glenfiddich: marketing the malt

There are several key decisions in the history of the brand that helped Glenfiddich market its signature malt effectively. One that actually predated its single malt strategy but played into its success perfectly, when in 1961 influential 20th-century designer Hans Schleger redesigned the bottle. Inspired by the trinity of water, yeast and malted barley, he created a green triangular bottle, a recognisable totem that stood out on every shelf and back bar, soon becoming synonymous with the Glenfiddich name. 

In 1969, the company founded a dedicated sales division, cleverly named the Glenfiddich Sales Division. Under the control of the founder’s great-grandson, David Grant, what followed was a switch in packaging and a “more robust marketing approach,” according to Morrice. The company prioritised marketing campaigns that showed people the uniqueness of single malt, with Morrice adding that the brand’s advance “owed a great deal to inspired and well-orchestrated promotional campaigns”.

He tells one particularly fine story of the Grant’s setting up the Academy of Pure Malt to circumnavigate the ban on advertising imported spirits in France. An American branch followed in 1974. “Although the Academy was no doubt launched as something of a tongue-in-cheek operation, and is only thinly disguised as a means of promoting Glenfiddich, the people at Grant’s are to be awarded full marks for having opened up entirely new markets for single malt whisky, to say nothing of having enriched the lives of those who were previously ignorant of the product,” Morrice remarks. 

The Grant family’s clever manoeuvring even allowed it to penetrate the state alcohol-importing monopoly of Sweden, with the government allowing malt whisky to be imported for the first time in May 1967. But success meant that it soon found demand was outstripping supply to the point where it was buying back mature Glenfiddich at a premium from blenders. It always comes at a cost, right? 

In 1974, Glenfiddich received the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement, when 119,500 cases were exported. In 1982, total sales were estimated to have broken 360,000 cases. The era of single malt was soon to follow and Glenfiddich had positioned itself at the head of the crowd.

How many whisky brands are there?

Glenfiddich – a globally renowned single malt brand

Glenfiddich: home and away

There’s two more truly stand-out decisions that we haven’t covered yet that made Glenfiddich a master of the malt market. The first was its embrace of duty-free. Glenfiddich single malt was one of the original whiskies to be marketed in the airport outlets, aided by W. Grant & Sons recognising the importance of packaging its bottles in tubes and gift tins, another part of the market it was ahead of the game on. 

The other came in 1969 when Glenfiddich opened a visitor centre at its Scotch whisky distillery. The first of its kind in the industry, it invited the public to learn about whisky production, taste the single malt, and, of course, buy the whisky they just learned all about. We now understand the impact of this direct engagement with consumers and the demystifying of the production process was crucial to the success of single malt. Quite humorously, the aforementioned McDowall’s The Whiskies of Scotland reports from 1971 that “recently an old barn has been attractively adorned as a reception centre for pirates with attendants in Highland Dress who make you very welcome”. Which doesn’t sound quite as era-defining, does it?

But we do have the benefit of greater hindsight now. When Glenfiddich unveiled its Rare Collection Cask No. 20050, a 30-year-old single cask whisky released to commemorate the Speyside distillery visitor centre’s 50th anniversary, we got to hear from a former Glenfiddich brand manager who was present at the 1969 opening: David Grant. “Today, people can’t conceive how difficult it was in the 1960s to launch not just a malt whisky to the world, but the whole concept of single malt whisky,” he said. “Our visitor centre was at the forefront of those efforts and our most successful weapon.”

In 2023, figures by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) revealed that more than two million people visited Scotch whisky visitor centres in 2022, more than double (114%) the footfall of 2021 and a number that almost reached the pre-pandemic record high of 2.1 million in 2019. Crucially, this surge made visitor centres collectively become the top tourist attraction in Scotland. Whisky tourism is massive for Scotch and it all begins with Glenfiddich.

So no, Glendiffich did not “invent” single malt. Nobody can claim that. But its focus on creating a distinctive brand, prioritising direct consumer engagement, innovation with packaging, foresight of the importance of whisky tourism, overall willingness to think outside the box, and commitment to making actually very good whisky at the core of it all means that Glenfiddich can absolutely call itself a pioneer of the single malt.