Winter Storm may sound more like a superhero than a drink – and coming from a man also known as the Malt Master, that might be expected – but it is, in fact, a new whisky, albeit one with a twist. “We did have other names in mind, but we settled on Winter Storm pretty quickly,” says Brian Kinsman, master blender at William Grant & Sons.
Contrary to the Scottish whisky industry’s reputation for treading a rather traditional path – in large part down to the Scottish Whisky Association (SWA)’s tight, appellation controllee-style view what it will and won’t designate as a Scotch Whisky – Glenfiddich has, for the last few years, been getting experimental. Indeed, Experimental is the name of its series of whiskies – Winter Storm is the third – that has, in a way, set forth the idea of cross-breeding whisky with other drinks collaborators.
It’s done one with an IPA, for example – which entailed the whisky maker actually brewing its own beer in the process; “an IPA on steroids,” as Kinsman calls it. Now Winter Storm has done one with a rather less well-known drink: ice wine. “No, I’d never heard of it either,” says Kinsman.
For this we look to a corner of the world best known for its waterfalls. The Niagara Peninsula, in Canada, is one of the country’s premier wine-growing regions, with several-dozen wineries. But it also has a rare microclimate that, unlike most wine-growing territory, means it’s sweltering come summer and freezing during the winter. And it’s when it’s freezing – and it must be at least -8°C but no colder than -14°C, and for at least three consecutive days – the water in the grapes on the vine is pushed out, leaving around just 1ml of what in the ice-wine trade calls “nectar”: a liquid with a super-concentrated syrupy sweetness that also manages to avoid being cloying.
It’s this nectar that becomes ice wine – at least the genuine variety that that comes from grapes frozen on the vine rather than artificially after the fact (see ice wines made in Austria and Germany; or the counterfeits now coming out of Asia). Since it takes the best part of an entire vine to make a 375ml bottle – the same would make six times the amount of table wine – it’s unsurprising that this weighs in at around £40 a pop. Or, in turn, that a bottle of Winter Storm – which uses 21-year-old single-malt Glenfiddich as its base – weighs in at £199.
“Ice wine is tricky and expensive to make, which is why – the need for a very specific climate aside – most winemakers steer clear of it,” explains Craig McDonald, the winemaker at Peller Estates, probably the world leader in ice-wine production and the winery that worked with Glenfiddich on its superhero whisky. “It’s a luxury item – most of it is exported – and unusual for a wine in being oak-barrel-aged. And then we’re at the mercy of the weather to make it happen. But for us as winemakers the idea of using it to make a whisky was an exciting idea. We just thought, ‘let’s try it, let’s see what the hell happens’.”
“We went into the process fully accepting that it might not work at all,” adds Kinsman. “But, at the end of the two-year process, I think it has.” Using ice wine to make whisky is not, however, a question of blending liquids. Much as the IPA beer was left to stand in oak casks, these then being emptied and the whisky matured in the same, so Winter Storm was made in oak barrels previously used for ice wine. It’s the oak that is the medium of transferring flavours from one drink to the other, in this case a curious sweetness and some intriguing aromatics.
Since ice-wine production is a small-scale business, Glenfiddich could only get hold of fewer than 100 barrels – for all production – which meant there was little room for trialing, and a great demand on Kinsman to work on instinct. But after nine years of apprenticeship, and following a long line of malt masters at the company, he was well prepared.
“I think Winter Storm shows we’ve hit a nice spot in our Experimental series,” he says. “In the past we’ve been guilty of being too cautious. Historically we’ve been an innovative company – after all, we created the single-malt Scotch whisky category as we know it today [in 1963]. But this is a timely reminder that we can do this kind of thing. On the whole the industry welcomes innovation – and maybe the SWA gets given a hard time, as though it’s stopping new ideas, when actually the limitations on what it will allow to be called Scotch forces you to be more creative. But I don’t think Winter Storm will be a hard sell: it will be a good way into whisky for those who still think it’s an old man’s drink. And it will intrigue those who really know whisky. Besides, it has a cool name.”
It looks the part, too: Winter Storm comes in an all-white bottle. That, again, bucks industry norms for a clear glass that shows off the tonality of the honey-brown liquid within. But, as McDonald might put it, “what the hell” – if you’re going to mess with the drink this much, you may as well mess with the norms of presentation too. “Honestly,” says Kinsman, “I’ve never seen a whisky bottle that looks as good as this. The contents are pretty good too.” But he is keen to push even harder on the next whisky in the series. Indeed, Glenfiddich has committed to launching one a year. Kinsman says he has plenty of ideas to develop, some of which may come to fruition faster than others.
“We’ve got several years’ worth of things to try – a 15-or-so-year schedule of seeing what works. In fact, some of it I probably won’t be here to see bottled,” says Kinsman. “By then, the role will have been passed on to my apprentice. The fact is that everything in whisky is quite slow. That’s just the nature of the business. But sometimes you have to do something a little different all the same, and in the end it’s great to see the bottles on the shelves”.