What is the Solera System?
Solera is a process for aging whisky by fractional blending in such a way that the finished product is a mixture of ages, with the average age gradually increasing as the process continues over many years. The purpose of this labour-intensive process is the maintenance of a reliable style and quality of the beverage over time. Solera means literally "on the ground" in Spanish, and it refers to the lower level of the set of barrels or other containers used in the process; the liquid (traditionally transferred from barrel to barrel, top to bottom, the oldest mixtures being in the barrel right "on the ground"), although the containers in today's process are not necessarily stacked physically in the way that this implies, but merely carefully labelled.
The Solera System In Whisky
The notion of the Solera system being used in whisky production is interesting. Many distillers are moving away from age statement whiskies in favour of a mixture of ages. Age statements are a useful marketing ploy and help justify spending exorbitant amounts of money for a bottle, but don’t make the liquid inside taste any better.
GLENFIDDICH: Glenfiddich have picked up on the idea of a Solera vat being used in whisky production. The Glenfiddich 15 year old is an example of a whisky that uses a variation of this method. They use an enormous vat which gets filled with whiskies aged in different types of casks. All of the whiskies are combined in the vat and left to blend. The vat is only ever half emptied to be bottled. The whisky is labelled as their "15 year old Single Malt Scotch Whisky". For Scotch whisky, the stated age must refer to the youngest of whisky's components.
The solera system, by design, imparts consistency of taste and colour on a liquid. People enjoy consistency with their whisky, and distillers spend money adding colouring to whiskies to create this (illusion of) consistency. Bad batches do happen, which can cost distillers time and money and damage reputations if they are provided to the market too frequently. Perhaps the solera system is worthy of consideration for more widespread use.
This is what Glenfiddich says about its 15 YO:
Exemplifying our family’s tradition of innovation, our 15 Year Old expression is created using a technique pioneered by our Malt Master and its warm, spicy flavours are transformed with the alchemy of the Solera Vat. Aged in European oak sherry casks and new oak casks, the whisky is mellowed in our unique Solera Vat, a large oak tun inspired by the sherry bodegas of Spain and Portugal. Never emptied, and kept half full of whiskies since 1998, our Solera Vat is the culmination of curious minds and the pioneering spirit of our family. It’s also the secret behind this whisky becoming the first 15 year old expression to enter the top ten best selling single malts.
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