Like for many, the Glenlivet 12 yo was the first single malt Scotch that I would routinely order in a bar, neat. It was a considerable step up from the basic whisky blends I had tried (both domestic and international), and had a relatively gentle and inoffensive flavour profile.
I don’t mean that to sound belittling. When first exploring the world of whiskies, it is easy to get overwhelmed by strong flavours. Indeed, my first experience of malt whisky put me off it for years – a heavily peated malt, I recall remarking that it tasted like peat moss in vodka (as that was all I could discern at the time). The Glenlivet 12 yo was a revelation in comparison, and gave me an opportunity to appreciate the subtler flavours in malt whisky.
Of course, most of us eventually move on from this relatively inexpensive and ubiquitous single malt, searching for wider flavour experience. But it remains a staple for its class, and one worth considering here – especially in comparison to the new Founder’s Reserve, a slightly cheaper new no-age-statement (NAS) from Glenlivet.
Founder’s Reserve immediately replaced the 12 yo as the sole entry-level Glenlivet expression in some smaller and emerging markets. In more established markets (including North America), the two expressions are available side-by-side. That seems to be changing however, and the expectation is that the Founder’s Reserve will replace the 12 yo in most markets eventually.
As an aside, that name has received a fair amount of ridicule online – it is hard to imagine how the most entry-level whisky in a producer’s inventory could be described as a “Founder’s Reserve”. 😉
Fortunately, both the Founder’s Reserve and the original 12 yo are still available in Canada (for the time being). So I was able to try them both in short succession one recent evening.
Let’s see how they compare on in the Meta-Critic database, relative to other popular entry-level malt whiskies (age and non-age expressions).
Auchentoshan American Oak: 7.49 ± 0.94 on 6 reviews ($$)
Auchentoshan 12yo: 8.31 ± 0.27 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Cardhu Amber Rock: 8.28 ± 0.28 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Cardhu 12yo: 8.12 ± 0.50 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Deanston 12yo: 8.05 ± 0.48 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Deanston Virgin Oak: 8.21 ± 0.49 on 9 reviews ($$)
Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve: 8.30 ± 0.43 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Glenfiddich 12yo: 8.08 ± 0.26 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet 12yo: 8.03 ± 0.32 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve: 7.95 ± 0.50 on 10 reviews ($$)
Tomatin Legacy: 8.25 ± 0.48 on 8 reviews ($$)
Tomatin 12yo: 7.82 ± 0.66 on 14 reviews ($$)
As you can see from the Meta-Critic average, they get roughly equivalent scores overall (and about middle of the pack for this entry-level group). But what you can’t tell from above is the repeated measure of individual reviewers who have tried both. There are only six reviewers that I track that have scored both whiskies, and the difference is interesting: three rank the Founder’s Reserve considerably higher than the 12 yo, two find it equivalent, and one finds it worse. Not quite what I expected for a lower price NAS.
Here is what I find in the glass for each:
Glenlivet 12 yo
Nose: Slightly sweet, with a touch of honey, and light fruits like apple and pineapple (a distinctive Glenlivet trait). Definite vanilla. Slightly floral, but I can’t identify anything specific. Slight solvent note, but not offensive.
Palate: Sweet up front, with the vanilla turning more to caramel now. The apple remains prominent, but also getting some citrus – with a touch of bitterness. Remains light and relatively sweet overall, and not very complex. Somewhat watery mouthfeel.
Finish: Moderate finish – a bit longer than I would have expected from its light taste, but still relatively short overall. That sweet apple remains the key note, although a bit of bitterness also lingers. As I remember it – a light and inoffensive whisky.
Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve
Nose: My core notes read the same – slightly sweet, light fruits like apple, slightly floral. But there is more going on here, with a malty characteristic now. There is an almost maritime air, with hints of salty chocolate (i.e., seems like it could be just a tiny touch sherried). Definitely a more complex nose than the 12 yo. Unfortunately, the solvent characteristic is also more noticeable (a touch of glue in particular).
Palate: Still sweet and fruity, and I find some maltiness is coming up now as well. Classic apple and honey are still there, but with faint chocolate notes, and something slightly spicy (pepper?). Still light and watery overall. Improves on multiple sips.
Finish: As before, medium length for its class (short overall for a Scotch). The various new notes (like chocolate) linger, as does a bit of caramel sweetness. Less fruity than the old 12 yo.
The Verdict: The Founder’s Reserve is both more and less than the 12 yo. It lacks the simple charm and elegance of light fruit-driven 12 yo, and brings in more complexity (likely from wider barrel blending). With that wider mix comes some additional off notes though, so it really is a mixed bag.
For its extra complexity, I would give Founder’s Reserve a marginally higher score. But I can really understand why individual reviewers vary so much in their relative opinions of these two. It thus makes sense how the overall average scores came out pretty much the same, but with a larger standard deviation for the Founder’s Reserve.