The penultimate tasting of the academic year finally arrived after a two-week Spring Break intermission, and we Quaich Soc’ers were delighted that the supremely high calibre of outfits pitching up in St Andrews for the purposes of sloshing the water of life around a bit was to be maintained following March’s superlative visit from Compass Box.
Glenfarclas is, as some of you may know, one of my absolute favourite whiskies. My first heavily-sherried whisky was their multi-award winning 15yo – a firm favourite of Michael Jackson and Jim Murray. I found that, straight out of the bottle, there was an aroma of sweet, treated wood and a velvety, clinging mouthfeel which were unlike anything I had come across in whisky until then. More time spent in its company revealed a rich fruitiness, balanced as it was by an earthy spiciness. Only latterly did I appreciate the wonderful dark nuttiness and fat vanilla flavours. I was satisfied with my tour of the distillery, keen to escape the caprices of violent wind and hail which had been coiling about Ben Rinnes that day. Peter Donnelly, brand manager, was on a mission to bring some of this heritage, critical acclaim, unique location and strong family values to bear upon us students, through a mightily impressive inventory of whiskies with the final three far older than anything that has been put before the Quaich Society this year.
After some very brief background, Peter was anxious that we should be drinking some of his whisky. We all turned to the 10yo, one I have had before and was quite impressed with. Surrounded on all sides by its older siblings, however, it came across as somewhat limp: a clean, sweet nuttiness, grassiness and vanilla all that could really distinguish it. Not a bad whisky by any stretch of the imagination - and as Peter asserted, it is more of an introductory malt – but the guests in the Scores Hotel function room were keen to continue exploring.
The 15yo I effectively described above, and I shall only add here that in a comparative context, much more biscuity flavours emerged on the palate and finish beside the richer, older expressions.
Of especial interest was Peter’s emphasis on the maturation process, and how it is uniquely influenced by the microclimate generated in and around Ben Rinnes. It cannot be ignored. As I alluded to earlier, even in mid-April it is possible to experience a disorientating white-out as snow and sleet bucket out of the sky. Winter temperatures at the distillery can be as low as minus 22 degrees Celcius – extreme is the only word for it. Glenfarclas, however, have stuck by their traditional maturation techniques. Thick, ancient, stone-walled warehouses with slate rooves and earthen floors ensure that the worst of the heat and cold is avoided and provides the perfect consistency of ambient conditions to aid in fully-interactive maturation with minimal evaporation. Indeed, Glenfarclas can boast some of the lowest evaporation by volume in the industry. Strength is largely unaffected, too, as the extraordinary proofs many of the very old Family Casks have retained demonstrates.
To the wood, though, and this is where little, family-run Glenfarclas has to muscle in alongside the big boys - the likes of The Macallan, Highland Park, Laphroaig – all of whom want top quality Sherry casks in which to mature their drams. Demand of such casks vastly outstrips supply and hence why so many distillers have switched to ex-Bourbon barrels, more plentiful and crucially, much much cheaper. When the Grants head over to Spain each year, each cask will cost them between 600-700 euros. That Glenfarclas nevertheless abstains from charging Highland Park and Macallan prices, however, is what is so remarkable, considering the quality of the product that leaves those venerable, dear, Sherry butts.
Our next whisky was the 21yo, one I have not previously come across and was grateful to do so here. I found it rather unusual for a Glenfarclas, with a lightness to it as to which I’m still unsure whether the pronounced mulchy earthiness balanced. Initially, I found planed oak, quite spicy and sweet. Then came fragrances of a damp ornamental garden: sweet earth, wet waxy leaves and lush grass. Potato peelings yielded to white grape notes and then a toffee yoghurt character. On the palate there was more sweetness, with an assertive dryness. Earthy again, the experience concluded with floral and fruit notes. Peter revealed that the 21yo batches have become much more consistent, and of a higher quality, now that they have sourced casks from a smaller, more artisanal producer. I was intrigued by this whisky, but not wholly won over.
In stark contrast, the 25yo came blustering along with a challenge painted on its richly-hued face. This was the first of Peter’s ‘occasion whiskies’ – not for everyday drinking but a damn good thing to have tucked away. I couldn’t agree more. Marvellously focused, I discovered more of the apple notes than I had been able to with the others, together with oranges. Lush grass melded into a firm, spicy oakiness. The experience moved into the panelled library, with old books a suggestive aroma. Finally, crystallised orange peel confirmed the age and the Sherry behind this excellent dram.
On the night, the 25yo even outshone a whisky which had for a long time been remembered as one of those ‘Malt Moments’, when your immediate surroundings have no other recourse than to take a back seat as the dram in your hand moves centre stage. That had been the 30yo when I had it at the Scotch Whisky Experience in 2009. Though still impressive, the 25yo showed it a clean pair of heels for pace and agility.
What came next was to be possibly the oldest whisky the Quaich Society has ever seen at its tastings, but before I move on to that, Peter related a fascinating story of the oldest whisky Glenfarclas has. This is not one of the Family Casks – it isn’t even for sale. During the 1980s, a call was patched through from America. The caller had discovered a case of Glenfarclas whisky behind the chimney fixtures of his late father’s house, and offered the Grants the opportunity to buy back their stock, if they so wished. Further investigation through distillery records revealed that what was being described was not old whisky in terms of the spirit (between 8 and 10 years at most) but it had been bottled before Prohibition even got going. For three quarters of a century this whisky had been tucked out of sight, but sadly no-one had got round to drinking it. Perhaps they had forgotten where they had put it. The plain white case is now in the keeping of J & G Grant.
But, to that mature gentleman in our final glass. Peter had treated us to their 40yo, at £300 a bottle far out of reach of most of the tasters in the room that night, even with a misappropriated student loan, but as we couldn’t help recognising, considerably good value for money. Aware that lots of and lots of heavily-sherried whiskies might exhaust my olfactory senses, I had in fact turned to this dram first and discovered an intense, sherried red fruitiness with a creamy and rich sweetness. Dried cherries were in there, together with sweet spice, soft leather and heathery peat. The palate was rich, dark and tongue-coating, with peach and plum. Returning my nose to the glass revealed an added nutty sweetness with hedgerow berries. A touch of water brought out vanilla and big, boozy and juicy fruitcake. Oaky resin emerged, together with delicate heathery smoke. Big, but soft red apple rounded out a very rich and fruity nose. The diluted palate was very drying and rich with a spicy earthiness and somewhat too short finish. I had expected more from this whisky, I must confess. I feel it could have benefited from a little more abv, just to give it a bit of life. Who am I to argue with the wishes of John Grant, however, the one who put the whisky together? If he feels the best of the whisky is drawn out at 43% abv then so it shall be.
For a family-run business, Glenfarclas are hardly cautious in the big bad world of whisky. Peter described the dramming session of 2007 which would result in the release of the Family Casks. ‘So,’ says one, ‘what is the oldest whisky we’ve got?’
‘Ah well,’ says another, ‘I think there are a few casks from 1952.’
‘Huh… And what’s the next oldest after that?
‘And after that?’
Peter Donnelly with the 175th Anniversary bottling.
In short, they discovered that they had casks from every year between 1952 and 1994 so what did they do? Rather than feeling rather smug and secure – as they had every reason to do – the cry went up: ‘Release ‘em!’ Peter makes out that this move was made ’just for a laugh – honest to God’. He reasons that the folks behind Glenfarclas have ‘made their money a long time ago’, and if they could offer something different, they ought to. No sooner was the release announced that 14 complete sets were immediately sold – that’s 43 individual bottles, the most expensive of which is nearly £1100. It has been phenomenally successful, the aim being to supply spectacular whisky, at prices that people can manage. Glenfarclas all over, really.
For the raffle, as Glenfarclas 105 circled about the room, Peter had a special prize for the first ticket out of the cannister: a bottle of the 175th Anniversary. A vatting of 18 casks from across five decades, bottled at 43% abv - just 6,000 bottles are available worldwide. Again, the whisky was intended to be the star of the show, hence packaging that is no different to the standard range – affordability ‘over crystal boxes and chandeliers and all this nonsense.’ The winner certainly looked happy with himself, and my three strips of tickets utterly redundant.
Many thanks go to Peter for breaking out the seriously rare stuff for us, and for the Quaich Society team for putting together another sell-out tasting.