Federal Wine and Spirits was packed to the stone edges of their cluttered, cave-like basement this past Monday. You’d never guess it from the looks, but this small liquor store in downtown Boston was rated 2011 Retailer of the Year by Whisky Magazine. A group of about 50 strong (yes, that packs ‘em in) showed up for a very special tasting of the full vertical line-up from Speyside Whisky distillery, Glenfarclas. The tasting was led by George Grant, whose family has run the distillery for six generations. It was an amazing opportunity for any lover of single malt Scotch to taste some terrific whisky with a great narrator.
Crowded into a small space with whisky fans surrounding him like a pack of rabid dogs, George Grant told the entertaining story of Glenfarclas through the years. The distillery has been around since the 18th century and has been legally producing whisky for 175 years. George’s forefathers purchased the distillery in 1865 for 511 pounds. And as George comically said, “I hope it’s worth a little bit more than that now.” Glenfarclas is one of the last family-owned distilleries remaining in Scotland today.
The vertical tasting started with the 12-year and worked its way up to the 40. All of the whisky presented in the tasting was matured in 60% sherry casks and 40% “plain” casks (either refilled bourbon or fourth-filled sherry).
After tasting the 12-year, a nice everyday whisky that comes at an affordable price of about $45, we moved on to the 105 (named after its British proof). This cask strength Scotch is 60% ABV and is a beautiful kick-starting, fire breathing kind of whisky that is virtually indestructible. As George put it: “Don’t be afraid with this whisky. If you want to add a drop of water to it, add a drop of water to it. You’re not going to hurt this whisky at all. You cannot damage this one.” According to George, the 105 was his grandfather’s go-to selection from the Glenfarclas line up.
Interestingly, Glenfarclas was the first distillery to start regularly producing a cask strength whisky. If you look back into the record books of the early 1970s you may just find the 105 labeled as the strongest whisky in the world.
The next bottle poured was the 17-year. Like the 12, 21 and 25, this whisky comes in at 43% ABV. The 17 is a diverse single malt that can be enjoyed pretty much anytime – “before dinner, after dinner, for lunch or for breakfast.” On that note, it really did serve as a nice mid-point transition between the first two whiskies and the latter three. The 17 is a solid Scotch and at about $80 can easily stand up to any number of other 17-year options on the market. There are some citrus and floral notes that come through on this one that weren’t as present in the younger bottles. You can also start to sense a little of the chocolate flavors that become more and more pronounced with the latter three.
When the 21-year was poured my heart started racing just a little bit faster. After drinking in the aroma, I took a sip and was immediately blown away by the smoothness. George put it best when he said, “If you could actually put this whisky into a balloon, it wouldn’t burst the balloon. It’s just that smooth. There are no sharp edges to this whisky.” All of the flavors – fruit, nuts, sherry – come through in perfect harmony. That all said, and as nice as this whisky was, it was almost a little too mild-mannered for my palate. But I certainly appreciate how well this whisky was made, and at only $115 it’s a great value in the 21-year spectrum.
There are several things that become evident as you get into the older Glenfarclas whiskies: they become darker, the melody of flavors sing louder and louder, the after-dinner factor becomes more pronounced and the value of Glenfarclas compared to its competitors becomes more clearly apparent. The 25-year is around $150 in the US and is well below the average cost of other 25-year single malts (as a comparison, the Macallan 25 comes in at about $600). It is a beautiful composition with strong wood and sherry notes, and for my wallet, was the most interesting bang for the buck. There’s a big time sweet, cake-like flavor to this whisky that’s unmistakable and perhaps makes it a little less suitable for everyday taste. But as an end cap to a home whisky collection, I think it fits the bill rather nicely and brings something unique to the table.
After nearly an hour of tasting, we finally came to the star of the show – the Glenfarclas 40 year. At just under $500, this whisky is well over a grand less than most other options in this age range. The whisky comes in at 46%, making it a bit higher ABV than its younger brothers and you can definitely taste the extra kick. I was rather impressed with its liveliness considering this 40-year is a good 15 years older than its next of kin and one might have expected it to mellow. The Glenfarclas 40 is dark and beautiful. You can taste how well this whisky has aged. The flavors of orange, fig, roasted nuts and tobacco all blend together wonderfully. It’s an impressively complex whisky that is completely satisfying and it comes at no surprise to me that it was selected as Malt Advocate’s 2010 Single Malt Whisky of the Year. Highly recommended.
I’d like to thank George Grant and Federal Wine & Spirits for not only making this tasting available to the public, but also for making it available at absolutely no charge. It was truly an exceptional experience through and through. I look forward to buying a bottle of the 40 year when the wallet will allow.