A friend recently pitched me the following scenario: he wanted to bring a bottle of Scotch whisky to a Friday night party. The palates would be diverse and the level of sophistication varied, but he was looking for something high quality and crowd-pleasing. He wanted to spend about $100.
What would you have recommended?
My mind immediately went to Speyside, specifically to sherried malts. I personally enjoy this flavor profile. More importantly, I find it appeals to the palate of the casual Scotch drinker, someone for whom a glass of whisky is an occasional indulgence rather than an everyday treat. Speaking in broad generic terms, the fruity and nutty richness corresponds to what people think of when they think of “good whisky.”
A few years back, Macallan might have been near the top of the list. However, the core range has disappointed recently, with prices marching steadily upwards. So, with the big “M” out of contention, where to go next?
Glenfarclas immediately sprung to mind. A quick search of my local liquor emporium revealed that the 17-year-old expression (initially launched for travel retail, now a U.S exclusive) was $100 on the dot. I passed along the recommendation and awaited the crowd’s review with a slightly queasy nervousness. Fortunately for me, my friend reported back on the following Monday that the bottle had been thoroughly enjoyed, down to the very last drop.
Heaving a sigh of relief, I felt like this was a cosmic reminder to revisit Glenfarclas, which I so often pass up in favor of a shiny new original bottling or a quirky independently-bottled single cask. My last run-in with this distillery was in the form of an overpriced and underperforming “Special Release” store pick. Clearly, a more attentive reconsideration was in order.
It’s been a while since the older Glenfarclas expressions were reviewed here at MALT, in the form of a vertical tasting assembled by Jason in 2015. That piece, like many of the older pieces on the site, is worth a re-read. Often, the team’s knowledge (and an interesting tidbit or two) is archived in past reviews.
I’ll not reproduce the history of this distillery here, save to mention that Glenfarclas remains independent and family owned. This is important insofar as many of the recent missteps we’ve seen in Scotch can be attributed to corporate owners jacking up prices or messing with the range in order to wring additional profits out of their portfolios. As yet, Glenfarclas seems untainted by the type of greedy opportunism guiding so much of the industry.
These drams were shared with me by Carl, who assembled his own baby vertical during a trip to Speyside (including a visit to Glenfarclas). Fortunately for those of you back in Britannia, there’s a 3-pack of 15cl miniatures of these three whiskies available, in case you’d like to recreate this tasting in the comfort of your own home.
This first is the 15 year old expression. This is bottled at 46%. It is currently unavailable Stateside but prices in the UK are £52.90 from Master of Malt for a bottle, or £54.25 from the Whisky Exchange, or £52.90 from Amazon.
Glenfarclas 15 year old – Review
Color: Medium golden
On the nose: Candied nuts, lime juice, zucchini bread, roasted marshmallows, green grapes, whole cloves, and a gently smoky-woody note that tips into a green astringency.
In the mouth: Comparatively young tasting, with the most overt wood influence of the trio. There’s a hint of turmeric before the middle of the palate is dominated again by the smoky caramelized sugar flavor of campfire marshmallows. This transitions to the finish, which lingers moderately with some spicy wood accents, but is the least pronounced of the three.
Energetic, heady, rich. Wakes up the palate and demands to be heard. The marshmallow note is uncanny and overpowers the rest of the dram at points, but overall this regains its footing, albeit with a somewhat abbreviated finish. All in, a step up from the 12 year old expression and solid value for money.
Next comes the 21 year old. This expression is matured in 100% oloroso sherry casks. It is bottled at 43% and retails for $140 near me. Master of Malt charges £94.99, whereas the Whisky Exchange will set you back £97.95 and Amazon currently have it available for £83.99.
Glenfarclas 21 year old – Review
Color: Similar medium golden to the 15 year old, with perhaps a shade more orange
On the nose: Starts with a strikingly malty aroma. More lime juice, as well as stewed stone fruit, chalk, orange marmalade, and yellow sandwich mustard. The wood here is better integrated and more balanced than the 15 year old.
In the mouth: Feels the most complete of the three. Balance of sharply spicy red pepper and softly rich and creamy flavors, with subtle fruitiness held in check by a surprisingly pert stoniness. This lingers with a comforting autumnal nuance of ripe red apples and some savory notes of French Dip jus, balanced again by a persistent maltiness.
My favorite of the three. It’s got character aplenty, with complexity imparted by the earthy notes. I love that there’s a malt character infusing this throughout both the nose and the palate, as a nod back to the raw material asserting itself against the weight of the casks. So much better than the Macallan 18 year old, and nearly half the price.
Finally the 25 year old, also bottled at 43%. At $170, this is a full C-note cheaper than Macallan’s 18 year old expression. Master of Malt have this on special currently £114.90, expect to pay £125 at the Whisky Exchange and £119 from Amazon.
Glenfarclas 25 year old – Review
Color: A shade darker than the others; dirty gold or golden brown
On the nose: Dried apricots to start. The wood here is very gentle, almost a whisper. There are some richly sticky-sweet and meaty notes of maple pork breakfast sausage. Underripe peach and fudge brownies also make appearances. More softly spoken and less assertive than the other two.
In the mouth: The palate is similarly gently understated, feeling a bit thin at points. Sumptuous fruit to start, again with very ripe red apples. This turns quite juicy for a split second at midpalate before evolving a dirty, musty, slightly stagnant or tired woodiness. This has an aftertaste of salted nuts, more rich fudge flavors, a stale ashiness, and a slightly soapy texture.
This may have spent a bit too long in some tired casks. On the nose and in the mouth, there’s a funky sous bois element that creeps in. Not only has it lost some of the pleasant baby fat of the 15 year old, but the muscular elements of the 21 year old seem to have atrophied. The extra $30 doesn’t get you more; rather, it’s a receding step backwards in comparison.
All of these are so much more layered, textured, and variegated than anything coming out of Macallan these days. Each one is an overachiever for the age and price, with the 21 year old being the best value for money among the three. They’re sherried, but not sherry bombs given the relatively low bottling strength. The subtlety works in their favor, allowing some novel nuances to come to the fore.
If Glenfarclas isn’t at the top of your personal Speyside league table, I’d urge you to do as I did: reconnect with an open mind, alone or with friends, and savor some of these highly enjoyable drams.
Images from the whisky exchange and there are commission links within this review. However, we judge each whisky on its own merits and would encourage you to support your local independent shop whenever possible.