Glenfarclas 50-Year-Old Malt Whisky: There’s No Substitute For Time
by Ken Gargett
Occasionally, I get exposed as a hypocrite. Try as I might, it happens.
Both on this site and elsewhere, I have often raised the concept of standard release spirits, and certain prestige examples, being of a quality and price that one would not bother with the so-called unicorn whiskies. Sure, they are of interest, but you do not need to pay thousands for brilliant drinking.
You don’t, but…
Conventional wisdom? Older is better, right? Wines, music (well, not too old but certainly at least as far back as the 60s to the 80s), certain cheeses, dry-aged beef, Balsamic vinegar and spirits are all better the older they are. Or so says conventional wisdom. No doubt we could argue music for days (and you still will not convince me), but today, we are looking at spirits and in particular malt whisky.
The world has been conditioned to believe that the older the whisky the better. Is not always true and the problem is that this creates demand, huge price rises, and a false reality. Be assured that there are many great whiskies that are standard releases from your favorite distilleries still widely available.
Whisky needs time. A great blender might be able to create magic by incorporating some younger components, but in general, nothing replaces time. It doesn’t have to be decades, but this is not overnight stuff. There is no way around it. The price rises are reflective of this as every barrel of aged malt used, either as a discrete bottling or incorporated into a larger blend, means one less barrel available and the need to time.
It is one reason we are seeing many distilleries drift more to NAS whiskies (non-age statement whiskies). It allows them to offer excellent whiskies without facing the eternal shame of offering something to the market with a humiliatingly low age on the label, such as ‘8-Years-Old’ or even ’12-Years-Old’. Oh, the inhumanity.
We are an impatient world and waiting is not something we like doing. Also, humans go through phases. Go back several decades and few people ranked the best Burgundies anywhere near top Bordeaux. Now, how things have changed. Again, a few decades ago, malt whisky was largely in the doldrums. Bourbon had a reputation as a fairly average form of American whisky. And so it goes. At the moment, Burgundy, malt whisky and Bourbon are all in huge demand. Aficionados are prepared to pay massive amounts for the rarest and the best.
So why shouldn’t the distilleries take the opportunity to cash in? Who knows, perhaps in a decade the interest will have waned and the distilleries will have warehouses full of aging, unwanted spirits. I doubt it, but stranger things have happened.
At the moment though, unicorn whiskies, the amazing aged releases that are usually restricted to a few thousand bottles, sometimes considerably fewer, are incredibly popular. Despite the prices of some of these bottles – some cost the equivalent of a car, or even a house – appears to be a phenomenon that is not going away any time soon.
Prices have escalated at such a rate that those who approached these whiskies purely from an investment perspective have been well rewarded.
But like all such things, they are a gamble. How many of us would have been prepared to hand over $27,500 a few years ago for a single bottle of whisky when the Yamazaki 55-Year-Old malt was released (the old argument that you can always drink it if you don’t make a fortune is a bit thin when you are talking those prices)? Had we known that within two months, the same bottle would fetch over $800,000 at auction then we may have been less reluctant.
A few distilleries specialize in old releases. The Macallan is well known for this. Their ‘The Reach’ was released after 81 years in a sherry cask. Only 288 bottles were made and we are now talking around $300,000 a bottle. They also released a 78-Year-Old malt at around half that price, and a 72-Year-Old for similar money. Gordon & MacPhail also have some incredible aged malts – their ‘Generations Glenlivet 80-Year-Old’ for $110,000 was offered in just 250 decanters, which were designed by architect Sir David Adjaye. Their ‘Generations Mortlach 75-Year-Old’, only 100 decanters released, was $43,000.
Dalmore has a 64-Year-Old, which was originally a blend from 1868, 1878, 1926 and 1939, before it was aged a further 64 years. Only three bottles.
Another Japanese example is the Karuizawa Vintage Sherry Cask Aged 50-Year-Old Malt. 473 bottles at $170,000.
Not all are crazy money. The Last Drop Company has built a business accessing tiny quantities of incredible old spirits (and fortifieds) and releasing small numbers. Their 50-Year-Old Blended Scotch Whisky was ‘just’ $3,900. It was a blend of more than 82 whiskies. Their ‘1980 Buffalo Trace Straight Bourbon Whiskey’ is a touch steeper at $21,500. We could continue to list these for a long time.
Another distillery famed for both its standard releases and some stunning older bottlings is Glenfarclas. Some years ago, we looked at an extraordinary release from this Speyside distillery, their Glenfarclas Family Cask Trunk. Inside the trunk were fifty 200 ml bottles of whisky, vintage dated, and representing every year from 1954 to 2003. Only 60 trunks were released, for a mere £100,000 each.
There must be very few distilleries anywhere on the planet, producing any type of spirit, able to offer such a range of old examples. This is not the first such release. In 2007, Glenfarclas put together a collection with 43 whiskies including both 1952 and 1953, but those vintages are now exhausted. The price at the time was £6,500, which seems a stunning bargain today. Some time ago, they also released a Sixty-Year-Old from a cask filled in 1953, just 360 bottles. Search the net and you’ll find a few for sale, around the €30,000 mark.
The first records of Glenfarclas date back to the late 18th century, although their first license was not granted until 1836. In 1865, the distillery was purchased by John Grant and it is still in family hands. He was succeeded by his son, George, and it seems that every subsequent male family Member is named John or George (surely they could have tossed in a Paul or a Ringo). Since 1976, they have operated with six stills, three wash stills and three spirit stills, four of which are in operation at any one time with two held in reserve. The distillery has around 68,000 barrels quietly maturing, with those stocks going back decades. In 2022, Glenfarclas won ‘Distiller of the Year’ at the Icons of Whisky dinner.
Aside from one-offs like the Family Cask Trunk, Glenfarclas’s standard range is unique.
They offer 10-Year-Old, 12, 15, 17, 21, 25, 30 and 40-Year-Old malts. They are superb whiskies and, while personal preference will always rule, the older examples do really have something special about them. 15 and 25-Year-Old are also personal favorites. There was an 8-Year-Old, but I am not certain if it is still in production, and there are suggestions that they are suspending the 21-Year-Old for the moment (it is one of their more popular whiskies so that would seem strange). Glenfarclas were also the first distillery to release a cask strength malt, very popular today, back in 1968.
And so we come to their latest release and the exposure of my appalling hypocrisy. For all my talk of standard releases matching some of these unicorn whiskies, when the opportunity came to try a fifty-year-old malt, there was no hesitation. Yes, I was the bloke crawling over the broken glass.
Glenfarclas 50-Year-Old Malt Whisky
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of chairman, John Grant, first joining the industry, Glenfarclas have released a very special, limited edition 50-Year-Old Highland single malt. The current ‘John’, is the fifth generation to guide this independent distiller. Bottled at 50% ABV, it was selected for bottling by the Glenfarclas Distillery Manager, Callum Fraser, and Managing Director, Douglas Belford. The man who originally laid it down was then Distillery Manager, Douglas MacDonald.
Callum Fraser had this to say, “creating products like Glenfarclas 50-Year-Old is the reason I come to work. Producing something so special, which has such an incredible story behind it, is tribute to the passion that runs through everything we do at Glenfarclas. This new whisky is a testament to the craftsmen who made the spirit and laid it down in the late 1960s and the foresight of the Grant family so many years ago.
To me, this dram is exquisite. It has an incredible depth of character and showcases every element of the whisky making process – from the earthy smell of the dunnage warehouse through to the light, natural smokiness of the Speyside peat that was used back then and the unique taste of the water we use in our production process. A whisky that evolves over time, both on the nose and on the palate, is truly exciting as it’s ever changing and developing.”
John joined the whisky industry in 1972, moving to Glenfarclas in 1974 and working his way through the various sectors of the business. He played an important role in developing their international sales markets and became Managing Director in 1979 and chairman in 2002. His contribution to the whisky industry was recognized in 1997 when he became a ‘Keeper of the Quaich’. He was then inducted into Whisky Magazine’s Hall of Fame in 2021.
As has become de rigueur for unicorn whiskies, the presentation is exquisite. An engraved Glencairn bottle, which is nestled within a presentation box. Only 836 bottles are available and we are looking at a price around the USD$9,500 per bottle. Who knows what it will be months from now?
Tasting notes – Simply stunning. All one could hope for in a whisky of this age and pedigree. A lovely bronze copper color. The immediate impression is of a freshly baked apple pie, straight from the oven. Teak, woodsmoke and pastry dough, just made. Cinnamon and orange rind, a hint of fudge and caramel. A mix of white and darker chocolate. Rich, complex, intense, incredibly long, impeccably balanced and with such persistence. An amazing spirit. Bucketlist stuff, if resources allow.
For more information, please visit https://glenfarclas.com/whisky/the-aged-range/
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