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Sunday July 22, 2012

Sherry and family

Our columnist finds out more about one of the few truly independent whisky distillers left in Scotland – Glenfarclas.

TWO words define Glenfarclas – family and sherry. The Glenfarclas Distillery is one of the last few truly independent family-owned distilleries in Scotland, and is also one of the only distilleries left in the Speyside region that have steadfastly held on to the old whisky-making tradition of maturing their whiskies in sherry casks.

Located in Ballindalloch, Scotland, Glenfarclas (which means “valley of the green grass”) was established in 1836, and came under the ownership of the Grant family in 1865 when farmer John Grant (no relation to the other famous Grants in the Scotch whisky industry such as William Grant of Glenfiddich) bought the distillery for £511.19.

“John Grant wasn’t even a distiller; he was more of a farmer who was looking to build a second farm. While looking for the land to do so, he came across the distillery and decided to take up the tenancy,” said Glenfarclas brand ambassador Ian McWilliam during an interview in Petaling Jaya recently.

Different ages: Glenfarclas boasts an exhaustive range of aged single malt whiskies ranging from 8-Year-Olds to 40-Year-Olds.

Since then, there have been a succession of John or George Grants in charge – the current CEO, John Grant, is the fifth generation of the family to own and manage the distillery (his son, George, is the current director of sales of the company).

“There has been a number of takeover bids over the years, but the family has always turned them down. It’s been passed down from so many generations that it’s unthinkable that they would sell it,” McWilliam said.

Glenfarclas is a very traditional Speyside-styled whisky, distilled in some of the largest stills in the Speyside region.

“The shape and size of the stills are very important to the style of Glenfarclas. We’ve replicated the exact size and shape of the stills that were used back in the very beginning of the distillery,” said McWilliam, adding that the distillery also owns its own private water source in the form of a small stream.

Ian McWilliam says Glenfarclas is ‘all about the tradition, the history, and the product’.

The main characteristic of a Glenfarclas whisky, however, comes from the influence of the sherry casks the whisky is matured in. Historically, Speyside whiskies used to be matured in sherry casks, which give them that recognisable soft, sweet and fruity flavour. However, sherry casks can be very expensive, and the difference in costs between sherry and American bourbon casks is huge, which explains why many distilleries are opting for the latter these days.

“It costs 12 to 15 times more to mature a whisky in a sherry cask compared to a bourbon cask. More and more distillers now are using refilled American bourbon casks, and only finishing the whisky in sherry casks,” said McWilliam.

“But Glenfarclas has never deviated from the tradition, because it’s just so important for the style of the whiskies – we’ve just continued looking for and investing heavily in the best quality sherry casks to mature our whiskies in!”

While he admitted that not 100% of their stock is matured in sherry casks (there are some new-make whiskies that are matured in bourbon casks), it is only because they do not want the sherry to completely dominate the fruitiness of Glenfarclas.

“Sherry is nice, but it can be very, very dominant. Some people may enjoy it, but most would find it too intense,” McWilliam explained. “So, when we bottle a 12- or 15-year-old for example, we would blend first-filled sherry-casked whiskies with some refilled sherry-casked ones, and also some that used refilled bourbon casks.”

The result is a well-balanced, sweet and fruity whisky that novice and experienced drinkers alike will find very approachable.

“The sherry is the dominant factor in the style of Glenfarclas, but it is not over-dominant,” said McWilliam.

Glenfarclas boasts an exhaustive range of aged single malt whiskies ranging from eight-year-olds to 40-year-olds. In fact, they have arguably one of the largest ranges of aged single malts in Scotland, including an 8-Year-Old, 10-Year-Old, 12-Year-Old, 15-Year-Old, 17-Year-Old, 21-Year-Old, 25-Year-Old, 30-Year-Old, and a 40-Year-Old, which was named “Scotch Whisky Single Malt of the Year” in the 17th Annual Malt Advocate Whisky Awards last year. There is also the Glenfarclas 105, a cask-strength whisky that was created back in 1968, making Glenfarclas the first distillery to ever bottle a cask-strength single malt expression.

According to McWilliam, the 8-Year-Old is mainly for some European markets, while the 10-Year-Old does quite well in Britain. The company’s flagship, however, is the 12-Year-Old, which is the biggest seller around the world.

The main characteristic of a Glenfarclas whisky comes from the influence of the sherry casks the whisky is matured in.

“From a 12-Year-Old, you get a great introduction to the range. It’s light, fruity and easy drinking, and slightly spicy too. The 15-Year-Old, however, is the next step up – it has a more intense flavour, and a nice, rich, long-lasting finish,” said McWilliam.

It’s when you hit the 21-Year-Old and above that the true delicateness of Glenfarclas comes through. The 21-Year-Old, in particular, is a gentle, elegant whisky that doesn’t hit you as hard as the 15YO or the 12YO, and is almost refreshing for a whisky, which is “dangerous”, laughed McWilliam, adding that the 25-Year-Old is a more robust, woodier whisky, with a slightly more dominant sherry flavour.

My personal favourite was the Glenfarclas 30-Year-Old, which is a perfect late-night whisky. It is intense, full-bodied, creamy and rich, with a fantastic nutty, bubblegum-like aroma that I could just nose all day.

In an age when the success of a whisky business focuses so much on the amount of whisky it produces, it is heartening to see that there are some whisky houses that still stubbornly hold on to their traditions.

“It (the whisky business) has become such a numbers game. Many famous distilleries are now owned by multinational corporations with vast marketing budgets, and can create an image or even an entirely new lifestyle to attract consumers,” said McWilliam.

“For Glenfarclas, however, we’re still pretty firm with what we’ve got, and people appreciate that. What we have is a different way of marketing whisky – we’re all about the tradition, the history, and the product. Besides, the more their competitors move away from their roots and diversify, the more unique Glenfarclas becomes!”

Glenfarclas is distributed locally by Single Malt Sdn Bhd and is available for sale at its Single And Available retail stores at Bangsar Shopping Complex and Pavilion KL in Kuala Lumpur.

One of Michael Cheang’s most prized bottles in his whisky collection is a splendid Glenfarclas 30-Year-Old.

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