I slept 12 hours the night before I went to visit Glenfarclas. It wasn’t that I thought I’d need to rest up for some strenuous whisky drinking—I was sick as a dog. But the extended sleep did me good, and the drive from Pitlochry to Ballindalloch wove among some of the most beautiful country Scotland has to offer (and believe me, it has a lot). The sun was shining gloriously and the air was sweet and already warm.
Glenfarclas Distillery is tucked away in Speyside, not particularly close to its brethren, and that seems appropriate. It’s a tidy, well-run, modest affair, as one might expect from a family-owned company with a reputation for turning out consistently excellent single malt year after year. Glenfarclas isn’t out to draw in busloads of tourists nor do they seem particularly worried about the “visitor experience.” That is, there were no punchy video introductions, the tasting room is literally from another time, and the shop offered prices similar to what you’d find in a normal retailer (at least on the lower end; I can’t vouch for the 3-, 4- and 5-figure expressions as I have no basis for comparison).
All that being said, my experience as a visitor was excellent. I was the only one on the tour and thus enjoyed more of a conversation with my guide than a presentation. We spent several minutes just chatting with the technician who was taking apart the malt mill, and for the first time I understood just how complicated—and necessarily well-maintained—these machines are.
This malt mill is many decades old (it’s not uncommon to find mills topping a century or more) and made to last, despite the fact that it processes 8 tonnes of malt an hour.
Note the static strap in the mill (that wee twisted thing among the rollers), a crucial bit that ensures the whole floury thing doesn’t go up in flames.
Every mill also has a malt de-stoner, which not only sifts out the aforementioned stones and rocks but also includes a magnet to scoop up any little bits of metal (from farm machinery, etc.) that would otherwise go through to mashing. Malt mills are cool!
“Glenfarclas” means valley of the green grass in Gaelic. It was licensed in 1836 by John Hay, who also farmed the site, and, upon his death, bought by John Grant, who needed a stopping place for his cattle when driving them to market in Elgin. His descendants John (fifth generation) and George (sixth) continue to run the place.
Ben Rinnes looms like a benevolent guardian over the distillery and also provides its water source from a nearby spring. Recent winters have been quite dry, forcing a cutback on production—cue sad trombone.
Speaking of water, Glenfarclas has a mini-water treatment plant on site to minimize waste in the distilling process. I wish I’d asked more questions about this because I don’t fully understand what it does, although I gather that it saves the distillery money and has a positive environmental impact. If you know more about this and want to share, give me a shout!
Like every other distillery in Scotland, Glenfarclas used to do its own maltings but switched to purchasing custom malt in the 1970s. You might not taste it, but the malt is very slightly peated, about 3 to 5 parts per million.
The six stills are direct-fired, an increasingly rare thing in Scotland. If anyone wants to talk about why direct-fired stills are or are not superior to those heated indirectly (with interior coils), I’m all ears!
Glenfarclas uses a majority of sherry casks to age its spirit, with John and George Grant traveling to Seville annually to select them. The distillery’s 34 on-site warehouses contain about 65,000 casks.
Note this nifty rail system for rolling casks into place. Casks are very heavy, so rolling has to be done with mathematical precision. When getting ready to roll and store, the bung of each cask is positioned about 20 degrees off from the bung of the previous casks, to account for the extra rolling distance, so that when the casks are stored, the bungs all sit on top rather than on the bottom or the side. These are the fun little things one learns when flying solo on a whisky tour!
The tasting room at Glenfarclas immediately put me in mind of old, stately aristocratic homes. It’s a replica suite from the RMS Empress of Australia, right down to the original wall paneling. When the ship was broken up in the 1950s, the Grant in charge at the time bought several pieces of it and put them together as the tasting room in the 1970s. Charles Maclean notes in Whiskypedia that Glenfarclas was one of the first distilleries to build a visitors center and tasting room. Because it hasn’t changed since the 70s, it was a bit, well, stodgy, but also kind of charming in its way—like visiting the Royal Yacht Britannia in Edinburgh, a total anachronism.
Happily, the tasting room doesn’t have an impact on the flavor of the whisky. I was given a taste of the Glenfarclas 30 year old. I’d only tried up to the 25 year old, so this was quite a treat, with a nose of blackcurrants, plums, raspberries, honey and brown sugar. The palate also gave forth blackcurrants and some slight floral notes, as well as leather, lingering oak and tobacco on the finish. My favorite Glenfarclas is the 15 year old, although I’ve found the 21 year old to be different entirely, while the 25 year old is sort of like the 15 plus. This 30 year old took all those fruity and delicate flavors I love in the 15 and added considerable weight and depth, making a truly stunning dram.