My friend Jason said something interesting about bottles much like this: "Who the hell am I to be drinking twenty year old scotch?" I knew exactly what he meant.
On one hand, it does feel like we're doing something wrong by drinking something aged this long and removing it from history. It's not on the level of raiding the tomb of a pharaoh and smashing his earthenware pots just for fun. It's certainly not as bad as accidentally setting fire to a Rembrandt. But there is a dull kind of shame that creeps up on me when I think that someone spent more than twenty years refining a product for it merely to go in one end of mine and come out another.
There's also the sense that 20+ year old scotch is for the rich and powerful. Hedge fund managers, captains of industry, world-traveled heads of state—these are the people who most imagine are drinking scotch this old. It seems like it should be enjoyed in a parlor filled with oak and red leather. Not savored over the glow of a laptop monitor by a guy who doesn't even have a Roth IRA.
No matter who you are, Glenfarclas is holding the door open for you. It's a distillery lauded (and fairly so) for its world-famous stocks of aged whiskies, which they sell at an affordable price simply because they want to. Additionally, they're not accountable to any corporate overlords since they're family-owned. What that means in more concrete terms is that while Macallan 21 is more than $500, Glenfarclas 21 is about $130. If you like fine spirits, you can probably afford this as an occasional treat.
I'd say it's worth your investment. Glenfarclas is no budget-grade, second-tier, also-ran kind of distillery. In terms of creating sherried scotches—normally a category I'm not gonzo about—they really do know what they're doing.
Where Glenfarclas 21 shines is in delivering complexity. That's a big word to throw around, but I think this is a textbook bottle that at least for me helps clarify the word. Simply put, I knew this was a complex whisky when I realized that I couldn't drink it passively. It was a long day, and I was in the mood for something different than the usual, so I poured this for myself and sat down to watch TV.
Even as I focused on a really good episode of Better Call Saul, I was aware that I was not just sipping the Glenfarclas, but tasting it. And tasting it. And tasting it. It was basically impossible to ignore all of the individual pieces as they leapt out at me. Along the way, I kept thinking, "Oh! What is that that I'm tasting now?"
So when we talk about complexity, let me reiterate that it's not the spirits equivalent of a crossword puzzle, where you answer "apples" but the correct answer was actually "lychee fruit," you uncultured dummy. And it's not complex in the sense of attempting to drink a piece of surrealist art, where the tasting notes for a marvelously complex scotch might read, "Bronzed clock gears and solitude." It doesn't always have to be an enigma.
Where the Glenfarclas 21 is concerned, it's really more of a litany of distinct aromas and flavors that beg to be separated out. There's almond and fruit sweetness in the nose that sets expecations. Then the taste begins with a very distinctive arrival of berry tartness and barley malt, but then has a clear development into dried fruits and dark chocolate. Then, finishing things out, the bitterness of the chocolate morphs into cherry and espresso. All of it works.
Readers of the site may note that I really enjoy clarity of flavor. "Complexity" can be desirable on paper but it's often a tricky balancing act in practice, as each new component has to work with what's around it. As a result, some whiskies seem confused as a result of pieces that don't work well together. I don't want to taste seaweed, pears, and pine needles all at the same time.
Thankfully, the Glenfarclas 21 is complex in all the best of ways. It feels like a ride from one flavor to another, and for lack of a better word, it's exciting. And discovering it for yourself is thankfully not as expensive as you'd think!