The key selling point of Glenfarclas 105 is in the name: it’s cask strength at 105 old British proof, or 60% ABV, every time. That means the casks for each batch have to be selected not only on taste, but also on ABV. It’s a curious conundrum for the blender. Imagine their dismay at creating the tastiest batch of 105 ever only to find it weighed in at 59.6% or 60.8%. A total disaster.
Strength is also a selling point for other whiskies. There’s been a recent spate of indie bottlings at dizzyingly high ABVs, achievable only because the casks have been filled higher than the typical filling strength of 63.5% ABV. Some, like the Bunnahabhain sherry butts bottled by Signatory and van Wees, might have sold well anyway, but the ABVs hitting as high as 68.9% no doubt helped. Other indie bottlings from high strength cask fillers, like bottlings of Glenallachie, Glenrothes, and Tomintoul, had less of a distillery premium but still sold briskly at north of 66% ABV. If 60% is Glenfarclas turned up to 10, these go to 11. More is more and more is better.
If more is better, most is best. Take this philosophy to the extreme and it’s cask strength or nothing. And yet, even cask strength absolutists might unwittingly stock their shelves with diluted drinks. There’s a whole raft of highly regarded independent bottlers who sometimes add water before bottling, including Whisky Sponge, Thompson Brothers, That Boutique-y Whisky Company, North Star Spirits, and Single Malts of Scotland. These bottlers are generally proud to state that their bottlings are non-chill filtered and have no added colouring. Combine those big green ticks for bottling presentation with a non-round ABV and it’s easy to assume that the whisky has been bottled at cask strength. What kind of wild spirit would dilute a bottling to 56.4%, 52.4%, or 47.1%? Not every diluted indie bottling is at 46% or 50% and not everyone realises that.
But diluting isn’t just turning the volume up or down. It can be more like adjusting the mix: turning down the bass and turning up the treble, or vice versa. Some whiskies at cask strength have an imbalanced mix of flavours. Adding water might tame the tannins, enhance the fruitiness, and finely tune the smoke of a dram. And if we accept that different whiskies are at their best with different levels of dilution, then bottlers who always bottle at cask strength, or always bottle at one ABV like 46%, are surely bottling some whiskies at less than their best. Think Goldilocks – 40% is too cold, cask strength is too hot – diluters try to get it just right.
The counterargument may come that cask strength is always best. At full strength, the taster can dilute to their desires, one drop at a time, until the perfect version of the dram is achieved. It would be nice if it worked like that. But dilution in the glass over a matter of seconds or minutes is very different from dilution in a vat over a period of hours, days, or weeks (or years or decades in cask – hello Cognac). Flavours will not integrate or emerge in the same way and there’s a chance you spoil your dram completely. Saponification is not an extreme metal band, it’s the very real risk of making your quickly diluted whisky turn into soap.
Admittedly, I have often myself been highly suspicious of bottlings with non-round ABVs and no mention of cask strength on the label. I envision the bottler with unkempt hair and a maniacal grin, wearing a stained lab coat with their sleeves pulled up. They cackle with glee as they scoosh tap water into the bottling vat, their profit margin increasing 0.1% with each dilution. Now that’s my kind of Bond villain.
In truth, bottlers who dilute are not quite so evil. Sure, some might be diluting based on a profit margin spreadsheet, or simply to produce a certain number of bottles from the liquid they have. More often, producers aim to bottle high quality whiskies at prices where people will happily buy them. Judge each case by its merits, but it’s not in the interests of premium independent bottlers to risk their reputations by putting out low quality diluted drams. I don’t know anyone who’s deeply annoyed by whisky being diluted before it’s filled into casks, even if filling at still strength is a nice curiosity. Perhaps we need to apply a similar approach to cask strength whiskies and whiskies diluted before bottling.
Glenfarclas 105 22 year old was released in 2018 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Glenfarclas 105. Previous special releases of the 105 were aged 20 and 40 years old respectively; this 22 year old was apparently the oldest release they could put together at the time given the required cask strength of 60% ABV. A total of 3,600 bottles were produced and the UK retail price was £150. You might still find the odd bottle knocking around at retailers - but you'll doubtless be paying over the RRP now.
Nose: Initially rather closed. With time and a fair bit of concentration, the nose reveals a heavy character with burnt brown toast and engine oil sitting atop wafts of liquorice, grape skin, plums, and almonds. Water makes a huge difference, coaxing out almond and cashew butter along with milk chocolate - it's a Snickers bar remix.
Taste: Neat, less welcoming and perhaps even heavier than the restrained nose. An oily mouthfeel brings rubber - some of it burnt - along with tyres, spirit sulphur and a few raisins. Water makes a huge difference here as well, adding some silkiness to the mouthfeel and turning the taste maltier with some coal smoke and flint stone along with the burnt brown toast and plums from the neat nose.
Finish: Medium length on rubber, raisins, and a hint of coal smoke. Water slightly lengthens the finish, keeping the rubber and adding some malt and muesli.
This is a bottling of casks collated for their ABV and it feels like it shows. Neat, this is a restrained brute. Adding a few drops of water opens the whisky up, notably improving it. The whisky also takes further dilution to around the 46% mark very well. The score below balances the neat and diluted versions and it could move a couple of points up or down depending on whether water has been added. Glenfarclas 105 22 yo’s key selling point is its high cask strength and yet it may well have been better in the bottle if it had had some water added beforehand. I’ve been a cask strength maniac – to a fault. I’ve always believed in the idea of diluting to taste. Nowadays, I just need to trust the chef to do it for me.