It sometimes seem strange that despite spirit resting undisturbed for decades in cool warehouses, that once in the glass yet more patience is often required. But, then again, what’s a few minutes compared to years of oak maturation? The resting of whisky is a commonly practiced, but little discussed concept (especially when compared to wine where there’s a wealth of information) - some malts, especially older ones simply require a little time to open up and unwind before revealing all of their secrets.
The benefits of allowing a whisky to breath are reasonable clear – much more so than the exact effects of dilution – which have recently caused controversy, though mainly due to sensational reporting rather than the underlying science. Alcohol and water form a perfect solution at ABV’s lower than 17% – in those instances, the alcohol molecules and water molecules are relatively evenly spread. Above 17% ABV, the alcohol molecules and other congeners (esters, tannins, acetone, aldehydes etc) bind together in clusters forming a tight structure/matrix – the tighter the structure the less expressive the spirit will be – the aromas and flavours have become locked away. Essentially when we’re talking about a whisky ‘opening up’ we’re referring to oxygenation (or dilution) loosening this matrix of molecules, allowing for a greater release of these aromas and flavours.
During maturation a wide variety of compounds are extracted from the wood into the spirit. These extracts add further binding to the clusters of alcohol and congengers – so, whilst the maturation process is adding flavour, complexity and structure, it is also increasingly tightening the clusters of molecules responsible for aroma and flavour. It’s therefore little wonder that older whisky, with decades of maturation under its belt will often open up much slower than younger malts.
This all said, one should not consider that oxygenation will always have a positive effect on the whisky drinking experience. Whilst it will allow for greater expressiveness, at the same time, it can also expose underlying flaws or even aromas and flavours that are not quite so balanced. As always, care and attention but with an attitude of experimentation is often the way to go.
Today’s review is of a real piece of whisky history in the form of a 21 year old Glenfarclas from independent bottler Cadenhead’s. But, it’s not just any 21 year old Glenfarclas – this one was distilled in September 1962 a month before the Cuban Missile Crisis – my father would have been 13 years old at the time. A little over two decades later, this was bottled in July of 1984 at 46% ABV and in one of the now highly sought after black label dumpty bottles.
This is certainly a whisky that demands both some patience. Rest and be thankful.
Nose: Expressive, full of life and still very distillate-led. Spit-roasted pineapple and foam bananas provide a tropical start, with additional sweetness from honey and golden syrup. There’s some big brass polish running right though this – sharp and metallic – a sure sign of age. This is joined by the distinct aroma of damp wood and dunnage floors. The underlying spirit is still quite mineral and with a touch of peat smoke – cold steel, granite and coal dust. Resting for 30 minutes provides additional nuance – orange liqueur, baked good and freshly rolled pastry – these not only merge perfectly with the existing aromas, they add a sense of greater balance. The addition of water is less transformative in this instance, adding a hint of barley water, malts and background nuttiness. All quite lovely.
Taste: Silky smooth, almost oily in texture. Papaya, lychee, peach and a scattering of red berries – an interesting combination. Polish again – sharp and tart – but more woody rather than metallic now and akin to furniture wax. Older wood flavours pervade the mouth – damp, oaky and dunnage. These are joined by earthy, mineral smoke – a fire in a diamond mine?! In the mid to back palate, spicing comes roaring out the gates – pepper – quite sharp and biting and fairly bitter – which plays off of the sweeter fruit arrival. Resting once again reveals orange, but also more of the underlying minerality of the spirit – wet slate and shale beaches. Water introduces woodland mushrooms, both malts and cereals, and allows for balancing of the bitter spicing – but take care, this drowns easily – just a few drops.
Finish: Quite long, quite wood (old park benches) with polish, bitter pepper and a fair amount of tannins – grippy but not moisture sucking.
This Cadenhead’s 1962 Glenfarclas is excellent – and indeed with the proper care and attention (resting and sparing dilution), it’s close to a triumph. There’s incredible life and dynamism in this old style spirit – and for the most part, it’s the spirit, not the wood that’s firmly in charge of proceedings (a far cry from many modern bottlings). This possesses flavour and complexity in spades – only an overabundance of both bitterness and tannins in the back palate and finish hold this back from an even higher score.