Glenfarclas – a family affair

I’ve prepared and written up specific distillery profiles and feature pieces for many different publications and outlets in the past, and this distillery feature piece will be no different.  But, first, let’s get the disclosures out of the way and put all the cards on the table:  Glenfarclas is my favourite distillery.  There.  I’ve said it.

Of course, this is no secret – anyone who’s heard me speak or present at a tasting event will have heard me declare my love for this special Speyside distillery.  So much so, I’ve apparently caused some confusion – I’ve been asked several times previously if I work for Glenfarclas or if I’m their Australian Brand Ambassador.  The answer is no, not officially, but I’m perfectly happy to be an unofficial ambassador for a distillery that I believe is leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the pack.

So, of the 120-odd distilleries around, why did I fall in love with Glenfarclas?  There are several specific reasons for me, and each one of them reflects something special about the distillery.  Expanding on each of these, you’ll actually get quite an insight into the distillery itself and the people behind it.  So let’s look at them:

First and foremost, Glenfarclas is a family-owned distillery.  That might not seem like much on the surface, but it’s a key feature that drives almost everything about the distillery.  The vast majority of distilleries are owned by huge multi-nationals or private consortiums.  Many distilleries are just one in a portfolio featuring many other whisky distilleries and/or brands, all owned by the controlling company.  As publicly listed companies, some cynics suggest that they’re run by accountants rather than whisky folks.  The two best examples of the current state of play in the Scotch whisky world are Diageo and Pernod Ricard.  Diageo owns 28 malt whisky distilleries, a number of grain distilleries, and owns brands like Johnnie Walker, Bells, J&B Rare, etc.  Pernod Ricard owns 13 malt distilleries and brands like Chivas Regal and Ballantines.  In contrast, Glenfarclas is one of just three single (and separate) distilleries from the 19th century that remains in family hands.

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Benromach Distillery – Speyside’s little jewel

Benromach distillery isn’t one of the most widely known or seen single malts.  But that’s changing.  And fast…

Benromach is one of the very few distilleries to have a happy ending after the misery of the industry-wide distillery closures in the mid-1980’s.  Originally founded in 1898, by 1983 Benromach was part of the DCL (today’s Diageo) and it was one of eight distilleries closed down by DCL that year as a result of the downturn and economic woes of the time.   Of those eight DCL distilleries that closed that year, Benromach is the only one to remain alive and operating today.  The other seven are lost forever, including Dallas Dhu, which is now a museum.  But, of course, a bit of action played out in the meantime…

While still closed and dormant in 1992, DCL – which had since become United Distillers, after being acquired by Guinness, who then merged it with sister subsidiary, Arthur Bell & Sons sold Benromach to Gordon & MacPhail.   Most of the distillery plant had been dismantled in 1983, and Gordon MacPhail effectively purchased an empty stillhouse and some warehouses of aging stock.  A restoration project of considerable scale was required, including the installation of new stills – in fact, the only original elements left remaining were the washbacks!  Like any modern distillery refurbishment these days, it was also a big task to bring the distillery into line with current energy and environmental requirements.  It would be six years until Gordon & MacPhail got the distillery ship-shape again, but it was a happy day in 1998 when the distillery was officially re-opened.

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Gordon & MacPhail, of course, were no strangers to the industry, having opened their first shop in 1895 and subsequently going on to become one of the world’s oldest and most widely recognised independent bottlers.  When they acquired Benromach, their aim was to produce a pre-1960’s Speyside malt…..which is a romantic way of saying they intended to use a more heavily peated malt than is the custom on Speyside these days!  (To give some context to that sentence, most distilleries in Speyside today typically use malt that is peated to around 3ppm.  Benromach’s standard malt these days is peated to 10-12ppm).

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Whisky snobbery

I’ve recently been involved in two separate discussions on whisky snobbery.  I hasten to add that both were happy discussions, rather than acrimonious mud-flinging.  But it’s an ugly topic nonetheless, and one that is rearing its head more frequently than it used to.  And it’s worth exploring further…

Two weeks ago, I was approached by a Fairfax journalist who was writing a light-hearted piece on single malt drinkers versus blend drinkers.  The article was pitched to me as a battle between the two sides, and he’d prepared a couple of humorous comparisons and stereotypical descriptions of each combatant.  I was thus asked to submit a couple of snappy, one-line quotes that might represent the single malt drinkers’ view towards blends.  Happy to be part of the fun, I obliged with two quotes – one humorous, and the other, slightly more serious.

Unfortunately, our journalist friend took my snappy, humorous quip and, in the published article, omitted the all-important “…,he quipped” or “…, joked Andrew” at the end of my quote.  I subsequently learned via a few social media discussion groups that many people had interpreted the article (and my contribution to it) as an example of single malt snobbery, rather than the tongue-in-cheek affair it was intended to be.  Somewhere, the good-humoured ribbing had been lost in the writer’s portrayal.

The point is, a perception definitely exists that if you’re a single malt enthusiast who takes their whisky seriously, then you must somehow be a whisky snob.  And I don’t get it.  “I prefer to drink single malts”.  It’s a harmless, innocuous, humble and honest statement.  And yet, somehow, somewhere, people will hear it and stick a “whisky snob” label on you, just for having the audacity to express your personal preference.

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