Glenfarclas 21 vs Aberlour 18

July 6th, 2012

Whisky Deathmatch returns!  We’ve already witnessed a perhaps slightly underwhelming clash between unsherried Speysides, now two well matured sherried Speysides step into the ring, which is to say whiskies that have spent a fair amount of their maturing time in barrels which once held sherry, and with a tendency, therefore, towards an amber colour, and a fruity, rich, sherried sweetness upon the tongue.

Glenfarclas is a well-respected independent distillery, which takes great pride in having been run by one family for six generations.  Aberlour is apparently one of the most popular single malts in France, and were one of the first distilleries to popularise cask strength drinking with their much admired A’bunadh.  Both are leading Speyside distilleries, both proponents of that sherried, rich, fruity, perhaps Macallan-esque style, but where an 18 year old Macallan might easily set you back £100, these two are highly reasonable at between £50 and £60.  But which is the better?  Or, at any rate, which do my incompetent senses prefer…?

Glenfarclas 21 – 43% ABV, £59.95

Aberlour 18 – 43% ABV, £51.95

LOOK – The tube of the Glenfarclas is, I think you’d have to say, pretty repugnant.  It has a kind of 80s Father Christmas vibe, with its cream, green and red colour scheme and dated looking fonts.  Reddish bronze metal on the endcaps, no.  The bottle’s nice, though.  I’d rather have clear glass so I can see the colour inside but the Glenfarclas bottle is a nice size and shape, possibly the most practical pourer out of the dozen before us.  Marketing bumph informs us that many have apparently wondered at the origins of the unique taste of Glenfarclas, then runs through the usual suspects with some poetic language – the special water, the special stills, the special warehouses, the best of the very best casks, the commitment to proper old traditional family values of distilling.  You know the drill.  When it comes out of that brown bottle the whisky is actually surprisingly light for something so heavily sherried, a sort of tawny gold, I guess.  The Aberlour tube is brief and to the point with an appetising chocolatey/bronze vibe and a feel that neatly fuses traditional and contemporary.  The bottle is lovely, really nice shape that again somehow manages to say classic and contemporary at once, and with clear glass displaying the lovely amber colour of the whisky.  Nice wax seal and stained wooden stopper as well, the whole thing feeling deeply classy and luxurious.  The only minor criticism is that big thick neck does tend to splurge a little when pouring.  Still, if this was a presentation contest, the Aberlour would win in straight sets.  But it’s not…

SMELL – Both very pleasant to smell, I must say, and reasonably similar.  Both sweet, toffee-ish, both showing that sherry.  The Aberlour maybe a little softer, more sugary, with a sharper pineapple-y edge in there somewhere?  The Glenfarclas – creamy, buttery, raisiny, maybe a tickle of smoke?  Smelling them close together, I feel as if the Aberlour gives a little bit more to the nose, somehow.  Smells sort of, stronger, despite them both being bottled at 43%.

TASTE – Both have that classic aged sherried character, sweet and super smooth.  The Glenfarclas – immensely drinkable, rich and full-bodied, developing a gingery, almost a peppery spiciness then some smoke on the end and takes a long time getting there.  Big and long lasting, very classic feeling.  One thinks of panelled rooms, throaty laughter, pipe smoke and soft power.  The Aberlour – quite gentle, in a way, certainly compared to their A’bunadh, which can be huge and explosive.  This is creamy, easy in the mouth, soft fruits – peach, prune, or something, a tad of dryness on the end, a little bit of woodiness there.  Likewise the panelled room, the soft power, but perhaps an eager newer arrival at the gentleman’s club, still forming his networks, perhaps nervous at one of the side tables, not daring quite to seize that big leather wing-chair beside the well-banked fire which it’s said that Winston Churchill once sat in…  I’d probably say if the Aberlour gives more to the nose the Glenfarclas gives more to the mouth.

CONCLUSION – Glenfarclas 21 – Smooth, sweet, classic, with an air of effortless experience and good fellowship.  Recommended PoV – A drink, a drink, a drink – Nicomo Cosca.  Aberlour 18 – Smooth, sweet, classic, with a soft and fruity ease of manner.  Recommended PoV – Why not another?  Nicomo Cosca.

RESULT – It’s a tough one, as these are pretty similar, and both supply what you’d want a well-aged sherried Speyside to provide – sweetness, smoothness, ease and luxury.  The Aberlour undoubtedly has the advantage in looks, perhaps even in smells, but the Glenfarclas is just that little bit more complicated, that little bit more classic.

The Winner – Glenfarclas 21.

Coming next – An odd couple match-up fifteen years in the making: Dalmore 15 vs Balvenie Single Barrel.

Posted in whisky deathmatch by Joe Abercrombie on July 6th, 2012.

23 comments so far

  • Michael says:

    Back to serious business then.

    I have tried the Aberlour, and I think Speyside is my favourite end of the whisky trail, the Macallan being a touch of class. My recollection of taste is an impression of calm and subtle superiority – doesn’t have to shout to be heard amongst the crowd. Not so sure about the Cosca POV, I think this drink would stand at your side in a fight, not sit around in a chair watching everyone else from the sidelines.

    The Glenfarclas ‘script’ could have been lifted from the board outside a B&B in Margate.

  • Kevin R. L-B says:

    “…immensely drinkable, rich and full-bodied, developing a gingery, almost a peppery spiciness then some smoke on the end and takes a long time getting there.”

    Damn, that sounds tasty. I’d be easily persuaded into a glass of that, despite heading out the door for a swim and a full day at work. I’ll procure a bottle and have a couple glasses when I’m not about to take a half-hour drive to the office, acting as a civilized and responsible human being would.

    Cosca would likely be disappointed in me.

  • Terry says:

    Hey this is really off topic but I was wondering how old everyone thinks you should be before you read Joe abercrombie’s books. I was ten when I first started reading them (15 now) and I heard some one say 17 but that can’t be right so I wanted to know some other opinions.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Difficult question to give a single answer on, people mature at very different rates so it’s going to vary. Obviously parents can be concerned about what their kids read, and my books get about as adult as adult can be, so I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone under 16, really, to be on the safe side. At 16 in the UK we consider people old enough to have sex, marry or die for their country, so it seems a little bizarre to prevent them reading about such things. Seems to me there’s a strong argument to be made that they should be well informed about them before perhaps being called upon to do them, but it’s not entirely my call (except in so far as my own kids go, I guess). Ironically the saturation with violence probably wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem as the language and occasional sex, but, hey, society to me seems to have some strange biases in relation to its media. But I’m sure there are plenty of readers more than old enough to understand things well before 16, and I don’t necessarily know how you go about preventing them from reading ‘adult’ books in any case, I’m sure many do, and I’m sure many benefit from it, I know I did.

    10 still seems young to me, though. Out of interest, Terry, what did your 10 year old self make of it? Were there things you didn’t completely understand or do you think it all made sense to you?

  • I’ve always been a big fan of the Glenfarclas 15 – not actually tried the 21 mind you, but I might have to get a bottle at some point.

    For some reason I never get that excited about many of the Speysides. I think because I tend to get into the distilleries as much as the drams, the Speyside ones always seem a bit underwhelming compared to the Islay distilleries in terms of heritage, culture and so on.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Mark CN,
    There’s also a hell of a lot of Speyside distilleries and quite a few of them are pretty anonymous. Islay stuff seems to be very well marketed and branded, somehow. That sense of how they present their range and ethos is very important. More experimental, maybe, with more interesting ranges. You like a Bruichladdich, there are literally dozens of varieties to try, you like Longmorn 16, they don’t really do anything else. There are people like BenRiach doing interesting stuff but you somehow have the feeling Speyside is a bit more conservative. I’m finding there’s also quite a bit of similarity between one unsherried speyside and another, for example. The AnCnoc and the Longmorn were very similar, likewise these two it’s difficult to get all that excited about the comparison, whereas there was a world of difference between the Ardbeg and the Bruichladdich, or the Talisker and the Highland Park. Before I started rigorously comparing these dozen I’d have said I preferred the lighter styles in the main, but actually I’m finding the smokier ones a lot more interesting at the moment. With one exception – the Balvenie single barrel is sublime.

  • Thaddeus says:

    Always good to read about whisky deathmatch 🙂

    The Aberlour bottleneck looks too wide. I don’t want my whisky bottle to have a goitre.

    Terry, I remember my grandpa (over a decade ago now) being a bit surprised and worried that I was reading Sharpe books (I think I was about 11 at the time). I wonder if anyone ever worries about kids being too young to read Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars? It’s very easy to read and nice and lovely, and then some way into the reign of Tiberius there are some rather horrid revelations.

  • Yeah, I mean I get the number of distilleries and have tried loads of them, but I don’t know. There’s just something about Speyside that doesn’t excite me. There’s only one Islay distillery that’s really marketed itself and that’s Ardbeg – Laphroaig has gained its reputation the long way round (though carrying the Royal Warrant of the Prince of Wales probably does no harm). The others don’t really do it, and Bruichladdich are distinctly anti-marketing.

    I tend to argue that you can’t really tell whisky by geography. If anything, stills have more of an influence on the end result. So my prejudice is nothing to do with taste. Perhaps it’s just that so many of the Speyside distilleries are owned by giants and might as well be shipping out CocaCola in those barrels. Maybe with a world of great international whiskies coming through – such as Japan – there’s just so much more out interesting stuff there then yet another Speyside congolomorate-owned distillery.

  • Which is to say, even though there are distilleries such as BenRiach, who aren’t owned by conglomerates, I don’t let facts get in the way of a good sweeping generalisation.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Well, Caol Ila and Lagavulin are owned by Diageo, and they’re pretty highly rated Islay distilleries, Lagavulin surely among the very best. But then, being honest, Diageo own a lot of great distilleries, some of them quite off beat and interesting and very much maintaining their own identities – Talisker? Cragganmore? Mortlach? If they were poor at running distilleries they presumably wouldn’t be so stupendously successful at it. And what constitutes a big corporate owner anyway? Are Glenmorangie PLC one? They own Ardbeg. Do the Grant family qualify, who’ve owned Balvenie and Glenfiddich among others for over a century and are the 3rd biggest producer of malt after Diageo and Pernod-Ricard? The Edrington Group, with Macallan, Glenrothes and Highland Park? Then there are a fair few fully independent Speysides – Ben Riach, Glenfarclas, Tomatin, etc. Dunno, man, I just think it’s a picture that defies easy dichotomies, to be honest.

    When I say marketing I mean the whole gamut of presentation and self-definition, really, and Bruichladdich are undeniably very good at that. It seems that many of the Islay distilleries have a very decided image and a big range, they may not do heavy-duty advertising but they obviously spend a lot of money and thought on how they present themselves. A lot of the speysides are pretty anonymous, on the other hand, and mostly go straight into the blends. I mean, I agree with you some of them taste a bit anonymous as well…

  • Terry says:

    I pretty much made sense if everything but I’ve always been kind of a nerd. I do remember reading reading Befroe They are Hanged and being shocked by the sex scene. I really wasn’t expecting that. I had already read the first two A Song of Fire and Ice books and thought that’s about how adult High fantasy was going to get. I also have alot of friends my age some who even hate fantasy who like your books. Mabe immature minds respond well to your books, not because a lack of anything of course but because of the violence, swearing and sex, thats really what teenage boys respond to isn’t it?

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Boys considerably past their teenage years as well, I understand….

  • The safest thing is to drink Bruichladdich and nothing else.

    Apart from Japanese whisky, of course.

  • Are you doing any UK cons in 2013? I think the best thing to do is for us to each bring a few bottles and drink ourselves silly whilst trying to out-do each other with our whisky knowledge.

    I might even crack open my Japanese single grain; I don’t say that to everyone.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    I’m at Fantasycon in Brighton in September, then I’ll definitely be at the Brighton World Fantasy in 2013. Probably some others, as yet unconfirmed. Sadly, looks like the weekender is no more. I shall deeply miss the Tor UK house party.

  • I probably won’t be at the one in September – aside from the Weekender, I was having a bit of a year off from the con circuit.

    Yes, very sad – nothing really comes close to that party. 2013 it is, then.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    A shame. But that does give you a whole year to hone your pro-Bruichladdich arguments to a razor edge…

  • Joe Abercrombie says:


    No way! Man, that sucks. Maybe their whisky will stay just as good, but there’ll always be the tang of betrayal on the finish. To misquote Abraham Lincoln, ‘I would rather buy my whisky from Diageo, where one’s despotism may be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.’

  • It’s interesting. They’re making more profit than before, so I think Rémy just came in and made the shareholders an irresistible offer. Apparently, according to twitter, Rémy don’t want to change a thing about the distillery. They just want a piece of it. Shame that the original CEO, who saved it from being mothballed and gave life to that little community, is going to be surplus to requirements.

    And at least it’s not Diageo…!

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    I’m sure they’ll do their best to keep it as it was. What’s the point in buying a thing just to make a mess of it, after all? Still, it’s amazing how some corporations can’t help themselves. My advice? Sell out now, it avoids disappointment down the line.

  • Slecyrearve says:

    Dogs, cats, hamsters, fish, parrots – who do you prefer? Or perhaps what that exotic animals – snakes, crocodiles, lizards, monkeys?

  • […] BenRiach 12 Year Old Pin It BenRiach is located in the heart of Speyside, a very industrious part of the whisky world. Not to say I dislike Speyside as a whisky region; distilleries such as Glenfarclas are fantastic, and it’s pretty silly to label whiskies by region, since there’s actually a lot of variation even within a small area, but I wanted to actually try a few more from the region – this was partly inspired by an online conversation with Mr Abercrombie. […]

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