Glenfarclas 21 vs Balvenie Single Barrel

April 1st, 2013

Our second semi-final pits two exemplars of contrasting Speyside styles against each other, and it’s going to be no easy contest.  Bourbon barrel matured sweet yet sour connoisseur’s option Balvenie Single Barrel annihilated a pleasantly marmaladey but slightly limp-wristed Dalmore 15, then laid waste to much-loved plucky wildcard Bruichladdich Infinity, which had only just dusted itself off after a pummelling from the unholy powers of our savoury finalist Ardbeg Corryvreckan.  Well-aged sherry matured classic Glenfarclas 21 outmanoeuvred a closely matched opponent in a gentleman’s club standoff against Aberlour 18, then outclassed Lowland contender Auchentoshan Three Wood to make the final four.


Glenfarclas 21: 43% abv, £59.95

Balvenie Single Barrel: 47.8% abv, £50.75

The Glenfarclas is one of the most expensive whiskies in the competition, but full sherry-barrel matured, and also the oldest, it starts to look like a bit of a bargain. A Macallan of this age would weigh in at three or four times the price.  So age and experience definitely on its side.  The Balvenie, on the other hand, is a connoisseur-style single barrel, which is to say it’s been drawn straight from a unique and never to be repeated individual cask, selected by a Malt Master for it’s particular character.  It has the considerable advantage in price and strength, with a meaty 47.8% bottling.

LOOK – Glenfarclas? Got to say I’m not into that tube AT ALL. Red and green should never be seen. A real christmas in the 80s vibe. And a red metal end? I shudder. The bottle’s pleasant enough, although I’m not a fan of coloured glass, myself. What have they got to hide? Classy looking, and a good pourer, although that font does look a bit dated. Like something John Thaw might be coshed over the head with in an early episode of The Sweeney.  The bumph hits familiar touchstones of family, tradition, oldness, stills, oldness, tumbling water, oldness, and family. Little bit meh, all in all, could do better. Balvenie? They too bumph it up with tradition, dedication, tradition, craftsmanship, tradition and maltings, but with a side order of unique conoisseur-y single-barrelness.  I think they actually hit exactly the feel that Glenfarclas slightly miss here. CLASSIC. All black and white and unpretentiously functional with a little bit of a swirl, and a well-shaped bottle with nothing to distract you from the spectacular golden colour of the spirit within. A palpable hit for Balvenie.

But it’s not really about what they look like, is it?  Let’s see what happens when you put them inside your head

SMELL – With the Glenfarclas – Sweetness and age, good-fellowship and experience, silky skills and far reaching networks.  Friends everywhere.  The wood-panelling, paintings of racehorses and patinated leather of the gentlemen’s club.  ‘You’re one of us, now, and that’s a good thing to be. One day the club may come to you and ask a favour. Until then, you need anything, and I mean anything, you can always come to the club…’ With the Balvenie – Gold! A crystalline sugar sweetness with a citrus sting in the tail.  Upon a lost island swept by honey storms there is a labyrinth made of lemons, and in the centre of that labyrinth is a golden lion with a face made of barley sugar but the tail of a scorpion. What golden treasure does it guard? What priceless treasure? A good deal more edge than the Glenfarclas, all fresh and zesty like sprinklers on a spring morning (a proper spring, not this late winter shit we’ve been having).

TASTE – The Glenfarclas really does make you feel like a million bucks, and it’s pretty much exactly what you’d hope for from a sherried Speysider.  A rich and robust mouthfeel.  Then it turns smooth, fruity, luxurious, with a long, long finish and, even though it’s bottled at a reasonably average 43% it doesn’t lack authority at all.  It ain’t just sweet cough medicine, it’s got character, a little wood and a smoky sternness beneath all that glad-handed good-fellowship.  The Balvenie – ah, it just seems to explode upon the tongue in a sherbet cornucopia of sweet honey and sour lemon, tailing off into gingery spice and leaving you with a long waft of sugary perfume.  Zing. It’s lemonade and lime with a hot spice edge, its fresh bitter lemon with a frisson of tough wood and heady scent, it’s beauty AND the beast…

CONCLUSION – Again, I really like both of these – two generally sweet whiskies but with plenty going on below the surface.  The Glenfarclas has that plummy sherry sweetness but with the silky smoothness and a puff of smoke on the end.  The Balvenie has a crystalline honey barley sugar vibe but with that tart citrus edge and an explosion of spice.  A lot of it is going to be a matter of taste, but for me the Balvenie is a shade more interesting, a shade more dangerous, and with the extra strength and nigh a tenner cheaper, it’s really not such a difficult call to make.

RESULT – Glenfarclas is without doubt a well-heeled sherried Speysider with bags of class, clout and influence, and a proper bargain at this price.  But the Balvenie is too strong, too sharp, too deadly.  This time it’s youth over experience, and the added pleasure of being able to throw out that green tube…

The Winner – Balvenie Single Barrel.

Coming next – There can only be one.  Can the gilded charms of Balvenie overcome the diabolical arts of Corryvreckan?  It is the Whisky Deathmatch Grand Final…

Posted in whisky deathmatch by Joe Abercrombie on April 1st, 2013.

7 comments so far

  • Joe, if you ever give up writing novels, you can definitely write booze ads or reviews. Very entertaining, and makes me want to delve back into a whiskey barrel even though I’ve sworn off whiskey. Does Mrs. Abercrombie ever assist in the judging? Cheers to you sir!

  • Greg Lynch says:

    I would have guessed the Balvenie was going to win simply by how little is left in the bottle.

  • Shaymanbob says:

    Correct Mr Abercrombie.

  • Ryan says:

    Time to call my bookie! My money’s on the Balvenie to take the win.

  • Tony Robson says:

    From your initial review of the Balenvie I was certain it’d go all the way! Bought my sister in law that exact bottle for her birthday.

  • Thile says:

    Is Corryvreckan available stateside?

  • Jed Willoughby says:

    Say one thing about Jed Willoughby say that he loves his Balvenie Single Barrel.
    Tis a fine selection he made ! !

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