Glenfarclas Distillery History
Glenfarclas Distillery lies in the Glenlivet/Speyside region of Scotland at the foot of Benrinnes. Glenfarclas (which means ‘glen of the green grassland’) started life as a typical farm distillery. Whisky is a good way of processing barley, adding a premium if on-sold, helps keep the locals employed for most of the year, and takes the edge off the bitter cold in winter.
The oldest record of Glenfarclas as a distillery is a painting from 1791, which shows a still house and malt barns in addition to the farm buildings. You can see an image of the painting here.
Legal Since 1836
Robert Hay registered Glenfarclas as a licensed distillery in 1836. In 1865 Hay sold the distillery and farmlands to a local cattleman, John Grant, who was keen on the land, but not the distillery. Grant leased the distillery to his cousin, John Smith. Smith ran the Glenfarclas Distillery until 1870 when he went off to establish another nearby – Cragganmore.
John Grant and his son George ran Glenfarclas until John’s death in 1889. Sadly, George died only a year later in 1890, and his oldest sons John and George took over. The George/John pattern of inheritance will continue for the next 120+ years.
An Antiquated Distillery
Alfred Barnard visited around this time. He was warmly welcomed by Mr Grant (which one?!). Barnard describes Glenfarclas Distillery as having a “quaint and pleasant appearance notwithstanding the feeling of solitude and isolation” and “everything about the premises bears the mark of antiquity”.(2)
Power and general purpose water comes from various mountain streams (it still is), but the water for mashing comes from “‘Sauchie’ … the most noted and valued spring in the immediate district”.(2)
Barnard noted that the Barley Barn was to the left of the offices and could hold 1200-1500 quarters (15-19 tonnes) of barley. He also wrote that the malt barn measured 200 ft length x 15 ft width and had a Steep capable of wetting 50 quarters (635 kg) of barley at a time. The mash tun was capable of mashing 100-120 bushels in a cycle (3.6-4.3 tonnes – less than a third of what it can do today). There were six washbacks.
The still room contained one wash and one spirit/low-wines still, and again Barnard notes the age of the distillery – the stills being “fitted inside with antiquated revolving chains to prevent the wash from burning”.
Annual output was around 50,000 gallons (189,270 litres). Barnard must have visited Glenfarclas at least twice, as one entry he notes seven warehouses and capacity for 2000 casks, but in a second more detailed entry on the distillery, he notes a recent addition and a total of eight warehouses with capacity for 4000 casks.(2)
Glenfarclas don’t count themselves as a Speyside distillery. They tend to describe themselves as Highlands, but even that term is somewhat vague when you consider how big the Highlands are. Glenfarclas is just Glenfarclas. (1) Speyside is a relatively recent term, used to market Scotch whisky. At the time of Barnard’s visit around 1886, he notes the region as Glenlivet.
Barnard also notes that “Messrs Pattison, Elder & Co. draw a fair considerable portion of North Country malt whisky” from Glenfarclas stock.(2)
Partnership of Peril
In 1895, the Grant Family would go into partnership (50%) with Pattison, Elder and Co, forming the Glenfarclas-Glenlivet Distillery Company. Glenfarclas used the funds provided by the new arrangement to rebuild the distillery.
However, by 1898, the Pattison Brothers were spectacularly bankrupt, which put considerable strains on Glenfarclas for the next 15 years. This brush with bankruptcy has seen Glenfarclas rely on working capital, rather than borrowed money ever since. “We only make what we can afford, and we never borrow money to make it” states George S Grant (observe the middle initial to keep track of the Grants) in David Broom’s World Atlas of Whisky.
This philosophy has stood them in good stead. When for instance, the whisky market started to deteriorate in the 1960s, and Glenfarclas lost a major blending contract, George J Grant (1923-2002) decided to build up their assets and put more whisky in storage for own bottlings.
Subsequently, Glenfarclas amassed a considerable volume of aged casks, which resulted in the release of the Family Casks Editions by John LS Grant in 2007. Glenfarclas released vintages from 1952 to 1994 to a gleeful market – 43 single cask single malts (4). Presently the range stretches back as far as 1954.
Glenfarclas whisky is synonymous with sherry maturation. Glenfarclas Distillery almost exclusively use casks sourced from Jose-Miguel Martin – mostly first fill ex-sherry (Oloroso).
In his review (below) of the Glenfarclas 12-year-old, Ralfy praises Glenfarclas on its continued use of direct fired stills, as it produces a ‘good, robust, beefy, substantial, rich flavoured single malt whisky’. Springbank is another distillery that continues to use the direct fire method (on their wash still).
In 1968 Glenfarclas was one of the first distilleries in Scotland to release a commercial Cask Strength bottling. This cask strength bottling is now known as the Glenfarclas 105 (see review below).
Where Is Glenfarclas Distillery
Glenfarclas Distillery is located in the Northern Spey-district. Originally the region of Glenlivet, it is around 50 miles from Inverness and 157+ miles / 250+ km from Edinburgh 57.426997,-3.3163594.
The 362 and 366 buses stop at the driveway entrance to Glenfarclas – it’s an 850m walk from the bus stop to the distillery. The 366 Aberlour – Elgin via Knockando runs on Mondays and Wednesdays only. And the 362 Aberlour – Keith via Tomintoul runs only on Thursdays. Both buses run on a very limited time table!!
Glenfarclas Distillery Tours and Bookings
To reserve your spot on a tour contact VisitorCentre@glenfarclas.com
Tour dates and times vary throughout the year, so check http://glenfarclas.com/tours/ before you go.
Connoisseur’s Tour & Tasting: £40 – includes a guided tour and four tastings of their favourite Glenfarclas expressions, including one from the Family Collection. This tour starts at 2 pm on Fridays in July, August and September. This tour is only for those aged over 18 years.
Five Decades Tour & Tasting: £100 – includes an exclusive in-depth tour of the distillery followed by a tasting of five whiskies from The Family Cask Collection, with one from each decade from the 1960s to the 2000s. This tour runs two or three times per month, subject to availability. Bookings are essential. This tour is only for those aged over 18 years.
Useful Visitor Information
Photographs are allowed, and the red doors make for a great contrast against the dark grey stone. Don’t forget your camera.
Glenfarclas Distillery has mini take away bottles of Glenfarclas 10yo that are perfect for those of you who are the designated driver. Just let them know at the end of the tour if you’ll be needing your dram ‘to go’.
The distillery is in an old building and is laid-out in such a way that will make it inaccessible to some disabled visitors. Tours of the production site (including stills) involve climbing and descending two flights of stairs. Wheelchair access is available to the warehouse, Visitor Centre and the tasting room. The Visitor Centre has a disabled toilet.
There are a large number of accommodation options in the Speyside district. Grantown-on-Spey is one of the biggest nearby towns and Aberlour is just down the road (where you’ll find Aberlour Distillery).
We were only driving through (from Inverness) and stayed in the tiny village of Tarland, 90 minutes from Glenfarclas and a 30-minute drive from Royal Lochnagar, where there is a good basic budget option at the Aberdeen Arms Hotel.
Our visit was part of a Highlands Road Trip, but I just had to detour and visit Glenfarclas! For more information on traveling and staying in the Spey and Moray district, check out The Traveling Savage – he has some excellent posts on adventuring around Speyside.
What Else Is Nearby
Speyside is fairly small and full of excellent distilleries. Some of those closest to Glenfarclas Distillery are:
Glenfarclas Distillery Images
Glenfarclas has six stills (three wash and three spirit/low-wines) all of which are direct fired, using gas. Glenfarclas did a trial with steam coil heating in 1981 but found that it negatively affected the taste of their spirit, and went back to direct firing after three weeks. You can see how the gas burners appear in this 1980 Canmore photo.
As Ralfy notes above (review 606 – Glenfarclas 12 yo), direct firing requires more attention and care by the Stillman, so the stills don’t over heat and burn. Burnt stills result in charred wash/low-wines, the stills must then be shut down and scraped clean. Steam coils cause less mess and less damage to the still, meaning less cleaning and a longer life. However, the method of heating the stills does impact the character of the spirit – direct firing tends to provide a fuller, richer, meatier spirit.
Direct firing does mean, however, that the stills degrade faster, as charring and cleaning strip the copper. Therefore, Glenfarclas is forced to change over its stills more frequently (every 20-30 years) than other distilleries might.
All Glenfarclas warehouses are dunnage storage (dirt floors, only 2-3 stacks/racks of casks) which Glenfarclas believe improves the quality of their whisky. It also lets them achieve a much smaller loss (0.05% per annum angel’s share) than palletised warehouses (average 2%, often up to 5% evaporation).
You can check out some old photos of Glenfarclas on the Canmore site – such as the old mash tun (with the lid added around 1970) and the still house circa 1980. Note the different configuration/set up compared to today (2017) below.