K&L Awards 2012: Best Whisk(e)y of the Year

Out of my own personal interest, I asked our spirits specialists in all three stores which whisk(e)y stood out most to them from everything we had opened this year.  I wanted to get some feedback on how the staff's interest in whisky was coming along. Which whiskies did they like? Which whiskies didn't they like? David and I already knew we loved the 1979 Glenfarclas, but we were actually a bit surprised when everyone else seemed to choose that whisky as well. It's not easy to find concensus when speaking in absolutes, especially when you're dealing with a bunch of opinionated drunks. It was exactly this full-fledged agreement that inspired us to give a "best whiskey" award this year.

"If we all agree, then why shouldn't we tell people that?" I asked. At first, I didn't want to give an award because I knew it would fuel discussion about how our choice was wrong or different from what other people thought. I could envision the message boards lighting up.

"Hey David, I tasted your whisky and I don't agree with you that it's the best of the year! You're an idiot who's just trying to sell whisky."

Yikes! I didn't really want to deal with that. But then I thought more about it.

If someone doesn't agree with our choice then what do you want me to do about it? They don't agree, so what? We're not lying to you. It's our opinion. We can have ours and you can have yours. I think it's the best whisky I've had this year. So does the DOG. So do many of our staff members. I had to remind myself that this was the K&L Awards, not the United Internet of Whisky Blog Readers Awards. There are people who read this blog who want to know what we think because we taste whisky every single day of the year.

You want to know which whisky we most enjoyed this year? Which whisky made the largest impression on our staff? Which whisky WE like the most (even if no one else does). Here it is:

1979 Glenfarclas K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $299.99 - Glenfarclas is well-renowned for its heavily sherried character, a mainstay of the Highland distilleries in its region. Located just down the way from Aberlour and other famous Speyside institutions, the dried raisins and fruit cake flavors of sweet sherry casks are ubiquitous in the region and in Glenfarclas whisky expressions. For that reason, the single cask of 1979 vintage malt we tasted from a fourth-fill sherry cask really caught us off guard. Because the barrel has already been used three times to mature other whiskies, the sherry residue left on the wood is quite faint, therefore having less of an impact on the eventual color and flavor of the spirit aging inside of it. After more than 30 years, the result is absolutely incredible and very unlike most other Glenfarclas whiskies (exactly why we wanted it!). Instead of rich sherry, the whisky opens with oily resinous notes, sweet barley, and supple texture that can only come from three decades of wooded slumber. The finish turns somewhat smoky, filling in the gaps with more oil and a wave of vanilla.  The whisky is simply delicious, loaded with character, and unlike anything from Glenfarclas or any other distillery offering currently on the market. David and I are always on the lookout for the delicious oddball and we definitely found one deep in the plentiful warehouses of Glenfarclas. Easily one of the top five whiskies from our trip.

Mike Barber, K&L San Francisco - One of the best glenfarclas I have ever tasted- this is a fantastic bottle for any lover of real highland whiskey. There is a lot of oak on the nose and flavor (hey, it's been in wood for 33 years), but I'm amazed at how much all the floral and fruit notes have held up and even developed in this very bright and delicious older single malt. Rich and malty with an incredibly long finish- this is beautiful whiskey.

Melissa Smith, K&L Customer Service - Mmmm, this is yummy. There is this sweet barley thing going on with just the faintest imposition of sherried oak. A suppleness that you allow to linger on your tongue while the vanilla and spirits macerated dried fruit make appearances, leading to a long waxy classic Glenfarclas finish.

Greg St. Clair, K&L Italian Buyer - If you’ve heard me talk about having my breath taken away by a Single Malt Scotch, I was probably talking about a cask strength undiluted version whose fierce alcoholic nature literally took my breath away; this Malt however took my conceptual breath away, I wasn’t quite prepared for the depth, viscousness and layers of dynamic yet subtle flavors this incredible spirit gives. So often we taste wines or spirits that are so flavorful they are out of balance, impressive as hell they can stuff all of that flavor into one bottle but not really a pleasure to drink. This Glenfarclas is so stylish, so at ease, so complete I don’t think I’ve ever had anything quite like it. The nose is attractive, inviting and shows great depth that beckons you to explore further, on the palate the Malt is surprisingly rich, the nose is so balanced and delicate it doesn’t prepare you for the density. This isn’t a smoke filled, charred molasses barrel Malt this is true sophistication, balance, depth and unrivaled character. This is quite the spirit; you’ll not regret this experience.

Jeff Garneau, K&L Bordeaux Specialist - An exceptional single cask bottling, this '79 Glenfarclas is a model of subtlety and finesse. Aged in a fourth fill sherry butt, the whiskey trades typical Glenfarclas overt sweetness for layered complexity. A honeyed nose offers notes of dried fruits, butterscotch, and vanilla. On the palate intriguing gingerbread spice and a wonderful black licorice note that reminded me of the old fashioned penny candy we used to buy when I was a kid. The creamy, rich texture makes this a whiskey to savor.

Gary Westby, K&L Champagne Buyer - Greatness is a word that gets thrown around far too often in the single malt (and wine for the matter!) world. In order for a whisky to be truly great, it needs to have balance, individuality and trickiest of all maturity. The 1979 Single Barrel Glenfarclas is one of the most finely balanced drinks to pass my lips this year, with its faint hint of sherry and gentle (although full cask) power. This cask is a real individual and full of clean highland air and round maltiness despite its long time in Sherry wood. It is also mature- calm and round, but still full of vigor. Most Scotch of this age tastes too old and reduced for me, but this is full of verve. This is the malt of the year for me and a true great. If it is within your means, don't miss it!

Kyle Kurani, K&L Redwood City - A Golden Malt- This Scotch has proven to be one of the best single malts that I have had the pleasure to taste all year. It is over all one of the most complete and complex Whiskies that I have had the pleasure to introduce to my lips. This 1979 malt is at a natural cast strength of 41.7%, the Angel’s share in Scotland takes longer to have a real effect, but this whisky has had 30 plus years to mellow. The best thing that happened to this whisky all those long years ago when it was first being distilled was that it was put into a 4th fill sherry cask, giving it the ability to evolve for decades without being taken over by the wood. The harmony of wood and whisky is what makes this so darn special to me. Out of the bottle it is a rich golden colour, beautifully vibrant and inviting. The nose continues this golden theme with pure notes of Asian pear and crisp apple, enveloped with notes of vanilla and cream. The purity and freshness of the nose jumps out at you, and continues on the palate; velvety and soft, elegantly supple. The balance struck between the flavors the barrel imparts, vanilla, spice, butterscotch, and the flavors of the whiskey, creamy apples, yellow pears, a touch of honey, are in beautiful lock-step. This whisky is the epitome of a word that I hate using in the Liquor business, but I will break down on this occasion because it is an apt adjective, this whisky is truly smooth. Rounded, soft, textured and just plain delicious, this whiskey fits firmly into the category of smooth. Please enjoy this with good company, it is a whisky that any level of drinker can appreciate, and should be enjoyed by many!

Matthew Callahan, K&L Redwood City Assistant Manager - This whiskey really impressed me. From the nose to the first moments on the palate it's all about finesse. While not completely obscured, the sherry notes are definitely not overpowering - there's round, rich, supple texture and plenty of dried fruit. What struck me the most, however, was the marriage of ethereal flavors (smoke?, vanilla, dried fruit, slight medicinal note?) and incredible mouth-feel. This is a really special whiskey.

Sarah Covey, K&L Redwood City - Caramel, vanilla, and baking spice with a pretty, lingering sweetness- this 4th fill sherry cask scotch is one to sit with and ponder as it reveals itself. Gorgeous.

David Othenin-Girard, K&L Spirits Buyer - Tasting this whisky again brings me right back to the foot of Ben Rinnes, where we found this astounding cask among several of it's siblings of the same vintage. Many of the other '79s showed promise, as we were looking for something special the showcased the GlenFarclas spirit without the characteristic sherry character. This is truly one of the most elegant malts I've ever come across. After 32 years and at the surprisingly low 41.7%, this whisky has SO much life it's incredible. It starts malty, with an ever so slight earthiness. It truly reminds me of standing in the gorgeous GlenFarclas warehouses where this spent the last 32 years. With a bit of air, GlenFarclas' true character comes out. Typical of the famous distillery, herbs and mint, tons of fresh fruit. White peach skins, mango ripe and uncut, subtle tropical flavors that just make you want to guzzle this stuff. On the palate, you get cake frosting and more of that fruit. There is absolutely NO HEAT at all. The first sip finishes slowly, but lingers on the mid-palate, this malty fruitiness that you want to last forever. It obliges nicely. It's not over the top whisky, it's not in your face or 75% ABV. It is absolutely a pleasure to drink, potentially dangerously so. We may never see another quite like this one, so get on it!

David Driscoll, (in a photo circa 2007) K&L Spirits Buyer - Simply amazing whisky. This cask dipped down to 41% naturally and is now softer than silk. This is serious aged whisky that fulfills all your expectation for mellow and mature malt. $700 for Macallan 25? Or $300 for 32 year old, single barrel, natural cask strength Glenfarclas? Easy choice in my book. There's no one who wouldn't like this. Utterly drinkable and dangerously delicious. The most accessible mature whisky I've tasted all year.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll