Whisky and Words Number 60: The Glenlivet 21

Snazzy box…nice veneer.

Switching it up on you today! The last review was The Glenlivet 12, now we’re on to the Glenlivet 21.  As I mentioned in the previous post, with 14 stills, The Glenlivet produces 6 million bottles a year. They are consistent, I’ll give them that. But the 12 did not impress with depth or complexity. Today’s question: can they produce an outstanding whisky, given 9 more years?

The 21 is tagged ‘Archive’ and priced here in Oregon at $209 per bottle. For reference, our un-flashy benchmark Glenfarclas has a 21-year that retails for $145. I’m hoping there is some special mojo in the Glenlivet to make it worth that coin. Whiskyloot has a tidbit—the ‘Archive’ moniker is because there are whiskies up to 40 years in cask vatted with this expression. Now they have my attention. We had a dram from a 34-year cask at the Balvenie and that whisky had a thickness and depth that was transformational. Old whisky is different.

Very nice presentation, and also great color in that spirit.

What else do we know of the 21? Master of Malt states this expression is “A Gold Medal Winner at the 2005, 2006 and 2007 International Wine & Spirit Competition” and the Glenlivet 21 brought home gold for Speyside in 2013 and won silver at the international Wine and Spirit competition in 2017. All right then, holding up the tradition. The Glenlivet website itself says precious little about this spirit, which I find astonishing (don’t they know that words are cheap on the internet? I mean, this blog is a good example…)

Unboxing (photo above), we can appreciate the fancy packaging but more so, the lovely color of this spirit. The Glenlivet product page does tell us the whisky was matured in “a combination of hand-selected American oak and ex-sherry casks.” You can see the sherry cask influence in that color. The whisky looks good, and so does that bottle. I like the classic styling and although the big medallion is a bit kitsch, this at least looks the part of an expensive whisky! The small print declares this batch has been selected “from the DISTILLERY ARCHIVE of RARE & EXCEPTIONAL CASKS” (all caps from original). That somewhat informative message is repeated in French for good measure. It would be interesting to know what qualifies as rare and exceptional. I translate that as ‘old and tasty’ and now we get into what we have from a gustatory point of view.

The Fine print…and that color!

I will say straight up—this dram does have some of that special mojo we experienced in that tasting of an old cask at the Balvenie. I think of this taste like I remember the smell of an old saddle—thick, leathery, layers of organic aromas blended over decades. The nose is the grandfather of the nose on the 12-year, which pales in comparison. On the palate the sweetness of the 12 is still there (sweet is the major chord) but has been tamed with some special mojo of the older casks into more vanilla and toffee, less golden syrup, and a really nice lively spice. There an echo of that old whisky flavor, no more. The Glenlivet 21 is unfailingly smooth (yards ahead of the 12), yet has a pleasing spice—a romp of nutmeg, clove and cinnamon, with more balancing tannins than the 12. The finish is not over long, but beats the 12 by a mile; the 12 was pretty darned milquetoast.

Of course you have to take into account preference, and for me, the best whisky I have tried is a Talisker 25 year. I like more complexity, some medicinal notes, a bit of peat. The Glenlivet 21 would be a very good gift for a Scotch drinker who prefers the mellower Speyside whiskies, and does not miss the savory, herby bouquet some of The Glenlivet’s smaller competitors bring to the table. This is the sticky toffee pudding of older whiskies.

The Glenlivet 21, Speyside Single Malt, 43% ABV

Nose: Apples strawberries, roses, a touch of mineral/earth, yeasty bread dough.
Palate: It’s big. A solid hit of bran muffin (molasses, honey, brown sugar) followed by toffee, vanilla, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and nicely balanced tannins cleaning up.
Finish: Not tremendously long but quite pleasant. The toffee sticks around a while accompanied by the cinnamon, with a little of the tannins lingering.

Bottom Line: For $209, I’d probably prefer two bottles of Lagavulin 16 because I like the peaty stuff. I don’t drink much from this bottle but I impress the hell out of some guests with it. For the purpose of introducing folks to the value of older whiskies, it plays the part perfectly. Glenlivet 21 looks the part and delivers on the palate as well. The only thing I am trying to figure out is how they get this good of a whisky from the same base as the 12. It’s more than the extra 9 years, the magic is in those ‘rare and exceptional casks.’

Ain’t that just gorgeous?

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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