The recent discovery of a bottle of Glenfarclas Single Malt Scotch Whisky from 1920 brought up an interesting discussion with a whisky loving friend. "It's almost a hundred years old," he said. My response was, "not really, the bottle is 100 years old but the whisky is probably 10 or 14 years old.
As with wine, alcoholic spirits age in barrel but, unlike wine, once bottled, they are pretty much frozen in time. You can't age a whisky at home (or a whiskey for that matter - in Scotland they don't use the "e" but many other countries do) because the spirit doesn't mature once it's removed from the barrel. That's not to say there is no change however - I've found that several bottles in my collection have tasted a less than their prime when I go back for a nostalgic dram, because over time, corks can dry out and alcohol can evaporate from bottles.
Thus, a 12 year old bottle of Glenlivet or a 15 year old bottle of Glenfarclas (my favorite) will stay at 12 or 15 for as long as you own the bottle. For the folks in Ballindolloch, where Glenfarclas is located, the particular joy of finding the old bottle is the sense of history it provides, a link spanning three generations of distillery managers and still masters. And the story is a great one - the bottle contains a whisky probably distilled in 1906 or 1908 and bottled in 1920. It was presented as a gift to the manager of another distillery when in closed in 1920 and it stayed in his family, wrapped in a tea towel, for all these years until the family contacted William Grant & Sons, the company that owns Glenfarclas, last month.
The bottle was checked for authenticity by John Grant, the grandson of the distillery's founder, who confirmed that the "Glenfarclas-Glenlivet" as the property was known at the time is indeed genuine. In a press release, the distillery said, “A number of features on the bottle meant he had absolutely no doubt about it’s authenticity. In an age when a number of bottles purportedly from that time are turning out to be counterfeit, this one is definitely the real deal.”
While the spirit hasn't aged, the Glenfarclas style may have changed a bit so the spirit in the bottle may be different from what is on the market now. So far, the distillery has not revealed if they'll syphon off a bit from the bottle to "test." They do plan to use the bottle in a display at the distillery and in special events, a living part of the spirit of the Highlands. I think I'll celebrate tonight with a wee dram of another 15 year old Glenfarclas, one I can readily find on the shelf of my whisky merchant.