The drinks trade is a wonderful place if you like learning. If you’re one of these crammer types – get it in the brain long enough to pass the exam then let it all go – then the finer points of drinks appreciation will most likely pass you by. It definitely helps to have a head for facts and plenty of tasting will give you a solid palate memory; but of course you aren’t just tasting something once and then parking that knowledge for good, as the product will constantly change and develop over time... and while that is happening, new vintages and bottlings are appearing, and the process starts all over again. The biggest revelation comes when you realise that you will not, and cannot, ever know everything.
That said it has been quite a long time since I felt like I was right back at school, learning things both in factual and tasting terms, like a rank amateur. After 15 years in the drinks biz one gets a little blasé about how much one knows and especially in wine terms there is usually enough background knowledge at least for a sound busking platform. But my first proper working visit to Whisky country took me right back to the classroom and while daunting, it also gave me that buzz of starting to get right under the skin of a new topic. It also helped that the education was being done at Macallan, home of perhaps the greatest whiskies in Speyside, if not the world. This was a rare and exclusive opportunity and four willing members of the BI team were very fortunate to attend this hallowed ground.
Not merely visiting the distillery but staying at the beautiful Easter Elchies House (the property featured on the label of each bottle – my room was the top right hand corner, in line with the ‘4’ of ‘EST. 1824’...) meant we knew we were in for a treat and there is no doubt that we were spoiled rotten with the line up of whiskies consumed.
But what makes Macallan so special?
Well, there are three main answers to this – as Private Client Director Simon Eddleston explains:
First of all, what an absolute treat to have been invited to Macallan, for them to welcome us ‘wine guys’ so warmly, and for having shown us so much of what I now know makes Macallan so uniquely brilliant…
- the very finest sherry casks (for most bottlings) giving such character, depth, and complexity
Whilst many whisky producers use majority Bourbon barrels, which are in plentiful supply and two-a-penny (due to the fact that casks to make Bourbon must be new, and can only be used once), Macallan use 80% sherry casks, in order to deliver the exceptional flavour and colour profiles without resorting to any additives. As you can imagine the supply of sherry barrels is considerably smaller, and in fact Macallan have taken to preparing their own new oak barrels (right from choosing the tree) and then ‘loaning’ them to sherry companies, so as to be sure that in 7 years’ time (!) they will have barrels to use. This costs more than 5 times the amount versus Bourbon barrels, running into the many millions of pounds every year. There simply isn’t any way to achieve the quality without it.
- the tiny copper stills piping out particularly rich and viscous spirit. The ‘new-make’ was genuinely delicious!
In our experience, ‘new make’ spirit from other distilling regions around the world has been pretty unsavoury stuff; but the new make spirit from Macallan was aromatic, with genuinely fruity notes, and the palate (despite being 70% by volume) was remarkably palatable. In fact Macallan believe that 20-25% of the final palate in any bottle comes directly from the raw spirit. That said, there is no real sense of terroir when it comes to the raw materials; a good crop is a plentiful crop. So as long as the stills are good and the master distiller knows what they are doing, it is still the barrels and then of course the blending that does the talking.
- and the super-selective ‘cut’, taking only the finest spirit from these stills at between 68-72% (rather than the standard cut used by others, which is far more wide-ranging, with exceptional quality being sacrificed for volume)
This speaks for itself – once again, Macallan focus entirely on what will produce the best spirit regardless of price. The difference may be marginal but it’s there; and it is indicative of their unwillingness to cut corners.
When this trio of factors was combined with the 193 years of history, the immense knowhow of Bob Dalgarno and his team, and the sheer driven passion for nothing but the finest, the results are in and mesmerizingly special. I want to move to Speyside now!
But that’s not all. There is one other significant difference between Macallan and the rest who sit at the top of the quality tree and that is their exceptional holdings of aged whiskies, and their ability and willingness to use them. After a small pre-amble, our Private Sales and On-Trade specialist Anneka Swann explains:
When Macallan’s Morag shook my hand, so sincerely, delighted at the precence of a female companion to her tour, I knew I had come to the right place. Few knew that much of my family inhabits the Highlands – my maiden name is Reid, of the Robertson clan; we have been crossing borders for hundreds of years, and visiting the odd distillery or two on the way. However, visiting Macallan and Glen Garioch really showed what set these apart – from passionate people to cask quality and history these were a step above anything I had seen before (not even worth the comparison to the bourbon and even less mentionable distilleries south of the border!)
The sense of ‘coming home’ could not be embodied more than by Macallan 18 year old. This is a whisky which tastes just as Macallan should, sherry oak in balance with fruits and nuts. It was taking this skilled balance and combining it with what they realised was an incredible market demand for aged whiskies which encouraged the incredible Fine and Rare range and from there the Decanter Series. The series is non age statement, meaning their complexity and collectability is often overlooked. However, after tasting examples such as the Rare Cask, Rare Cask Black and Reflexion (one of my stars of the trip), I realise that being overlooked means the whiskies represent excellent value for money. After exploring Macallan’s full range (including the sacred Macallan 30!) I believe that you really get what you pay for and more at Macallan – while I’m still holding out to taste the Laliques, I am sure I would feel the same way.
With the past and current firmly established, our Spirits Buyer Richard Ellis throws some light on the future of this great distillery:
The soon to be ‘old’ distillery might not be much to look at and the soon to be ‘new’ distillery might remind you of the set where Tinky-Winky, Laa Laa and Po strut their stuff but by this time next year, spirit should be running from shiny new stills in the brand new Macallan distillery. With the current distillery set to turn the taps off as soon as the new one is up and running, this will be a new dawn. It’s going to be at least 12 years until the first ‘new’ whiskies hit the shelves but much work will be done to make sure when they do, it’s business as usual; without doubt, making sure the spirit running off the new stills is the same as what is being produced now is their biggest task.
The new distillery will be able to handle an increase in capacity of 30-40 % and whilst I doubt they will make use of this extra capacity from the off, it gives some idea of their confidence that the huge demand for their whiskies is set to continue. What it is worth noting is that whilst extra capacity will mean more liquid is available to fill into casks, the casks remain key to being able to translate this extra capacity into finished whisky. With such a big emphasis on casks, it is no wonder that they estimate that they will have spent as much money on casks and cask management in a four year period as they will have done on building and kitting out the new distillery (circa £120 million). This perfectly illustrates why we rate Macallan so highly – they strive to create the very best whiskies from the very best materials in existence. From their curiously small stills to their exceptional oak casks, no expense is spares, and it shows. Here’s to an extremely bright future for this distillery powerhouse.
So the Macallan was extraordinary, eye-opening, and educational. But we weren’t done there. The following morning we saw the real rock-stars of the whisky industry at work in the Speyside Cooperage. If barrels are the lifeblood of great whisky, then Coopers are the crack surgeons keeping these precious vessels alive. As a student, colleagues in the medicine faculty at University used to speak of a tutor known as ‘the fastest hip in the west’ who could do 18 hip replacements in a day; well this guy had nothing on these Coopers. A 4-year apprenticeship looks well earned when you see the speed at which these folks assess and open up the barrels, trim and replace the staves, then sew it all up again (particularly eye-catching was the guy they called ‘Crazy Pete’). When you learn that they are paid by the barrel, not the hour, you grasp why they work so fast – and so accurately, as all barrels are tested before release and any which retain their defects are sent back and done again (unpaid the second time!)
Back to Anneka to finish up the trip:
To conclude, a brief trip to Glen Garioch (pronounced Glen Gear-y) also set its path separate from more corporate distilleries. I assumed I had never thought much about the distillery because of quality but was astounded to find that, with an incredibly small production, and happy to stay boutique, the distillery simply doesn’t sell to major retailers, leaving it all to only aficionados who know the distillery’s true strengths: mature whisky, unique use of barrels, and finely managed long-armed copper stills. Our guide at Glen Garioch had a high flying job for a major distributor in London before returning to this tiny distillery because she ‘missed whisky.’ I left with thoughts of her and Morag, the new generation of people (Women!) who decode whisky, and memories of my homeland. While we wine-lovers may want to call it terroir, I think it is the stubborn spirit in the river and the hills, and of the men and the women that makes the whisky.