Two bites of the sherry

Two bites of the sherry

If you're going to age whisky in heavily scented olorose casks you need a powerfully flavoured spirit to start off with. Stephen Brook examines the elements that make up the Macallan, and how second-fill casks compare to first-fill

Production | 16 Mar 1999 | Issue 2 | By Stephen Brook

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To create a drink that in under 20 years has achieved classic status is no mean feat, but that is the accomplishment of The Macallan. It was in the late 1960s that the Macallan managers, noting the success of Glenfiddich as the first single malt whisky to achieve wide sales outside Scotland, began laying down casks of whisky with a view to one day releasing their own single malt. Although Macallan seems to have been with us forever (and indeed the distillery, founded in 1824, had been selling fine malts to other houses as blending components for 150 years), it was first released as recently as 1980.The distillery had been purchased in 1892 by Roderick Kemp, who renamed it Macallan-Glenlivet. It remained in the Kemp family until 1996, when it was bought by Highland Distillers. As a single malt, The Macallan had a unique selling point: it was the only single malt aged entirely in sherry butts. The mere notion of a Scotch whisky slumbering towards maturity in casks that had once contained warm, nutty, comforting oloroso sherry, conjured up visions of the perfect post-prandial malt, rich and sumptuous and soothing. Which is not far off the mark, as far as The Macallan is concerned.The distillery, although only a mile or so outside Craigellachie and above the River Spey, is slightly off the beaten track. It does not offer distillery tours, although visitors are given a warm welcome if they take the trouble to make an appointment first. Nor is the site especially picturesque. There’s a seventeenth-century manor house nearby, Easter Elchies, but the interior has been thoroughly modernized, and although the estate boasts the largest cask warehouse in Europe, it is hardly a thing of beauty.The general manager, the youthful David Robertson, had already been at Macallan for two years before the sale. His father had been in the business all his working life; Robertson remarks that he was probably conceived in a distillery, but offers no further details. He knows that there are no rigid formulae for producing fine malt, and if there is little doubt that Macallan is a great whisky, there is more uncertainty about how its consistent magnificence is achieved.The Macallan is distinctive not only because of its reliance on sherry butts, but because of its long devotion to Golden Promise barley. When it became available some 35 years ago, it was acclaimed for being disease-resistant and for other virtues such as its ‘erectoid ears’, which meant that the tips of the plant did not bend and snap off. At that time many distilleries were keen on Golden Promise but by the 1980s more varieties had been developed, higher-yielding barleys that held out an economic as well as a qualitative promise. Now only 5,000 tons of Golden Promise are grown in Scotland, and Macallan buys 4,500 of them, supplementing its purchases with another barley, Chariot. Robertson has to pay dearly to protect his supplies: farmers are tempted to replace Golden Promise with more profitable varieties, and Robertson compensates them financially for their willingness to preserve the variety that Macallan prefers above all others.Since many authorities on whisky claim that barley is of minimal importance in determining the character of the finished product, why is The Macallan so keen on this one variety? ‘We still use it because it gives a rich fruity spirit and an oily texture which stands up well to the ageing in sherry casks,’ says Robertson. Taste the newly distilled spirit, reduced in strength to 20%Vol, alongside a glass of new spirit from Highland Park, and the difference is remarkable; and not only because of the smokiness of the latter. The Macallan spirit is rich, sweet, and almondy, with a creamy texture. Both are delicious, but it is easy to see why the Macallan is well adapted to ageing in oloroso casks.The maltings at Macallan were closed down in the 1960s, and thereafter the distillery has used a number of suppliers for its malted barley. Since 1997 it has used only Simpsons. There is virtually no peating (a trifling 1-1.5 parts per million), which gives the spirit a low phenolic character. Macallan needs fruitiness rather than smokiness in its spirit. David Robertson gave me a handful of grains of malted Golden Promise to munch on, and had I been in entrepreneurial mood I would have recommended it as surefire breakfast cereal: crunchy, with a sweetness reminiscent of a light honey glaze. The attention to detail extends to yeasts. Macallan uses two distiller’s yeasts (Mauri and M) and two brewer’s yeasts (Scottish Courage and Newton’s). ‘In our view,’ says Robertson, ‘the more complex the yeasts, the more complex the fermentation. Distiller’s yeasts are cheaper and give a more efficient distillation, which is why they are so popular, but we’re not convinced that on their own they give the best spirit character.’ There are 16 washbacks at Macallan, wooden until the 1980s, but now all replaced by stainless steel for hygienic reasons. The yeasts, moistened into a slurry, are pumped in, and after four hours there are foamy stirrings on the surface of the worts. By eight hours, the fermentation is well and truly under way, and takes roughly 48 hours to complete. ‘The stronger the alcohol level in the worts, the less energy you need for distillation. So some distilleries go for an ABV of 8.5-9. But we aim for 7.5-7.7. We feel that at this level the distillation helps produce more esters and thus greater complexity.’If there is one element in the production process that Robertson tends to minimize it’s the water. ‘I don’t believe it’s as crucial as other elements in the process, especially the cask-ageing. We have four bore holes, and the water is filtered through a bed of rock and pumped up. It’s very soft, low in calcium and minerals, and has no bacterial content. So it’s excellent quality, but we don’t worry unduly about its analytical qualities.’Macallan has five wash stills and ten spirit stills. They are of classic shape but are among the smallest in the industry. ‘Taller stills,’ Robertson explains, ‘such as those at Glenmorangie, tend to give a lighter, more delicate spirit. Our classic, onion-shaped stills, about 12 feet high, give a richer, heavier, oilier spirit, which is what we need.’ There are three shifts in the distillery, and Robbie is one of the stillmen engaged to look after one of them, keeping an eye on six spirit stills and three wash stills. It’s he who must make the crucial judgments about the foreshots and feints, ensuring the cut – no more than 15 per cent of the run – is of the highest quality. Ask Robbie how long it took him to acquire his skill and he’ll say: ‘Six weeks.’ Then he adds: ‘And 29 years of experience.’ The spirit run is some 70 minutes, and the whole low-wines run is five hours.Macallan is as meticulous about its casks as its barley. The oak trees are selected and purchased in Spain, air-dried, and then sent to the sherry bodegas to be seasoned with fermenting must and young oloroso sherries. Macallan works with a number of different bodegas; sherry houses are reluctant to have too many new casks at one time, as sherry should not be marked with new-oak character. After about two years the butts are considered sufficiently seasoned to be dispatched to Scotland. It’s a costly policy, which Robertson estimates at £350 per cask, compared to £40 for a reassembled American bourbon cask, the container favoured by most distilleries.The sojourn of oloroso inside the casks certainly makes a difference. I sent my nose down the bunghole, where it was greeted with a hefty nutty whiff. Even more surprisingly, when Robertson introduced me to a butt that had already experienced an entire fill of whisky, the sherry aroma clinging to the empty cask was equally pronounced.The old warehouses at Macallan store some 75,000 casks, and a further 60,000 occupy a single building, partially burrowed into the hillside in 1990. This mammoth whisky warehouse, the largest in Europe, is as visually alluring as a suburban hypermarket, but it serves its purpose. The temperature swing in Speyside can be as great as 50ºC year round; within the stark walls of this warehouse, it is no more than 6ºC. It’s damp too, as the rust on the cask hoops testifies, and all this provides ideal conditions for cask maturation. The casks are never topped up, and a 25-year-old whisky will have lost half its volume in the course of its maturation.Robertson’s most awesome responsibility is putting together the vatting for each batch to be bottled as The Macallan. Once he has composed it, a nosing panel of four assesses the blend for both flavour (tasted blind against previous bottlings) and colour (Macallan refuses to colour up with caramel). If the new vatting stands out in any way, it’s back to the drawing board for David Robertson. Consistency is vital.It might, on the face of it, seem rather bizarre to devote so much attention to such matters as barley, malting, and distillation, and then obscure these nuances with a swathe of thick nutty sherry aromas. ‘Fair point,’ says Robertson. ‘If we produced a light delicate spirit, then all that care would count for little after ten or 12 years in sherry casks. But we make a point of extracting a rich, powerfully flavoured spirit that won’t be easily dominated by the casks.’ There’s no doubt that Macallan has maintained its strong identity throughout its existence, especially its hallmark characteristics of orange peel, cloves and dried fruit. The younger expressions, the 10 and 12 years, strike me as more powerfully aromatic than the older whiskies, such as the 18 and 25 year old. The older whiskies show a greater intensity and a wonderful creaminess of texture. A 1979 has been bottled under the curious name of Gran Reserva (homage to Jerez and its brandies?), and what distinguishes it from the 18-year-old is that it comes from first-fill casks. Macallan usually uses its sherry casks twice, and second time round the oloroso aromas are less pronounced. For me this is the quintessence of Macallan, showing the full aromatic range of this great Scotch. I also nosed the oldest commercially available Macallan, the 1946. To me it smelt nothing like a Macallan. The nose was tangy and phenolic, appley and nutty, whereas on the palate there was a lemony zest and peppery finish. Splendid stuff, but atypical Macallan. He explains that immediately after the war it would have been difficult to obtain recently used sherry casks, so this whisky was probably aged in third fill butts, with blander wood character. It’s a tribute to the consistency and strong individual character of The Macallan that an atypical malt, even when presented as part of the Macallan range, can stand out so forcefully.The Macallan personality may not be to everyone’s taste. Delicacy and finesse are not words that spring to mind when nosing these whiskies. But for those seeking a rich full-bodied and complex whisky, perfectly suited to a fireplace in winter after a gratifying dinner, The Macallan always fulfils expectations.
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