A Timeless Blend
The Macallan launches Rare Cask in Hong Kong, a new whisky that derives its unique qualities from the casks it was aged in and whose production processes traverse the globe
The Six Pillars are important reminders of the principles that have underpinned The Macallan throughout its long history. Founded in 1824 in an area with a history of whisky distilling that stretches back many centuries by barley grower and school teacher Alexander Reid, it was one of the first legally licensed whisky distilleries in Scotland. The company went through various hands during the 19th century, but finished it in those of Roderick Kemp, who created the foundations for the modern company and was the first to take the spirit outside its native market.
It was in the 1950s, however, that sales really began to rise, a trend that accelerated as single malt whiskies became more popular in the West from the 1970s onwards. It wasn’t until 1979 that the brand even advertised, its first venture into self-promotion being a small advert next to the crossword in The Times of London. Since then it has been gradually increasing its production capacity to meet steadily growing demand, as well as expanding the range of premium whiskies it produces, from its 1824 Collection to The Macallan M. The Macallan also formed a series of intriguing partnerships with everyone from storied French glass designer Lalique to a collection of leading photographic artists for its Masters of Photography series.
Some of the most notable dates in the history of The Macallan concern Easter Elchies House, a Jacobean manor house dating from 1700 in northeastern Scotland’s legendary Speyside whisky-making region. The manor house was bought by the distiller in 1961, extensively refurbished in 1985 and revamped again in 2006. The Spiritual Home of The Macallan, it forms the first of the Six Pillars that support the brand.
The other pillars all make different contributions towards creating this finest of spirits. Among them are the Small Stills used by The Macallan to distill its whisky; made entirely from copper and uniquely shaped, with extremely wide bases tapering sharply and then gradually towards the top, there are 14 of the stills at the distillery. They’re such a hallmark of this most Scottish of brands that the stills have even been depicted on the back of the Bank of Scotland £10 banknote.
The pillars aren’t just about equipment, though; they’re also about how the spirit is treated. The Finest Cut refers to The Macallan’s practice of transferring only a tiny amount of the spirit collected from its stills into its casks: typically about 16 per cent. Known as new make spirit, and typically 69.8 per cent alcohol, it’s emblematic of the brand’s extraordinary dedication to quality.
The spirit that eventually comes out of those casks is also distinguished by its Natural Colour, another of the pillars. The Macallan is one of the very few whisky makers that rely entirely on the casks to impart their colour to the spirit, rather than relying on caramel-based colouring, which can quickly fade with exposure to light.
One of the other pillars best encapsulates the essence of The Macallan. The Peerless Spirit is a tribute to the whisky itself, and to the painstaking blend of hard work and alchemy from The Macallan’s master craftsmen that goes into making it.
But when it comes to shaping the end product, the whisky that finally emerges from the distillery after years of maturation, undoubtedly the most important factor is the other pillar: Fine Oak Casks. The wood used to mature a whisky contributes 60 per cent of that whisky’s final flavour, so the selection of casks is the most important decision for the whisky maker.
The central role of casks, and The Macallan’s
quest to find the finest casks of all, assume a particular importance in the distillery’s latest fine single malt whisky, The Macallan Rare Cask. Launched in the US in 2014, the Rare Cask is now coming to Asia for the first time.
With a powerful flavour profile featuring plenty of wood, as well as chocolate, vanilla and citrus notes, with additional spices and fruits on the nose, this is a single malt that packs a punch. “All Macallans are pretty full-flavoured, and the Rare Cask is no exception,” says David Cox, director for super premium whiskies and brand education. A 17-year veteran of the company, Cox has worked in the Scotch whisky industry for 31 years.
The spirit that goes into the Rare Cask comes from just 256 casks, representing the very finest of those maturing at The Macallan distillery. With some 240,000 casks currently undergoing the long, slow process of maturation there, it means that only about one in every thousand casks has been selected to make this particular elixir. They are made from both American oak and Spanish and have been previously used for sherry and bourbon. They also come from a range of cooperages including Tevasa, Vasyma and Hudosa and from a range of winemakers including Gonzalez Byass and Williams and Humbert. They come in different shapes and sizes, from butts to puncheons to hogsheads to barrels. Together
they make up the most diverse range of source material ever used to create a single malt whisky.
The Rare Cask is a further extension of The Macallan’s bold move in recent times to start selling, alongside its usual range, premium whiskies without age statements. Partly that’s a response to the increased popularity of its products, a popularity that saw it start to risk becoming a victim of its own success, with so much of its stock being consumed that it needed to reassess what it produced.
But instead of seeing that as a threat, it saw it as an opportunity—because producing premium-branded products without an age statement is liberating to the whisky maker, in this case The Macallan’s resident blending genius Bob Dalgarno.
“As demand has increased, it’s put pressure on our stock to be able to retain the character of, say, The Macallan 18 Year Old Sherry Cask,” says Cox. “It was an opportunity for us to reappraise how we make the best of our stocks. It was a problem we put in the hands of Bob Dalgarno. It took the shackles off him and allowed him to do new things with the stock we have. It also allows us to continue to produce age statement whiskies at the same level and still preserve their character.”
It might be a case of making a virtue of necessity, but it also makes perfect sense— the whisky maker can use a younger spirit if it improves the flavour, without having to worry about the age statement. It has allowed a brand like The Macallan to produce a highly regarded premium product like the Rare Cask, which it wouldn’t have been able to do before.
“Age statements don’t recognise that certain casks mature earlier than others,” says Cox. “Because it’s a plant, it’s organic, you can’t predict it—you have to taste it.”
The species of oak can affect the speed the whisky matures, as can the previous content of the cask and the number of times it has been used. Casks used by different winemakers will vary from each other, but so can casks from the same winemaker.
“With the Rare Cask, it allows Bob to choose a cask when he feels it has reached maturation. As an industry, we’ve been going on about age statements for decades, and we’ve been putting ourselves in a bit of a straightjacket. We’ve got an educational job to do: there are different ways of making a whisky that don’t involve putting an age statement on the bottle,” explains Cox.
With a view to constantly improving the quality
of the casks it has available, and therefore of the whisky matured in them, The Macallan has been taking more direct control of its barrel sourcing. Before the company was bought by Highland Distillers in the mid-1990s and then sold to the current owners, the Edrington Group, a few years later, the company bought its wood direct from bodegas in Spain, with no control over how they had previously been used. Now, however, it specifies exactly how it wants its wood made and treated, meaning that it has a growing stock of casks that have been built and seasoned to The Macallan’s specific requirements.
It can be a pretty complicated process: with American oak as well as Spanish oak used to make the sherry casks the brand uses, it means that sometimes air-dried wood from Kentucky in the southern US is transported to Jerez de le Frontera in southwestern Spain to be made into barrels. They are then seasoned with fermenting grape juice and then aged oloroso sherry, staying in Spain for two years before they’re shipped to Scotland—quite a journey.
“The reason we go to what some might say is a ridiculous expense to do all of that is that it gives us something we don’t get anywhere else,” says Cox. “It gives Bob another string to his bow.”
The Macallan’s other response to the growing popularity of its whiskies has been to increase the amount it produces, while being careful to maintain the quality embodied in the Six Pillars. It has taken the bold step of replacing its long-
standing distillery with a new building, designed by legendary British architect Richard Rogers. Ground has just been broken on the new distillery, which is due to open in 2017, and will increase The Macallan’s capacity from just over nine million litres a year to about 15 million.
Rogers met the challenge of designing a building that harmonised with the area of outstanding natural beauty surrounding The Macallan’s home in the northeast of Scotland by the ingenious step of burying most of it underground. “Most distilleries in Scotland, including parts of The Macallan, aren’t buildings of great beauty,” says Cox. “This is an opportunity to establish something of great beauty and style in an industry known for its traditionalism. It will become a real destination for people on distillery tours, and an icon for The Macallan.”
That statement is equally true of the Rare Cask: mainly because of the unique flavour imparted by the barrels, but also because of the whisky’s classy look and feel.
As ever with The Macallan, the design and execution of the packaging is exquisite, in this case featuring a triangular motif near the neck of the bottle that echoes the design of really old Macallan bottles in the distillery’s possession, some of them dating back to the 19th century.
Unsurprisingly for such a precious spirit, there aren’t many of those bottles: only about 600 will be available in Hong Kong, for example. With The Macallan Rare Cask, a unique chance to taste the ultimate distillation of the brand’s whisky-making experience, it isn’t only the casks that are rare.
world of expertise
David Cox, director of super premium whiskies and brand education at The Macallan, has been with the company
for 17 years
The Macallan Rare Cask is part of the company’s new move to sell whiskies without an age statement
All the whiskies in The Macallan portfolio derive their hue from the casks and do not contain any caramel-based colouring
The Rare Cask features strong wood notes balanced by chocolate, vanilla and citrus, and with a spicy nose