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Neither Shaken Nor Stirred: A Look Into James Bond's Whisky Of Choice - Macallan Distillery

Distillery Spotlight: Macallan Distillery

Region: Easter Elchies, Craigellachie, Speyside, Scotland

Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.

Macallan Distillery

Macallan’s £140 million new space-age distillery building unravelled in 2018 (Image Source: The Spirits Business)

One of the best-selling and possibly the best-known single malt Scotch whisky ever, even non-drinkers would have heard of a Macallan. Macallan has since built for itself an extremely strong reputation for high quality and rare bottles auctioned off at Christie’s for tens of thousands of dollars. In short, it is today regarded as the “Rolls Royce amongst single malts”.

Humble beginnings and clever stewardship

All this glitz and glamour only came long after the Speyside distillery’s humbler beginnings. Founded in 1824 and one of the first distilleries to be licensed, ownership of the distillery was passed on in the late 1800s to Roderick Kemp, a magnate of the alcohol industry during the Victorian era who also owned Talisker distillery.

Back then, Macallan was not so much known for its single malt, but as a reliable component in blended whiskies. This approach was confronted by the downturn in the early 1980s when there was an oversupply of generic whiskies. Under the stewardship of Kemp’s descendants, the Macallan decided to focus on differentiation and its new single malt category. The management team sought to position Macallan as a “first-growth whisky”, or “the Cognac of whiskies” whilst rolling out irreverent ad campaigns that were unconventional to right-minded folks in the whisky industry back then. 

This position on quality and clever marketing continued after the takeover by the Edrington whisky company in the 1990s till today. More recently we have seen ambitious worldwide advertising campaigns, Macallan drunk on the silver screen, and the unveiling of an immeasurably sleek new distillery and visitor centre that costed £140 million to build.

Some industry critics consider the Macallan Distillery of today to have become a price-gouging corporate sell-out. After all, very successful marketing through the years has kept its prices on the uptick (even for core range expressions). In my opinion, if video games teach anything at all, it is that one who encounters a few enemies and haters along his journey is headed in the right direction. The Macallan Distillery is indisputably a source of national pride for Scots. Their pot stills are famously featured on a series of Bank of Scotland notes- we will later come to explain what makes their stills special.

 Macallan Stills on Scotland banknoteLook, Macallan’s stills are so famous that they appear on the back of one version of the Bank of Scotland’s £10 note! (Image Source: Europe Bank Notes)

 

The Six Pillars of Macallan

What makes a bottle of Macallan a Macallan? According to the distillery, Macallan's formula to its high quality consists of its Six Pillars of excellence:

  1. the distillery's Spiritual Home of Easter Elchies House
  2. Curiously Small Stills
  3. executing the Finest Cut in separating the distilled spirit
  4. Exceptional Oak Casks
  5. Natural colour
  6. Peerless spirit

Macallan's spiritual home is a Scottish Highland manor house called the Easter Elchies House, where the distillery began legally operating in 1820s.  Legend has it that the former owner began distilling whisky much earlier for sale to thirsty cattle drovers on their way to cattle markets in central Scotland. By the time the first owner died in 1847, he had established a reputation for Macallan's superior quality. Today, the distillery continues to harvest barley grown around the estate and extract mineral water from the nearby spring to create its whisky.

Of these Six Pillars, the second and fourth pillars play a huge influence in creating Macallan's signature taste. We will uncover their influence below. 

Symbiosis between a heavy spirit and fine sherry casks

Macallan’s whisky is well-known for its signature heavier, full-bodied spirit that is sweet, oily, malty, and deep, with a great affinity for ex-sherry casks. The artisans at Macallan understand that to find a right balance of flavours, the strong sherry influence must be paired with a rich and full-bodied spirit in a symbiotic way.

Magic happens when sherry casks are paired with full-bodied spirits. The richness of the spirit helps to draw out sweet sherried flavours from the wood. At the same time, the thickness acts as a barrier to aggressive port-wine tannins and prevents the tannins from overwhelming the palate.

How do they achieve this?

Using tiny copper stills

 Macallan Copper Stills
Macallan’s curiously small stills. (Image Source: Pinterest)
 
After malt fermentation, the by-product is placed in copper stills for separation. Stills are used to extract the ethanol and other flavorsome compounds via the neck of the stills, leaving the undesired fermentation mixture within the still.
 

Macallan uses one of the smallest commercial stills in Scotland- if stills get any smaller it would be used for homemade moonshine by a Scottish grandpa. The small size of Macallan’s stills has a significant impact on the character of the distillate in 2 ways. 

Sweetness

Before undergoing distillation, the fermented malt mixture contains sulphur compounds that cause a rubbery, bitter medicinal taste.  

The small stills ensure that there is a high surface area – to – volume ratio, providing a lot of contact between the spirit undergoing distillation and the copper. This allows the copper, on a molecular level, to pull out the sulphur created during the fermentation process. The result: very clean tasting and smooth spirit with a fruity and rich aroma.

Richness and heaviness  

More important is the way the small stills help create full-bodied spirits.

When stills are taller/bigger, it is much harder for heavier flavour compounds to be carried up the neck and form the eventual distillate (creating a light bodied spirit distillate à la Glenmorangie). Inside Macallan’s tiny stills, however, heavier flavour compounds very easily carry over the neck and are collected on the other end in a rich, oily, sweet and waxy pre-whisky spirit.
 
The chemical structures of flavour compounds bind with the taste receptors in our mouths thereby creating the distinctive flavours we are familiar with. (Image Source: Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University)

 

This heavy and rich spirit is essential. The rich malt flavours excellently complement the strong sherry character of ex-sherry casks. The richness also ensures that the spirit holds its character and withstands the test of time during the maturation process in barrels to come out as fine 18 – 30 year old whiskies. 

High quality sherry casks

 

“Quiet Please!” Whisky sleeping in barrels at the Macallan Distillery (Image Source: Macallan Distillery)

Speaking of casks, the Macallan Distillery heavily invests time and effort into sourcing fine wood for its casks. It is also the only Scotch distillery with a dedicated head of sourcing and crafting wooden casks, Stuart MacPherson, who is also known as their “Master of Wood” (pun unintended).

Most Scotch distilleries usually use second-hand casks that have been used to store bourbon or sherry, for the maturation of its pre-whisky spirit. At the Macallan, casks are made in-house in a process estimated to be 10 times more expensive that what other distilleries spend to obtain casks. To create Macallan’s 200,000-odd oak barrels, the Master of Wood selects and procures oak from trees from Spain and US (but mostly Spain). He then painstakingly dries the wood, shape them into barrels at a cooperage. Finally, he seasons the wood with Oloroso sherry – which is responsible for the taste of dried raisins, caramel, orange and Christmas cake, iconic to Macallan’s whiskies. These flavours are intensified by the Spanish oak favoured by Macallan, which imparts a full and intense aroma with more tannins.

 
(Image Source: El Confidencial)

Macallan’s iconic flavour profile

(Image Source: El Confidencial)
 

As mentioned, Macallan’s use of small stills and high quality sherry-seasoned casks are responsible for the whisky’s signature rich, full-bodied and smooth texture and sweet sherry notes of dried raisins, caramel, orange and Christmas cake.

Typical Macallans tend to have the following taste profile:

Colour: Deep warm amber

Nose: 

  • Fragrant, rich and well-rounded
  • Orange peel, ripe melons
  • Earthy, with dark chocolate and roasted coffee beans.

Palate:

  • Rich, full-bodied and oily  
  • Smooth texture
  • Chewy with fruit cake, gingerbread and molasses
  • Sweet and full of dried dark fruits with raisins, cherries, apricots and hawthorn (山楂)
  • Vanilla woodiness, with walnut and coconuts 

Finish: Long and rich with raisins.

Macallan as an icon

Finally, part of the draw and status of Macallan lies somewhat in its brand association, in people’s minds, with good taste and prestige.
 

James Bond gets offered a “50 Year Old Macallan” by a villain in Skyfall (2012)

Before whisky became a popular spirit (brandy was more popular once upon a time), Macallan is one of the first Scotch distilleries to invest serious money in advertising its single malt from the 1980s onwards. The distillery’s marketing department went on to do very well in positioning The Macallan as an upmarket single malt Scotch, intended for the discerning connoisseur with whisky packaged in expensive-looking, slim and tall bottles.

The marketing budget for Macallan also appears to dwarf its humbler Scottish siblings which appears to indicate Macallan’s appetite for expansion. Macallan occasionally appears in popular films and television shows featuring masculine leading man characters, being drunk by Daniel Craig’s James Bond and hotshot lawyer Harvey Specter in the Suits television series. No longer being content with the patronage of just Englishmen and connoisseurs, in 2019, the distillery launched a US$18 million global marketing campaign targeted at key markets including the United States and China

Our Take

Macallan delivers expressions that are approachable, highly easy to drink and still satisfyingly complex. Of course, with position towards broad and wide appeal, we do feel that the Macallan of today is somewhat unwilling to experiment with bold and experimental flavours that might excite whisky nerds. That said, what Macallan lacks in excitement is made up for by its consistent and indisputable high quality through the years. Macallan is deserving of its solid reputation for quality and the higher prices it commands – any dram is worth a drink.  

Our favourites are:

Entry Level: Macallan 15 Years Old- Fine Oak, Macallan 15 Years Old- Triple Cask, Macallan Sienna

Moderate: Macallan 18 Years Old- Sherry Oak, Macallan Rare Cask, Macallan Ruby

Top Shelf: Macallan 25 Years Old- Sherry Oak, Macallan 30 Years Old- Fine Oak

@charsiucharlie



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