Imagine trying to run a business where what you make today gets turned into products 12 to more than 60 years from now. How could you possibly forecast volume and preferences? That’s exactly what many Scottish whisky companies try to do. The Macallan has always impressed us not only for their exceptional products, but also for the innovation that Master Whisky Maker Bob Dalgarno has brought to the brand since his appointment as Whisky Maker in 1996. During that time he’s successfully moved the brand from its traditional core expressions of 12, 15, 17, 18, 25 and 40 year old bottles of The Macallan’s finest.
A program he’s been working on recently is a range that sits between the Macallan’s 18 and 40 year old products which are harder to find these days with a huge increase in global demand and a limited supply of aging whisky that was placed in barrels that many years ago. To satisfy global demand Dalgarno has developed several new expressions of The Macallan, most notably the 1824 series, a range of color-based products that start around $50 for The Macallan Gold and hit north of $4,500 for 2013’s introduction of M, one of our 2013 fall favorites.
It’s important to remember that The Macallan makes only one spirit, and that same spirit is aged in a variety of casks made of American and Spanish oak that have previously aged American whiskies and Spanish sherry. The latter is The Macallan’s claim to whisky fame—they have more Spanish sherry casks—the whisky world’s most coveted—than any other maker. Each cask variety brings its own flavor, color and character to the whisky, and that’s what allows Dalgarno to create the range of products now available. Some have age statements (which are always the year of the youngest Scotch added) and others do not. The many expressions in The Macallan’s 1824 Series focus on color. Natural color, that is; something that The Macallan is known for. The quality of their casks creates a range of caramel to ruby colored liquids that other whisky houses can only match by adding coloring.
The latest release of the 1824 series includes Rare Cask, which is just launching and is currently available only in the USA. Sitting north of the 18 year old (which retails for around $275 here), Rare Cask debuts at a suggested retail price around $300. Defined by the liquid’s rich red color, the sherry oak casks (many are first fill, meaning that it is the first time that scotch has been placed in them to age) that house it are selected for the rich and tasty hue they bring to it. It is indeed rare, only a limited number of bottles will make their way to retailers, but it is expected to be an ongoing addition to the line and not a limited release. Each cask that goes in to every expression is hand selected by Dalgarno. Rare Cask is a naturally vibrant liquid that noses of raisin and dried fruit, sherry spice and rich vanilla.
For a fuller understanding of how deeply wood impacts The Macallan and its specific influence on Rare Cask, we spoke with Master of Wood Stuart MacPherson. MacPherson oversees The Macallan’s very unique wood program. It starts with forests it owns in Spain, where oak trees averaging around 150 years old are felled and brought to a cooperage it owns to be made into casks. While MacPherson also looks after all other wood that he turns into casks and the American whisky and bourbon casks that are also part of The Macallan’s wood program, the Spanish sherry oaks are the most important. So much so that after growing the trees and turning them into casks, they provide them to a duo of Spain’s best sherry makers for free. They in turn use them to age their products for around 18 months. Once the sherry has been removed and bottled the casks are sent up to Scotland, where they visit another of the company’s cooperages and are brought back into tip-top condition. From there the casks make their way up to the distillery where they are filled with new make spirit. From there the casks journey a few hundred feet into one of the brand’s many aging barns, where they’ll sit for anywhere from 12 to more than 60 years before being mixed with other casks (most of the time) and turned into one of their expressions.
“Sherry seasoned casks are at the very heart of The Macallan and this defining factor has contributed to the fame of the brand today,” he shares with CH. “Each expression has its own profile and character taken from the type of wood and time of maturation to allow us to create our 100% naturally colored products.” As for this deep coloration, it implies sherry cask aging and acts as an indicator on the flavor profile of the spirit within.
The Macallan notes that up to 60% of its whisky’s’ flavors and aromas hail from the barrels they’re aged in. MacPherson continues, “Our robust wood policy and close relationships with our Spanish cooperages ensure that our casks are constructed to a specific design which in turn provides the colors, aromas and distinctive flavors we require in our range of products.” It’s a role that MacPherson, who used to run one of the cooperages, takes enormous pride in.
But even with so much attention and awareness two casks side by side composed of the same wood and restored in the same manner age whisky in different ways. It’s the course of nature that often leads to the unexpected. This diversity as well as their range of oak wood are actually beneficial to the process. “Obviously the different oaks that we use and the different attributes they give to the spirit are more beneficial to the team of whisky makers, as it gives them a greater range of flexibility to create our range,” MacPherson adds. “Through our sampling process they can identify which casks are performing better than others and utilize them to their full potential.” Rare Cask is a single malt composite of those select sherry casks and the result is easy to sip, complex on the palate and slowly lingers until the last sherry note.
You can purchase The Macallan Rare Cask online, or in stores across the US. Prices vary slightly by market.
We’re helping The Macallan launch Rare Cask, so stay tuned for some special sponsored features celebrating other rare makers and a Rare edition of our celebrated Gift Guide.
Additional reporting and contributions from Evan Orensten, images by Josh Rubin