In France, they timestamp their modern history into pre and post The Revolution. In countries like Germany & Japan, the split point is pre and post World War II. In the computing world, Apple will come to be referenced as pre and post Steve Jobs. And for fans for Macallan, life is pre and post 2004.
This is a topic close to home, and much has been written about this previously. For a more detailed rundown and perspective on Macallan and how its whiskies have changed since the mid-2000s, I encourage you to read this piece here.
But for now, suffice it to say that 2004 was the year Macallan made the momentous decision to introduce bourbon cask-matured spirit into their official bottlings. It started with the Elegancia release, followed by the launch of the Fine Oak range. By 2005, as a result of growing markets and increased demand (which had a flow-on effect to cask procurement, cask management, and the recipes/vattings for the various releases), many regular Macallan drinkers felt the brand’s whiskies changed in style, character, and quality – even the releases that remained purely sherry cask-matured. After decades of 100% exclusive sherry maturation releases and undisputed quality, suddenly, Macallan drinkers across the world fell into one of two camps: Those that liked Macallan, and those that liked what it used to be like.
But that was then. This is now. What about the new generation of Macallan drinkers being introduced to the brand today? Now that the dust has settled and the apocalyptic events of 2004/5 are a blissfully unknown chapter in an unknown whisky history book, how do today’s twenty-somethings approach a distillery they’ve heard so much about, when so many of the celebrated bottlings are either unavailable in our country, or priced at a point that is beyond what most can afford?
Such was the dilemma of Mr Nicholas Lai. A prolific whisky contributor on social media (his efforts on Facebook, Instagram & his blog, www.whisknick.com put most to shame), but a relatively recent convert to the world of single malts, Nic fell into that category of being one who had heard so much about Macallan’s reputation and legacy, but the lack of bottlings and releases in Australia made it a difficult and enigmatic brand to explore and understand. More importantly for Nic and his generation, how seriously do you take old farts like me who keep telling everyone that Macallan was so much better 15 years ago? The solution? Curate your own Macallan tasting event that explores Macallan’s past, present and future.
Nic assembled a formidable line up of Macallan releases that bridged each side of the 2004/5 timestamp, and invited a number of friends and colleagues (16 in total) to share in what would be a delightfully open, casual, and enlightening tasting. Held as a private event in the back room at Sydney’s Oak Barrel liquor store, the tasting featured the following Macallans, listed in tasting order:
- Macallan Fine Oak 15yo, “Triple cask matured”, 43%
- Macallan 12yo Sherry oak, 43%
- Macallan 18yo 1986 vintage, 43%
- Macallan Edition No. 1, 48%
- Macallan Rare Cask “Black”, 48%
- Macallan Cask Strength, 58.2%
One of the most appealing aspects of this line up is that none of these whiskies are available in Australia. The collection was procured from overseas markets, online auctions, and – in one case – Travel Retail. No mean feat to assemble, and certainly not a cheap exercise.
The evening kicked off with Macallan’s present: Two expressions currently widely available in many markets around the world, although both absent from the Australian market. The Fine Oak 15 was – and I’ll happily say it – a delightful whisky. Light fruit, sweet barley, well balanced and a clean spirit, this was surprisingly endearing and satisfying drinking. Sherry influence was light and so – for this long-time Macallan drinker – it wasn’t a style or character I automatically associate with the brand. But then, that’s what this event was all about, right? We then moved onto the 12yo sherry oak. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, this expression was the benchmark for 12 year old bottlings and certainly the pinnacle of what AUD$60-65 could buy you at that time. The first thing many of us detected on the current 12yo bottling was sulphur and, for some in the room, serious scrutiny and appreciation started and stopped on that knifepoint. In addition to the sulphur, the main feature I detected was the greatly reduced influence or presence of European oak to the 12yo releases I remember from years ago. (People often make the false presumption that sherry casks = European oak or quercus robur. Not so. Just because the sherry came from Europe doesn’t mean the wood did! Plenty of bodegas use and a large proportion of sherry casks are assembled from American oak or quercus alba). The whisky was neither poor nor offensive, but neither was it rich, stunning, clean, spicy or powerful. I scored this whisky a few points lower than the preceding Fine Oak 15yo.
And so with two examples of the present under our belt, what about a look to Macallan’s past? We cracked the 1986 vintage 18yo. And some of us cracked something else. Gosh, this was good, and murmurs of delight were heard around the room. I’d tried many bottles of this in the past (as well as other vintages from 1981-1985) back when they were widespread and affordable releases, and it would be no exaggeration to state that the Macallan 18yo releases of this era were amongst the most highly regarded regular portfolio whiskies of their day. To those in the room tonight who noted such a stark difference between this whisky and the two tasted before it, it would be convenient and lazy to simply assign the difference in character to the extra six years’ maturation. No, this shone and exhibited so much more than just a few extra years under its belt: There was no sulphur. There was a richer texture and a richer palate. There was spice. There was rich and clean oloroso, but yet still plenty of sweet maltiness. “More juice” remarked someone. Personally, I put it down to two primary ingredients that typified Macallans from this era: Golden Promise barley and a significantly higher proportion of European oak casks.
With the past and present now accounted for, what about the future? We turned to the Edition No. 1. This is the start of a new series scheduled to be released annually. The blurb on the packaging advised that this expression features a vatting from eight different styles and sizes of European and American oak casks. On the surface, the information seemed initially very transparent, with the precise break up of cask sizes being provided: 58% butts, 23% hogsheads, and 19% puncheons. But, for those who know a thing or two about casks, is this really of much help or use in understanding the whisky’s character? The packaging goes on to reveal the bleeding obvious by stating that the vatting contains both 1st fill and 2nd fill casks, and that the casks are both European and American oak. But there is no information to reveal what ratios or proportions these cask and wood types contributed to the vatting, and so – for me, at least – the details were a little hollow and unfulfilling. But what of the whisky itself? Again, sulphur reared its ugly head, and this time fairly prominently. The palate was sweet and offered hints of fruits and spice, but the main highlight was simply the higher bottling strength of 48% ABV and a thicker mouthfeel.
Next came a whisky that straddled the past, present, and future. According to legend, Macallan distilled some peated spirit in the past, and it is from these casks of peated Macallan that the Rare Cask “Black” was created. Intended purely for the Travel Retail market, the particular bottle sourced for this event cost AUD$650 (although bottles have popped up in regular retail for between $700-$900). Like many Macallan offerings, the packaging and presentation is stunning and instantly gains your attention, but what about the spirit inside it? The general consensus in the room this night was one of disappointment. If you promote a whisky as being peated, then people will expect to find peat. Those with a good nose and palate found small clues and hints that spoke of peat influence, although it evaded many others in the room, and one could hardly assign the descriptor of “smoky”, because smoky this one ain’t. The overwhelming conclusion many reached was that the whisky was flat and one-dimensional. Not to mention sulphured. All this whisky did on the night was pose questions: How heavily peated was the malt? Merely 10pm? How old are the casks? Has the spirit’s peatiness diminished with long years in the oak? Why did Macallan take such dark-coloured whisky and put it in an opaque bottle?
It is folly to equate a whisky’s price tag with its quality, and whilst I certainly acknowledge that a peated Macallan is a rare (and thus valuable) prospect, this is one expression that over-promises and under-delivers – particular for the asking price.
And so, to finish off the night, a return to Macallan’s past. I recall the old Cask Strength expression was not widely lauded or praised to massive acclaim in the early 2000’s, but that was less about the whisky itself and due more to the quality of its superb siblings that truly stood head and shoulders above the rest. Again, like the 18yo tasted earlier in the evening, this expression spoke volumes. Yes, a cask strength bottling (58.2%) will instantly have more volume and be prominent in a line up of lower-strength expressions but it was, again, the clean oloroso, the balance, the spice, the complexity, and the “juice” that gave this whisky significantly greater fire power and kudos over its more recently bottled stablemates.
So what can we conclude from this event? What was the consensus of the room? When asked to nominate our favourite whisky on the night, the votes went – with one exception – to either the 1986 vintage 18yo or the Cask Strength. In other words, 99% of the room found that Macallan’s past was significantly better than the present and future being tasted tonight. For me, this was merely repeating or reinforcing what I’ve long preached. For the younger members of the audience, or for those who’d never had the chance to try long-gone bottlings of Macallan, it was confirmation that the rumours and stories they’d heard were true. For some, it perhaps also dispelled the belief that long-time Macallan drinkers were guilty of being stuck in a rut or over-romanticising the past.
And this is where the heart of tonight’s tasting lay: Nicholas Lai had heard so much about Macallan’s history and the bottlings of old that have taken on a legend of their own. Legends tend to become more exaggerated over time, and people look back fondly on the past, possibly losing perspective as to what whiskies were really like. This event materialised the tools and environment to make an informed and objective judgement.
For me, the more interesting topic to research and discuss is why Macallan’s whiskies have changed? Why are they seemingly no longer able to re-create the magic that was so prevalent 10-20 years ago? In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, were we just the fortunate beneficiaries of the whisky loch from the 1980’s? Did Golden Promise barley make that much of a difference? Did the distillery make some quantum change in the stillhouse that forever changed the spirit? Or is it just simply that the type and quality of sherry casks being used back then was superior to what the distillery (and, mind you, every other distillery) has been able to source in more recent times? And what about NAS? Do we infer from Edition No.1 and “Black” (not to mention Macallan’s 1824 series) that they’ll continue to use relatively young whiskies to bulk out or pad their releases? And what about the inescapable fact that – with the exception of the Fine Oak 15 – sulphur featured prominently on all of the current/recent Macallan whiskies tasted tonight? One can only speculate but is it possible that Macallan actually does craft some seriously good sherried whiskies that match the bottlings of yesteryear, but their best casks go exclusively to the uber-expensive releases that we “normal” drinkers cannot afford and thus never get to try? I guess until my household is in need of a Lalique decanter, I won’t know.
Finally, let none of this be misinterpreted or construed as an anti-Macallan article. I love the brand, and I’ve loved its whiskies. I respect and understand how they have to manage stock and handle their cask inventory in a landscape where the sherry industry shifted uncontrollably from under their feet, whilst simultaneously needing to grow their markets. I’ll continue to try the new expressions with an open mind and palate. But, for now, I’ll continue to look back very fondly and espouse the superiority of the Macallan releases from the late 1990’s and early 2000’s that made me an ambassador for the brand.
With serious thanks and gratitude to Nic for sourcing the whiskies and for putting together this most generous and enjoyable tasting. And thanks to Scott at Oak Barrel for providing the venue and facilitating an evening of assessment, consideration, discussion, entertainment, and enjoyment.
If aspects of this article tickled your fancy, you might also like to read “Is whisky better or worse than it was 20 years ago?”
Disclaimer: Yours truly hosted and presented many tasting events for Macallan between 2001 and 2006 on behalf of both the distributor and a retail chain. I was engaged independently by Beam Global to present the media launch of the 1824 Series in Australia in 2013. I have no formal connection or professional arrangement with either the distillery or Edrington, or with the local distributor in Australia. (Beam Suntory)