Despite all my whisky enthusiasm I wasn’t at all bothered about visiting the Manchester United of whisky, but with Aberlour all booked up i journeyed up to Easter Elchies to see what all the fuss was about. Despite being one of the most expensive standard tours in Scotland [£15, July ’17], to its credit it’s not that standard. In reality it’s two tours in one plus a proper tasting flight at the end.
The existing Macallan distillery is divided in two. We were shown around the smaller of the two. The second half of the tour takes place in Macallan’s Cask Experience Suite, a dedicated look at the forth ingredient in whisky – wood. After 90 minutes we were sat around the bar to sample the new make [a must for any distillery flight in my book]. and four malts – two of which were the 12 & 18yo. Really a true bargain at £15. Visit now if you want to see where the proper old liquid gold was once made, because very soon the old distillery will be mothballed.
Our tour guide Graham had previously worked at Cardhu & Cragganmore. He had excellent knowledge of the distillery, coupled with some science depth and [unusually for a guide], also enjoyed whisky in his spare time.
The Macallan estate consists of 309 acres and includes 1.5 miles of the River Spey. Water from the Spey is only used for cooling. Water for mashing & bottling comes from five 30m bore holes that provide the distillery with 150,000 litres daily.
Originally named Elchies distillery from 1824, it was renamed Macallan in 1892 when Roderick Kemp [who had previously owned Talisker], bought it. It remained in the hands of the Kemp trust for more than 100 years until Highland Distillers [now Edrington & William Grant & Sons], bought it in 1996. Suntory had previously gained a 25% market share ten years earlier after the group was floated on the stock exchange in 1968, two years after the Kemp trust was privatised. Good ‘ole privatisation.
Macallan in 2017 is one sensational building site. The £120 million [latest estimate], contract being carried out by Robertson will transform Macallan to meet current & perceived global demand. The expansion includes a brand new distillery and visitors centre experience, one which realises the largest grass roof in Europe.
According to Robertson, the build was due to be completed this year, but those at the distillery suggest it will be completed in a year from now [July 2018]. Trials are currently in place [Nov ’17] at the new distillery to ensure consistency is in line with the existing distillery before the switchover.
Once the handover is complete, Macallan’s annual production will increase from 10.2 to 15mlpa. As Brora is to Clynelish [#2] Blog, both parts of the old distillery will be mothballed – truly marking the end of an era.
According to some, the roof can only hold so much weight and heavy snow fall will require swift removal action or we may see a very large batch of Snow Phoenix – Macallan styley.
Here’s a fly-by of what the completed site will look like [scotchwhisky.com]:
Whilst the distillery & visitors centre will be aesthetically integrated into the landscape, conversely the warehouses stand out on top of the hill in proud defiance. A bold statement to competitors and fans perhaps of their formidable arsenal? – an arsenal which will serve to meet future demand for the 18yo amongst other expressions. There’s not a great sign of this supposed supply crisis that has apparently sent prices rocketing.
Macallan currently has a maximum on-site storage capacity of 281,000 litres. Like most distilleries, it’s nearly always running at full capacity. Robertson are building Macallan one warehouse a year, every year for the next eight years, and they are big warehouses – housing approximately 30,000 litres each.
GRAIN, FERMENTATION & DISTILLATION
Macallan own the patent for a particular strain of barley called Momentum which they favour for its particularly high sugar content. 15 farmers are contracted to supply Momentum to Macallan, a share which makes up 20% of their grain needs. The rest [80%] is Concerto standard fayre.
Given Deanston have a fermentation time of 100 hours [Oban is 110, Tomatin up to 120], Macallan ferment for only 50-52 hours. This gives for a denser, oilier spirit, one that is less fruity & malty such as Deanston or Cardhu for example.
Next door to Macallan is a [their?] bio-mass plant that has recently been completed, also sympathetically integrated into the landscape. The plant will provide the distillery with steam power whilst the distillery will supply the plant with draff energy in return. A neat cycle indeed.
Macallan have the smallest spirit stills amongst the commercial distillers. Every wash still is matched with a pair of smaller spirit stills. With one of the smallest cuts in the industry. and given the angle of those lyne arms, copper contact is minimal.
Macallan currently have 7 sets of 3 stills. The new distillery will [of course] follow the same model but with 12 sets of 3.
The distillation cycle is 5 hours.
Macallan employ three wood types for all their expressions:
- European red oak from Northern Spain. This brings notes of dried fruits, toffee, caramel,..
- US bourbon. Theses casks make up 20% of their entire cask ratio and feature predominantly in the ‘Fine Oak‘ series.
- US white virgin oak from Ohio & Pensilvania. This brings notes of honey, vanilla, spice,..
Macallan [like Dalmore, Glenmorangie and others], own managed forests in Spain to meet their sherry cask requirements.
Oak trees are grown sufficiently enough to allow for a one metre diameter trunk cut. The wood is then ‘quarter cut’ which forms the key pieces required for cask assembly. [See pic left]
The oak is left to dry/season for three years.
The process from tree to cask takes around 5 years. However, as Angus published only the other day on whiskyfun.com regarding sherry casks:
‘For all the bluster and marketing gruel spooned out about sherry casks by the whisky industry, if you want to truly understand what a ‘sherry cask’ is in terms of modern whisky maturation then you should go and visit Jerez and its remarkable winemakers.
The difference between a traditional sherry cask and the journey they undergo – the ‘curation’ if you like – and the brand new, wood technology laden cheap Oloroso seasoned examples, is quite staggering. If they even actually come from the sherry producing region at all.’
Macallan also own a cooperage in Southern Spain where their European oak casks are assembled prior to shipping. Their US virgin oak casks come flat packed and are assembled in a cooperage in Glasgow.
Macallan only use their casks twice, first & second-fill only. Benromach are even more stringent – first-fill only. After Macallan are done with them, they are broken up and sold to smoke houses, for furniture making, key rings etc,… rather than being sold on to other distilleries. That seems to be wasteful. However they do keep back ‘neutral’ 500 litres sherry butts to marry ‘ready’ single malt for 6-8weeks.
CASK SIZES USED
- Barrel [ASB] 200ltr
- Standard hogshead 240ltr. Essentially a barrel with extra staves and a bigger lid.
- Butt [US or Euro sherry] 500ltr. Weights 120kg empty!
- Sherry puncheon 500ltr
LOOSE ENDS, RANDOM FACTS & REVISION FROM GRAHAM
21% of the price of whisky represents the cost of making it & profit. 79% is tax. This months budget (Nov ‘17) saw only a freeze on alcohol duty, save for extra strength cider.
Dunnage = casks floor-racked three high for barrels, 2 high for sherry butts. Macallan’s new warehouses store casks on steel racks, 10-12 high.
Macallan grade each whisky with a tint numbers – colour is everything remember. When did this start? Who else does this?, who doesnt?
95% of Macallan’s production goes to making single malt with only 5% towards blends such as Cutty Sark & Famous Grouse.
‘For a distillery which has become synonymous with the growth of single malt, it is worth remembering that Macallan has always been an important malt for blending. It wasn’t until the early 1980s, faced with a downturn in the market for fillings, that Macallan decided to focus more strongly on the then new single malt category.’ SW
These days, every drop Macallan produce is used for single malt or blends, meaning there are no casks for independent bottlers nowadays. Boo
Macallan New make spirit  63.5%
- N: Straight savoury/oily barley-vodka with very light fruitiness.
- T: Light astringency, somewhat coppery, fruitless and rather monosyllabic.
- F: Aluminium/cereal/molasses.
- C: Surprisingly more edgy than I imagined. I’m coming round to the idea that Macallan is no easy spirit. Tells you the importance both the juice and the casks have in defining the distillery character. Colour? – pah!
Macallan leave their whisky to age for a minimum of around 6 years until casks are first sampled [smell & taste-checked], meaning their NAS expressions are no younger.
- N: One of those banoffe pie/toffee/malty-sweet crowd pleasers.
- T: Sweet cereal, thin-to-bitter, soft-edgy spirit.
- F: Short finish, turning more bitter-sweet – the mash & cereal notes working uneasily against the wood.
- C: Good sub-entry-level malt. Identifiably modern Macallan.
Scores 79 points
Aged around 11yo says our tour guide Graham, who asked the master distiller out of his own personal interest. So this is whisky made from casks not quite making the 12yo grade for whatever reason. Could it be that this Amber is made from casks that were ‘ready’ already? Given the amount of first fill use, most definitely.
- N: Similar profile to the Select Oak, though slightly thicker, sweeter and more refined.
- T: Some mouthfeel chew with a light citrus and spice bite.
- F: Bitter-sweet toffee bourbon, a little fresh spice, molasses and then vanilla ice cream at the end.
- C: A bit rough n ready but again, identifiably modern Macallan. Certainly mark or two higher than the Select Oak.
Scores 81 points
- N: After the two fairly decent NAS expressions, with this 12yo we have a more rounded malt, thicker & sweeter with more sherry influence. more complex cereals and some citrus,…
- T: Starts a little thin with bitter tannins, but thickens & sweetens over time with the development of some dried fruits. I find this somewhat thin, spirity & grainy, which was the overall consensus on the day.
- F: Compared to the two NAS, this age expression demonstrates a more clearly defined finish with a gentle aniseed heat.
- C: Despite some gripes, again, a few marks higher over the Amber. I’m seeing a pattern and it’s not the colour scheme.
Scores 83 points
Macallan 18yo  Ob. ‘Fine Oak’ 43% WB86
The ‘Fine Oak’ series denotes predominately bourbon cask use. For this 18yo Fine Oak, Macallan have deployed only 1st-fill casks.
- N: After the 12yo Sherry Oak, this is deeper & richer with some fungal citrus and a more complex consolidation of all its parts.
- T: Alrighty, there are some woody tannins but not as much as there might be from more resinous sherry casks in the mix, given the levels shown in the 12yo ‘Sherry oak’. Adding water brings out the waxy=oils, bitter beeswax, a fresh sour-sweet,…. Again, rather more challenging than expected.
- F: Bitter notes leading to molasses, vanilla<aniseed. Good, long finish.
- C: Not perfect in the middle, but still very good. It’s no beginners malt however, especially at £170.
Scores 86 points
Thankyou to Graham for a superb two hours