Marcin Miller joined a very select number of invited guests for the ultimate Macallan tasting.
Without a hint of exaggeration, this was the most remarkable tasting of The Macallan ever staged. Ulf Buxrud, the deferred consumer (see Whisky Magazine Issue 21), wanted to celebrate his 60th birthday. What better way to toast this landmark than by opening some of the very rarest bottles from his admirable collection, among friends, in London’s aptly named Landmark Hotel? The high ceilings and ornate cornicing of the supremely elegant Drawing Room did justice to the exquisite whiskies we tasted.The tasting panel comprised Whisky Magazine’s Consultant Editor Michael Jackson, Editor-at-Large Charles MacLean, Editor Marcin Miller, whisky guru Jack Milroy, John Hansell and whisky writer Helen Arthur acting as moderator (in other words trying to keep the panel on schedule). Many of the select audience had travelled from afar to participate: renowned whisky collector Guiseppe Begnoni had come from Italy to attend the event. Norman Shelley – who famously bought a fabulous Macallan collection last year – had come over from Turkey, Tsuchiya Mamoru from Japan, Dave Russo and others from the USA. Ulf had invited many old friends from Sweden. The UK was also well-represented: Sukhinder Singh from The Whisky Exchange was in attendance as were Doug McIvor and Lex Kraajeveld. The support of The Macallan was clear as the whisky was officially represented by David Robertson, Master Distiller and Bob Dalgarno, Whisky Maker. It was also a pleasure to see, in a presumably unofficial capacity, the legendary Willy Phillips.The event began with the only non-Macallan of the day. Ulf proposed a toast to the Queen with a glass of Highland Park. It was distilled in 1952 (year of the Queen’s Coronation) and bottled in 1977 (year of the Silver Jubilee) for drinking in 2002 (the Golden Jubilee). There was also time for a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday.The format was relatively simple: five flights of 10 whiskies plus a short flight of three at the end. Each flight followed the same structure: 15 minutes tasting and taking notes, 15 minutes of individual panel members talking about individual samples and a final 15 minutes of questions and answers for the panel from the floor. Of course, the difference between the simplicity of the theory and the practice of pouring and distributing the drams is so big that a well-drilled team was trained to execute the task with military precision. Indeed, a laboratory dispensing machine was brought over from Sweden calibrated to dispense precisely 20ml per crank.The panel knew what was being tasted and in which order. To add a little spice to the proceedings, the guests were aware of what was in the flight but not the order in which the whiskies were poured and tasted. The list of flights below does not reflect the tasting order, rather the rationale behind the flights. First up was a flight of ‘old and rare’. It included the 1942 Vintage, important for a variety of reasons, not least of which was that it represented the year of Ulf’s – and Michael Jackson’s – birth as well as coming from the last production year before the war enforced closure of the distillery. Michael enjoyed a “sensuous, sweet aroma” and described it as being “subtle, elegant and luxurious.” The 1946 Vintage – the year of the birth of Ulf’s wife, Birgitta – was described by Charlie as “clean and fresh, warm and welcoming” and meriting from him a 9/10. Next up were the 25-year-old and the 30-year-old: curiously enough, the 25-year-old seemed drier, woodier and altogether older tasting than the 30-year-old. These were followed by three Gran Reserva bottlings; all bottled at 18 years but coming from 1979, 1980 and 1981. The final three bottlings in this exceptional flight were the Private Eye, the Replica 1861 and the Replica 1874. Of the 1861 Replica Michael opined that “older Macallans are more citric and more delicate” and he felt that the custard notes of the original had carried through to the Replica, which also had a rummy character reminding him of trifle sponge and ‘boudoir biscuits’. Charlie felt that the 1874 Replica was “not bad but not as good as the original” and found notes of clotted cream and fruit compote. Upon completion of the panel’s opinions, Ulf ventured that he had found the 1946 surprisingly peaty. The panel was delighted to have found such a heavily-peated Speysider and, indeed, that they would love to see more of it. Willy Phillips informed us that at the time there were maltings on site at The Macallan (they weren’t taken out until the 1950s) and that the mood of the maltster was crucial as the control systems weren’t as rigourous as they are now. Michael Jackson pointed out that nowadays when Speyside distillers say they are using lightly peated malt they generally mean unpeated malt. The next two-and-a-half flights were fascinating as they represented the complete vintage range of the classic 18-year-old. Flight two comprised the 10 vintages of the 1960s. Flight three comprised the 1970s. Flight four comprised the 1980s but this was only a ‘half flight’ of five whiskies. Thereafter, flight four-and-a-half and five continued the vintage theme but were single cask, cask strength samples selected by Bob Dalgarno. The l984 was, of course, the last of the bottled 18-year-olds.This section of the tasting allowed an uninterrupted examination of any change in style or fluctuation in The Macallan from 1960 through to 1984. Of particular interest were the 1960, 1961 and 1962 as these were not widespread in their original distribution, available only in Italy. It was a rare privilege to then taste cask samples from 1985 right through to new make spirit (in flight six David Robertson introduced samples from the 2000 vintage, the 2001 vintage drawn from single casks and the 2002 new make spirit vintage – the Macallan babies). The opportunity here was to see how future Macallans might taste, bearing in mind these were single casks and, therefore, snapshots rather than the complete picture. So what conclusions could be reached? Willy Phillips alerted us to the fact that he had been looking for consistent quality in the 18-year-olds: “Yes, there will be variations but the consumer shouldn’t be surprised.” Many of the samples from the 1960s fell away with water. This became apparent very early in the flight so the panel took the view that these eminent whiskies should not be jeopardised. This delighted Norman Shelley who “never enjoyed tasting malt whisky with additional water.” The 1962 was a point of discussion: Ulf found notes of coconut which to him seemed more like a Springbank. Dave Russo found a slight ‘tongue-tickling’ effervescence and Willy Phillips commented upon the ‘nose of flowering currant’, otherwise known as cat’s pee. In the early 1980s stocks of The Macallan were relatively low – due in no small measure to the sales success of the 12-year-old – which meant the whiskies from 1980 and 1981 didn’t seem to have the same levels of balance and integration of the previous vintages, which manifested itself in a lack of subtlety compared to the vintages of the 1970s.As we travelled towards the younger end of the sample spectrum it became harder to identify individual aromas because the spirit was lacking maturity and balance and was consequently more spirituous, the higher level of alcohol masking the nose.New make spirit at 63.4% (filling strength) gave impressions of fruity, sweet cereal. By one year old (at approximately 62%) the spirit had extracted surprising amounts of colour and developed a more malty, cereal-like character with some allspice on the palate. By the age of two the spirit showed only very slight colour progression but enormous flavour improvement from year one: increased spice and relaxing of tannins coinciding with a loss of solvents.After the final flight a final question and answer session: “Is cask management more important than spirit reflux in the stills?” Ulf asked David Robertson. “Everything has an influence. Wood (quercus robur) has been identified as exerting an influence of 60% on the final flavour profile of The Macallan. The new make spirit constitutes 30% and less than 10% can be finessed by, for example, the style of sherry placed in the seasoning cask in Spain prior to shipment to Scotland.” There followed a discussion about influences on The Macallan. Ulf asked if microclimate was an issue. David suggested that this was not an issue for The Macallan because of the high wood extraction potential. David felt it might play a part in whiskies using second- or third-filled casks. Willy Phillips gave personal anecdotal evidence of the influence of microclimate using the memory of the aromas of smoked fish at Glenlassaugh as his example.The whiskies from 1960 to 2002 represented each year that Ulf has known his wife. Those fortunate enough to attend will remember the tasting for years to come aided by a keepsake. Thoughtfully, rather than waste all the eminent spirit that had been poured and nosed, Ulf had provided an empty bottle with a funnel (blue and white alternated to represent the Scottish flag) into which we could decant our (unadulterated) samples. Some included everything in their vatted malt thereby negating the right to call it whisky (as some samples came from 2002). Some others – I am sure – added samples which they had adulterated with water. I added nothing less than 12 years of age to my vatting. And do you know what? It is unique.
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