Distillery Focus

Cutting no corners (The Macallan)

The Macallan is one of the truly iconic distilleries but it is not resting on its laurels. Dominic Roskrow went to stay there
By Dominic Roskrow
Easter Elchies House is an imposing and impressive rural retreat at any time.This evening, though, as it comes in to view as we walk back from the warehouses, with its walls lit up and every window ablaze with startling light, cushioned in darkness and wrapped in the last snows of winter, it is nothing short of breath-taking.No shrinking violet of a distillery, this.While others cower in valleys and sulk behind trees in testament to their illicit past, the Macallan sits high above the Spey on 370 acres of rolling and rich estate, and Easter Elchies stands proudly at its core.It is a monument to luxury and indulgence, its foundations firmly placed in a history and tradition covering some 300 years.And this evening, as we trudge back to its welcoming warmth after touring the distillery and estate in the snow, our feet numb from the cold, the timelessness of this setting shines through.Ahead of us is dinner, whisky and good company, and that’s how it has always been here. Easter Elchies is awash with happy memories as generation after generation has enjoyed its hospitality and retreated here after long, contented days spent riding, fishing and hunting. How can such history, grandeur and class fail to impress?Mistake the timelessness of the building for an inactivity at the distillery as a whole at your peril, however. Tranquil the setting may be, but The Macallan is a whisky on the move.I’m here because amazingly you have to go back some 60 odd issues to find the last time that The Macallan was given the full spotlight treatment by Whisky Magazine.And boy, has a lot happened during those years.There was the implementation of a plan to buy back the distillery’s own vintage whisky for instance, and the controversy that followed when fake bottles were offered to, and bought by, the distillery, prompting months of recriminations. There was the introduction of the ground-breaking and innovative Fine Oak range, which has won awards across the world and which introduced a new generation of whisky drinkers to The Macallan, this writer included.Most recently there has been a massive investment in the distillery and its facilities, work which includes Warehouse Seven, written about in the last issue of the magazine and one of the most impressive interactive visitor experiences in Scotland, and this despite the fact that its subject matter – wood – would seem to have serious trainspotter potential.The ghillies cottage has been converted in to living accommodation so that invited guests can stay at the distillery and dine informally there. Easter Elchies House has benefited too, with a stylish makeover so that it can host corporate and trade guests.The house, first built in 1700 for John Grant, whose family had occupied lands in this region since the 14th century, is regarded as the spiritual home of The Macallan. He and many of his descendants are buried in a small graveyard at the heart of the estate.The distillery itself was one of the first legal distilleries to be opened in 1824 after local farmer Alexander Reid took advantage of reduced taxes and set about distilling on the current lofty site on the grounds of an old church. Fromthe outset the emphasis was put on quality, and The Macallan became popular with blenders who recognised the purity of its spirit.Like so many other distilleries, though, the worldwide growth of the malt is relatively recent. No money was spent on promoting it until the late 70s. By this time, though, Easter Elchies House had fallen in to disrepair and was a shadow of the property that had attracted the likes of Biggles-author W.E.Johns or cigarette producing family the Players to its doors.It was brought back from the brink in the 1980s when its rooms were used as administration offices. Now, restored to its original purpose of offering sumptuous hospitality, there’s a feeling that everything around the estate is back to where it ought to be.Which is just as well, because the whisky’s in fine fettle too, and never has the demand for it been higher.The Macallan distillery itself is one of the most impressive in Speyside. But it remains one of the whisky world’s most delicious ironies that while it is sited in such an ordered, grandiose and stylish environment it is a zany, idiosyncratic and oddball place to make whisky.For a starter, there’s the pure bloodymindedness of all involved with the whisky-making process here that no corners will be cut. So that means bringing in Golden Promise barley, which is also grown on the estate in relatively small quantities, instead of using some easier to obtain strains. There’s a problem right there, surely, given the recent problems with barley supply and costs?Not really, says the company’s director of brand education, David Cox.“We were the first people to set up a partnership with the maltsters so that we could guarantee supply and be able to trace the barley from the field to the bottle,” he says.“That partnership is 10 years old this year, and it means we have not faced some of the problems other distilleries have had.” Then there’s the strange way the distillery mixes up its yeasts, the slow speed they run the stills at here, the insistence on lengthy fermentation, and of course The Macallan’s incomparable attention to detail when it comes to the quality of wood.To put it in to context, distillery owner Edrington is not only paying 12 times as much for European oak as it would for American wood, but it has gone to the trouble of buying bodegas in Spain so it can control grape production, and it has barrels specially made for it by a local cooperage.It would also seem – though nobody’s too keen on getting in to this too much – that some casks are filled with Oloroso sherry that is just thrown away at the end of the maturation period, because Oloroso sherry is overwhelmed and therefore useless when it has been kept in fresh European oak.Oh, and while we’re about it, only 16 per cent of the spirit that is finally produced makes the final cut – the rest is rejected as foreshots and feints. Now that’s attention to detail.Mind you, you don’t have to get in to the nitty-gritty to understand that there’s something unusual going on at The Macallan.Walk in to the still room and it might as well be painted in big letters.The original mix of 50 per cent Golden Promise and 50 per cent Optic barley has by this time passed through the 16 stainless steel washbacks, each containing 36,400 litres and on each two hour wash cycle 125 kilograms of the mixed yeasts is added.Fermentation takes place over a minimum of 48 hours with an average of just more than 50, before the liquid is carried through to the stills.And what stills! The five wash stills contain 10,400 litres of wash and are directly fired.They are short and squat stills, lined up like pot-bellied aardvarks opposite 10 spirit stills, each with a capacity of 4000 litres. Each has a very sharp dipping lyne arm, each still is small and distinct, encouraging high reflux.“It’s from this that we get the meaty flavour we are looking for,” says distillery manager Alexander Tweedie. “The new make has to be gutsy to withstand the sherry casks and that’s what we get off the short, squat stills. The heating process is important too, because this way helps give the whisky the fruity and oily characteristics.” The distillery is pretty much working flat out at the moment, and, says David Cox, it has to because the demand for The Macallan across the world is at an all time high.The Fine Oak range is now established in more than 60 countries now and goes from strength to strength. And Macallan has a strong foothold in the emerging markets of Asia, with countries such as China, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam following the lead set some years ago by Japan and moving from domestic produced spirits to imported internationally-recognised ones.All heady stuff. But The Macallan is playing a sort of balancing act, with demands of a fastgrowing consumer market demanding innovative products and stylish packaging on the one hand, and the traditionalists wanting their rare and vintage sherried whiskies on the other.That, says David Cox, is what all the changes in recent years have been all about, and why the company has invested so heavily on its Fine Oak range while maintaining its reputation for the unusual and different through initiatives such as En Primeur, which is giving dedicated Macallan enthusiasts the chance to buy their own cask of whisky made exclusively from estate-grown Golden Promise barley and to mature it on site over the next 10 years.As the tasting notes show, the people at The Macallan seem to have managed to produce a vast range of styles of malt while staying true to the character of the distillery.It’s all highly impressive and as we taste our first whisky of the evening and the warmth begins to return to our feet, the fire blazing in Easter Elchies House and the snow falling outside, everything makes total sense.This is whisky making of the finest quality.This is a distillery that exudes class.And Easter Elchies House is still creating wonderful, happy memories.NEW MAKE
Nose: Rich, weighty, very robust.
Palate: Oily and viscous. Lots of fruit, apple schnapps, fresh and subtle with a long finish.THE MACALLAN 8 YEARS OLD, BOURBON CASK
Nose: Gentle, crystallised pineapple, and the bourbon influence is obvious, with candy sticks, banana and cream soda in the mix.
Palate: Surprisingly quite spicy initially and then fruit burst, especially citrus fruits.
Finish: Doesn’t outstay its welcome, quite dry.

Nose:Boiled sweets, bitter fruit.
Palate: Again some spice, but overall drier in the mouth and with a nice balance of malt, fruit and wood. Pineapple chunks.
Finish: Pleasant, gentle and more-ish.

Nose:Cocoa dusting, oranges, sultanas, ginger and spices.
Palate: Has the ‘pup-pup’ factor, the tannins drying the mouth so you almost purse your lips. Prune syrup and some oak coming through. Not unpleasant.
Finish: Long, with prune juice and chocolate orange vying for attention.THE MACALLAN FINE OAK 12 YEARS OLD
Nose: Quite gentle but complex, with grapefruit, grass and delicate floral notes. The most underwhelming of any of The Macallans tasted so far.
Palate: That’s much better! A nice balance of sweet fruit and malt, with a trace of oak, vanilla and spice nudging through.
Finish: Relatively short but demands another taste. Fine aperitif whisky.THE MACALLAN 12 YEARS OLD SHERRY CASK
Nose:A surprising vanilla note over the more obvious sherry ones, with oak, crystal ginger, sweet toffee and then a summer pudding of redcurrants and fruits.
Palate:Very smooth, dried fruits coming through late, and a mild hint of spice. Lots going on but this is a whisky wearing slippers.
Finish: Immensely satisfying and plumy.THE MACALLAN 25 YEARS OLD FINE OAK
Nose: Rich, over-ripe squidgy peaches, syrup, blood orange and apricot.
Palate: Spice opens the door to this whisky then leaves quickly, then a wonderful but surprising barn dance featuring fruit, vanilla, dry woodiness and even smoke. Complex and astounding.
Finish: Long and full, with spices and orange linking arms and strolling in to the distance.THE MACALLAN 25 YEARS OLD
Nose: Rich and full, with a dusting of cocoa and a waft of sherry and orange blossom. Again, a hint of smoke.
Palate: Full, rich and spicy, dark rum and raisin chocolate.
Finish: Long and chewy. Outstanding.