At any given moment, in any one of Scotland’s many bonded warehouses, a whisky is suddenly becoming ready. That’s not to say it’s becoming whisky; the spirit may have long passed the legal three-year stint in oak it must endure to carry that name. This is something very different; something much more subtle. Somewhere in Scotland right now – yes, right now – a whisky is reaching its zenith. Like apples on a tree, these casks will only be plucked from their racks once the spirit within has ripened to its full potential. Just like that apple, it can’t be left too long or that fleeting pinnacle of flavour will have passed, it will begin to decline in quality and, eventually, wither away. There is no set formula for predicting this special moment and no handy pocket guide with tips and tricks for maturing each distillery’s spirit. Some casks take 10 years to reach their peak, others 20. For an exceptional few, it can take substantially longer.
The Macallan 78 Years Old
In recent whisky history we have been fortunate enough to see some of the oldest expressions that have ever been committed to glass. Glenfiddich, Glenfarclas, Highland Park and Tamdhu have all released whiskies matured for 50 years or more. The Dalmore turned heads with the release of their 64-year-old Trinitas, breaking records along the way. However, there are two companies that have managed to take single malt past the age of 70: Gordon & MacPhail and The Macallan. On release, Gordon & MacPhail’s ‘Generations’ range presented whiskies the likes of which had never been seen before, including a Mortlach 70 Years Old, Glenlivet 70 Years Old and a second Mortlach aged for 75 years. In January 2021, this set of septuagenarian malts were joined by a new addition: a 72-year-old release of Glen Grant.
Not to be outdone, The Macallan recently released The Red Collection, a prestigious series of six single malts ranging from 40 years old to (an almost unbelievable) 78 years old. In total, the Red Collection contains three malts that have been matured past the (until recently unheard of) milestone of 70 years in cask. It begins to make one wonder how much further whisky can go. If 78 years old can he reached, then 80 is not far away. If that’s possible, surely a nonagenarian can be achieved and, with those mere formalities out of the way, a century of ageing doesn’t seem so out of reach. Though simple on paper, like almost everything that’s worth doing right, achieving such lofty heights requires planning and, as with any whisky, the right spirit being filled into an appropriate cask.“We have matured spirit from over 100 distilleries and we’ve learned that certain spirits react differently over extended periods of time when matched to different casks,” says Stuart Urquhart, operations director at Gordon & MacPhail. “If you are intending to mature a spirit for a long period of time, then a heavier style of spirit tends to hold the balance better over the years.”
achieving such lofty heights requires planning and, as with any whisky, the right spirit being filled into an appropriate cask
Kirsteen Campbell, master whisky maker for The Macallan, says something similar and describes the spirit made at The Macallan as having a ‘viscous mouthfeel and fruity aroma,’ adding weight to the idea that a heavier spirit might fare better for longer maturations. However, she also adds that their ‘distinctly robust and characterful new-make spirit’ is the starting point for every whisky from The Macallan, no matter the age that they are destined to be bottled at. While the spirit seems to be an important starting point for these ultra-aged releases, it is in the long, slow years of maturation that they’re really forged.
“Casks are like living breathing people and each develop their own personality,” Stuart tells me. He goes on to say that, just like people, some of these personalities will mature and develop faster than others, pointing out that maturing casks need continual monitoring to ensure they’re progressing as expected. He explains, “Sometimes when you fill a cask you may think it is destined to be a 40-year-old, but only after careful monitoring do you discover the cask has not ‘behaved’ in the way you have expected and you release the whisky as a 23 Years Old because it is at its peak.”
Kirsteen tells me that The Macallan’s casks are the single greatest contributor to the quality of their whiskies and shares a similar sentiment to Stuart when it comes to the rigorous cask monitoring required to maintain optimum conditions for maturation, a methodology which has certainly played a huge role in some of the ultra-aged releases we’ve seen recently. At Macallan, all casks are logged, the data stored and closely watched, meaning that all involved in creating these older expressions are keenly aware of the challenges posed by older whiskies.
For anyone hoping to mature a whisky for 100 years, there are two clear challenges to contend with: keeping the ABV above 40% and ensuring that the angel’s share isn’t too high. These might not be problems exclusive to very old whiskies but, if the casks are behaving the way that they were originally intended to, they might be the most challenging aspects.
“If a cask does look like it is in danger of dropping below 40% ABV, then we may choose to monitor it even more frequently to ensure its progress,” says Stuart. When asked if there had been anything learned from the release of these older whiskies, Stuart shared an interesting finding that came about from research conducted in collaboration with the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI). After recording the environmental conditions at the Gordon & MacPhail warehouse in Elgin, it was discovered that the interior maintained a very consistent temperature – an important factor for the steady maturation of whisky. Stuart explains that this is achieved in part by the fact their warehouse is always full. After casks are bottled, new casks are brought in to the site to help maintain consistency. It’s small things like this that will allow these older casks to develop to their full potential.
The 64 year-old Trinitas
When it comes to cask types, Kirsteen tells me that both American oak and European oak are used and work well with the spirit produced at
The Macallan. This is very much reflected in the recent Red Collection releases, where several of the bottlings involve different cask types in the finished product. Although these methods might work for The Macallan, Gordon & MacPhail’s experiences have led them down a different path: “In general, an American oak Bourbon barrel is used for maturation of lighter styles,” Stuart continues. According to him, the naturally smaller shape of the ex-Bourbon barrels (compared to sherry butts) matures spirit ‘faster’ and thus bigger casks are better for longer maturations.
What’s more, while they have had success maturing greatly aged whiskies using various cask types, one style of cask has performed particularly well: first-fill sherry butts. He explains that it all comes down to ratios for the longer maturations and the use of a (comparatively large) sherry butt of around 500 litres in capacity means less of the spirit is in contact with the oak at any given time than with a smaller cask, such as a 200-litre ex-Bourbon barrel, allowing it to mature at a slower pace.
Highly aged whisky from Gordon & MacPhail
After speaking with Stuart and Kirsteen one thing becomes very clear – they make sure that whisky is bottled when it is ready. That might be after 10 years or it could be after 78 years; it just depends when it’s ripe. As for if we’ll ever see a 100-year-old whisky, Stuart feels it could happen: “I think it is fair to say that it is theoretically possible to mature a whisky to 100 years old, if the conditions are perfect and the cask performs in a way that you expect it to.” But, as we know, the casks don’t always behave and, even after 125 years of experience in maturing whiskies, G&M is still experimenting, learning, and treading the path in pursuit of perfection.