Spirits: The Bright Side

  • Richard Carleton Hacker

Even in an industry that prides itself on tradition, the Macallan has been noteworthy for its consistency. Indeed, the lush, almost resinlike flavors of the distillery’s dark, amber-hued whiskies are the result of its aging single malts exclusively in Spanish oloroso sherry casks. Last fall, however, the Macallan broke from convention by introducing the Fine Oak collection, a milder line of whiskies that owe much of their characteristics to American oak.

To create the Fine Oak collection, the Macallan combined, or “vatted,” oloroso cask–aged whiskies with single malts that have spent a minimum of 10 years in American sherry and bourbon barrels. Because American oak imparts a fraction of the tannins of Spanish oak, the resulting whiskies are more subdued and lighter in taste and color than their 100 percent sherry-aged counterparts. The new whiskies represent a deliberate evolution and expansion of the Macallan’s product line, but their development also is attributable to the shrinking supply—and rising costs—of Spanish sherry barrels.

Just two decades ago, Jerez, Spain, was home to 20 cooperages. Today, primarily because sherry makers are reusing barrels, only one is still in business. The cooperage’s largest customer is the Macallan, which orders that the oak for its casks be harvested in northern Spain, dried for 12 months, made into barrels, and then aged with sherry for three years. After discarding the sherry, the Macallan ships the barrels to its Craigellachie, Scotland, distillery to store its single malts.

Because of the many steps required for their production, the finished sherry casks cost the Macallan approximately $756 each. By comparison, an American oak bourbon barrel sells for about $85. While sherry casks are two-and-a-half times the size of bourbon barrels, the price for an equal volume of bourbon barrel–aging capacity is just $212.50, less than one-third the going rate for a Spanish cask.
 
The cost of sherry barrels is reflected in the price of sherry-aged whiskies. The retail price of the Macallan 18 Years Old has increased by as much as 45 percent within the last year alone, and the price of its 30 Years Old has jumped as much as 60 percent in the same time period. Although the Macallan’s limited supply of mature single malts is a contributing factor to this escalation, the utilization of American barrels, as the new Fine Oak collection attests, can help reduce the price of the final product.
 
Ranging from $44 to $220, the Macallan’s lighter line of whiskies can be gentler on the wallet than the distillery’s 100 percent sherry-aged single malts (which range from $100 or more for the 18 Years Old to $550 and up for the 30 Years Old). The mildest (and least expensive) of the three whiskies in the collection is the 80-proof Fine Oak 10 Years Old. Pale straw in color, the spirit is a smooth sipping whisky with overtones of peach and citrus. The golden-hued 15 Years Old ascends to 86 proof and presents a heavily heathered mix of sweet spices and dried-fruit flavors, with hints of chocolate and raisins. The 15 is the best all-around sipping whisky of the three, but the most prominent in flavor is the 86-proof 21 Years Old, which bursts with tastes of floral and citrus spices, oak, and vanilla.
 
Each of the Fine Oak whiskies presents a new experience for devotees of the Macallan. No matter the motives behind their creation, the bottlings are a welcome addition to the distillery’s portfolio. 

The Macallan, +44.1340.872.280, www.themacallan.com

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