When you say Champagne, there are some brands that come to mind immediately. Moet, Tattinger, Veuve… The list goes on. The same thing is true for scotch whisky. In this case, topping the list of brands synonymous with scotch is Macallan and their flagship double oaked 12 year aged version.
Originally founded in 1824 by farmer Alexander Reid, the Macallan Distillery located in Craigellachie, Scotland was one of the first distilleries in the country to obtain a license to produce whisky. He maintained ownership until 1868 when James Stuart took over, and the distillery was subsequently sold in 1892 to Roderick Kemp who previously owned Talisker.
The original name of the area was “Maghellan”, taken from the Gallic word “magh”, meaning fertile ground, and “Ellan”, from the Monk St.Fillan who held a close association with the church that stood in the grounds of The Macallan Estate until 1400. From there was derived the name “Macallan” which adorns the distillery.
In the early years of the distillery, the whisky produced by Macallan was primarily used in blended whisky, the most popular form for the spirit in Scotland and the rest of Great Britain. It was only with the downturn in whisky sales in the 1980s that Macallan started focusing on single malt scotch whisky production under their own label, branding themselves as a “luxury whisky” with a refined image.
Rather than getting their barrels from a common cooperage, the Macallan distillery wanted to market themselves as using “bespoke” barrels by traveling to Juarez, Spain to hand select the trees from which they would make their barrels for the aging process. Once aged, they have started finishing the whisky in various methods, including previously used sherry casks or bourbon barrels.
The descendants of Roderick Kemp maintained ownership of the distillery from 1892 through to 1996, when the Highland Distillers company took over. The distillery remains in the same location to this day, under the private ownership of the Highland Distillers group.
As a traditional single malt scotch whisky, this spirit starts with a grain bill of 100% malted barley. From there, it skips the peat smoke drying and flavoring process, instead moving straight to the cooking and fermenting process.
Once the alcohol has been generated the whisky is distilled through one of Macallan’s 24 small stills. According to Macallan they believe that these smaller stills promote more contact between the whisky and the copper in the still, which causes a chemical reaction that eliminates the sulfur and other nasty substances in the spirit before it makes its way to the barrel.
Speaking of the barrel, Macallan hand selects the trees that it uses to make its own barrels in which the spirit is aged. At first, that is. This “double cask” whisky goes on to spend time in a previously used sherry cask before being finished.
Once the spirit has completed its journey, it is proofed with local water and placed directly in the bottle. No artificial coloring is used, despite being allowed under the local scotch production laws.
Macallan’s bottles remind me of a slender butler standing at attention in a three piece white suit. The bottle is generally round, but flares gently from the base to the shoulder. A V-shaped molding on the front enhances that impression of a suit, looking like the lapel on a fine jacket. From there, the bottle quickly tapers to a medium length neck.
The labeling is large, yet understated. There’s a minimum of information on the label, keeping it clean and uncluttered, with black text on a white background. The label is big enough that it doesn’t feel like the information is crammed on, but allows space on the top and bottom of the bottle to allow the beautiful color of the whisky to shine through. Mostly. It does a good job of hiding when it’s only 1/4 full, which is something bartenders appreciate since they don’t need to swap out the bottles as often.
Macallan calls itself the “cognac of scotch” and at the first whiff of the glass you can see why. The aromas are fruity and sweet, much closer to the sherry that used to inhabit the casks in which this spirit was matured. The aromas that are most apparent are cherries, dried apricots, and the butterscotch that some others have mentioned.
Taking a sip brings out a lot more of the oak specific flavors. There’s a heavy hint of vanilla that comes through first, and that’s followed by some of the more fruity and sweet flavors like honey. It’s like a liquid version of a piece of toast with some apricot jam — absolutely delicious.
On the finish, I get a little bit more spice, perhaps a bit of cinnamon to add to the mixture. There’s a touch of bitterness on the end but it quickly dissipates.
The aroma is significantly sweeter, trending closer to a bowl full of honey than the cherries and apricots. I can also smell a bit more vanilla coming through much like with an American bourbon.
As for the flavor, all of the same items are present but just a little bit toned down. It’s like they put a heavy blanket over a speaker playing their music — you still get it, but not at the same intensity.
It’s a different beast than most scotch whisky. Even the blended Johnny Walker has some peat-y flavors, but this is a sweet and fruity spirit that is a joy to drink. If you don’t generally like scotch, this might be a good selection for you to try.
If there’s one thing I can complain about, it’s that there’s that hint of bitterness on the end that adds a hair of unpleasantness. But really that’s a minor gripe in the grand scheme of things.
Macallan 12 Year Single Malt Double Cask Scotch
Owner: Highland Distillers
Classification: Speyside Scotch Whisky
Grain bill: 100% malted barley
Aging: 12 years
Proof: 43% ABV
Price: $60 / 750ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
Cognac of whisky indeed.