Today marks a milestone here at 31 Whiskey: we’re publishing our 300th review! We launched this site about three years ago, dedicated to bringing you the highest quality and most impartial reviews that we can — and that we wouldn’t be limited to only top-shelf spirits. We’ve reviewed some truly terrible bottles over the years, so that our readers never have to. So, as a treat to myself for slogging through the bottom shelf, as well as a nod to review #300, I figured I’d get something in the ~$300 price range — and I could think of no better selection to try than the Macallan Rare Cask Scotch Whisky.
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, the name “Macallan” was derived and it still adorns the distillery hundreds of years later.
In the early years of the distillery, the whisky produced by Macallan was primarily used in blended whisky, which was 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 Jerez, Spain to hand select the trees from which they would make their barrels for the aging process. They have also started finishing the aged 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.
- Learn More: What Is Scotch Whisky?
This version of the product starts out just like most of Macallan’s other labels, but there’s a twist at the end.
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 in turn 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, as we mentioned above, Macallan hand selects the trees that it uses to make its own barrels in which the spirit is aged. For this edition, the distillery uses a combination of American and European oak barrels which have previously held some sherry for “seasoning”. Once in the barrels, the spirit is aged for a reported 12 years, but since this is a NAS (No Age Statement) bottling, that time frame is subject to variation.
This is where things start to deviate from the norm, though. There is often some additional finishing that happens after this point — but for the Rare Cask edition, the distillery hand selects the very best barrels from that year’s run of whiskey and blends them together to create the whisky we see today. They use a touch of water to proof the spirit down, but there’s no flavoring or coloring added before bottling.
Macallan’s bottles remind me of a slender butler in a fancy suit, standing at attention. The bottle is generally slim and rounded, and 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, and the bottle is topped off with a metal and cork stopper.
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.
That bottle comes packaged in this beautiful display case, as one would expect from a high end spirit. The outside of the box is the same tessellated red square pattern that appears on the bottom of the label, and on the inside there’s a pattern reminiscent of the rings on an oak tree stump. Printed on that inner side is a short history of the Macallan estate, and some notes about the whisky itself. The two wings of the display case are held in place with some small magnets.
That display case is further packaged in a paper sleeve that looks identical to the outside of the case, as if you didn’t have enough packaging already.
Right off the bat, this looks amazing and unique. There’s a rusty red tinted hue to the spirit, and its already significantly darker than anything else I’ve had from their distillery. Pouring a bit into the glass, there’s instantly a fruity and delicious aroma that’s wafting up, specifically some apricots, apples, plums, sweet cherries, and a bit of orange that’s accompanied by some nutmeg, cinnamon, and cove spices.
Taking a sip, this whisky is smooth and delicious with a good medium weight to the spirit. Up front, I get raisins, plums, and a touch of orange zest all combined with some brown sugar and vanilla from the oak casks. All of this slowly develops to eventually include some chocolate for the finish. Speaking of that finish… I do pick up a little bitterness as the experience ends, probably as part of that dark chocolate flavor, which slightly tarnishes an otherwise great flavor profile.
With the addition of some ice, the flavors absolutely change — but I don’t think it’s necessarily for the best.
Good news first: there’s much more spice present in the flavor profile. That nutmeg and cinnamon are now front and center when you take a sip, mixing well with the fruity notes to make a more complex and well rounded flavor.
But that good news comes with a bit of a catch: the bitterness in that chocolate note is even more pronounced than it was before. It has gone from being a minor inconvenience to nearly a deal killer, throwing off the balance and making it almost unenjoyable.
This spirit is billed as being a representation of the best that Macallan can produce from their sherry filled casks, and when taken neat I can agree. It’s complex and delicious, with a great aroma and a good flavor profile. The only thing that was holding me back was the hint of bitterness from that dark chocolate note at the end.
What’s really unfortunate is how this morphs and changes when you add some ice. At that point, the added bitterness is beyond what I would expect from a spirit in this price range. And if I’m shelling out $300ish for this whisky (which I did — we buy all of our own review spirits here so we can remain impartial), that’s not something that I want to find in my bottle.
|Macallan Rare Cask
Classification: Single Malt Scotch Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 43% ABV
Price: $319 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
A bit like the movie 300: an amazing start with an unfortunate, bitter end.