Sources of Excellence
Part 1: Time, wisdom and wood; The story of The Macallan cask
It all begins with an acorn
Every story has its origins, every adventure a birthplace: ours begins with wood from two continents.
There’s a reason we care so much about wood at The Macallan. Our story, and a significant part of what makes The Macallan the single malt it is today, is due to our investment in our exceptional oak casks. We know that up to 80 percent of the The Macallan characteristics and 100 percent of its natural colour comes from these exceptional oak casks; which is why we believe our investment in wood is worth it.
In fact, we place so much importance on the integrity of our casks that we invest more in the wood’s journey from forest to cask than any other whisky brand, with the oak we use coming from two separate continents - America and Europe.
Cask Facts: More than a Tree
Historically, sherry-seasoned oak casks used for maturing Scotch whisky were simply convenient transport vessels for shipping sherry to the UK.
As the scotch industry developed, the demand for higher quality casks and the unique value of these sherry oak casks was realised.
American oak for maturing Scotch whisky likely began in the early 20th century, but became more prevalent due to the difficulties in obtaining Spanish oak casks during the Spanish Civil War.
Our American oak is harvested in Ohio, Missouri and Kentucky when they are approximately 70 years old. As American oak is more dense than its European relative, it is perfectly suited for creating both bourbon and sherry casks.
In contrast, the European sherry seasoned oak we use is more porous and contains many more tannins than American oak, which although they take longer to mature, play a pivotal role in the colour and flavour of spirits. In fact, the European wood has up to five times more tannins, which provide the distinct astringency often associated with wines and spirits. Heavy rainfall provides the perfect climate conditions for our European oak trees to slowly grow, and these are harvested in the Spanish regions of Cantabria, Galicia and across the Pyrenees into France when they’re around 100 years old.
Drying The Wood
Drying the wood is an integral part of the process of making casks. We need to dry the wood to ensure the heavy oils (which are very astringent) from within the wood, don’t spoil the precious spirit we wish to mature. Wood can be dried in two ways: Kiln dried, which is faster but can have a negative impact on the qualities we need for maturation, or Air dried, which takes longer, but preserves the distinct characters of the wood we need for maturing whisky. At The Macallan, we appreciate and value the exceptional. It is a conscious choice to air dry our casks.
It is worth the cost and a wisdom of wood worth having. For both our wood types we air dry the entire logs for one year, at the place where the wood has been harvested. This reduces the moisture content of the oak; cutting down on weight for transport and moisture for sawing.
MASTER OF WOOD: Stuart MacPherson
As our Master of Wood, Stuart is the primary source of information on The Macallan’s oak casks and the influence on the whiskies. He is intimately acquainted with every step of the wood journey, and is particularly involved with the cooperages in Spain, with a key focus on managing the cask suppliers.
- Stuart helps to ensure the critical supply of the highest quality sherry seasoned oak casks to The Macallan
- Overseeing every stage of the process is essential as the influence of the oak maturation casks on the final character of The Macallan is integral
- The huge investment in these casks pays a dividend in the distinctive character of the final whisky, accounting for up to 80% of the final aromas and flavours of The Macallan
- He is also involved in the far reaching brand education programme around wood
CUTTING & DRYING
Once the moisture content of the wood has been reduced after at least one year of air drying, the wood is then cut into individual ‘staves’. Any wooden vessel that is intended to contain liquid will be ‘quarter sawn’, to ensure the nature of the wood is used to create a quality cask. The American oak staves are then transported to Jerez de la Frontera in Spain. Before being crafted into casks, these staves are left to dry for another year in the Spanish sun. Once the wood reaches between 12-16 percent moisture content, it can be passed to the coopers for ‘the rising’ of the cask.
It takes approximately six years to create a Macallan Sherry-Seasoned cask, from harvesting the tree to filling with our Macallan spirit.
Overseeing this essential process is our Master of Wood, Stuart MacPherson. This is a integral role as the influence of the wood on the final character of The Macallan is critical. We choose this significant investment in the journey, from the acorn until they arrive as casks in Speyside, due to the leading role they play in delivering the distinctive character, aromas and flavours of The Macallan.