Moments of Precision

Part 2: Facing the flame: Inside the cooperages in Jerez, Spain

How fire helps create The Macallan’s distinct flavour

Not every journey involves a trial by fire, yet this is what all our oak casks endure during their journey to our distillery. Why? Because through fire comes flavour. In fact, up to 80 percent of The Macallan’s character comes from our extraordinary casks.

The wood for these casks travels thousands of miles to face the flames. Once it’s been air dried for a year where it was felled, and then another year after being cut into staves in Jerez, Spain, the next stage of the journey readies it to meet the heat of fire.

The craft of the cooper (the name given to professional cask makers) is highly skilled and respected. This step of the cask production is the most dramatic part of the whole whisky-making process. Steeped in tradition and often in generations of experience, the coopers we partner with in Jerez are passionate about their work, and pride themselves on providing consistently excellent casks for our spirits. While it is just one element of the process, the time with the cooper has a direct impact on the end result, and is part of why we choose to invest ten times more in our casks than any other distillery in existence.
 

The ‘standing of the casks’ is a unique process where the staves are carved and sanded into a rough form held in place by metal hoops, before meeting the fire that helps to mould the barrel.

Some things cave under intense pressure, while for others their true worth is revealed through the trial. Casks require heating to be crafted into shape, and to prove that they are worthy of their call. The level of heat treatment has a significant impact on the flavours created in the wood. In the bourbon industry the cask is heated quickly and it ignites, burning the surface of the wood to create a ‘char’. As well as adding flavour and colour, char can remove harsher, unwanted flavours from the spirit, almost acting as a filter between the wood and the spirit inside. For sherry and wine cask production the cask is toasted at a lower temperature for longer. This develops a larger pool of complex characters that can be passed on, over time to The Macallan spirit.
 

 

TOASTING & CHARRING

Intentionally developed over decades to a fine art, this exceptional process, and the deep wisdom found within, is passed down from cooper to cooper.

Toasting provides sweeter, more ‘toasty’ notes and candyfloss flavours.

TOASTING – SHERRY CASKS

During the toasting of the wood caramelisation takes place giving ‘toasty’ notes. This caramelisation is responsible for sweet, toasted, candyfloss flavours as well as colour development. In both American and European oak we expect to see an ‘even toast’ throughout the inside of the cask. This ensures we have as consistent a maturation period as possible.

CHARRING – EX-BOURBON

Ignition of the casks creates a layer of ‘char’ on the inner surface of bourbon barrels which acts as ‘filter’. The char is useful for removal of sulphuric immature notes from the bourbon (derived from maize) but, this does not directly contribute much to the character of the spirit. The aggressive heat treatment of Bourbon casks does create caramel, toffee and vanilla notes due to the thermal breakdown of the wood. The breakdown of these structures during heat treatment can be one of the most important processes in developing whisky flavours.

We only use charring for ex-bourbon casks, helping create notes of toffee and vanilla.

At The Macallan, the only casks that are charred are ex-bourbon casks maturing whisky that will be selected for our Triple Cask Matured spirits. The temperature and timing of the heat that is expertly applied to these oak casks can significantly influence the flavours which are present in the final whisky. Only once the casks pass the rigorous toasting and sounding test, and are approved by our Master of Wood Stuart MacPherson, do they receive the stamp of approval. They are then ready to be filled with Oloroso sherry and stored at the bodegas (wine cellars) for the next stage of the journey.
 

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