Part 3: The Macallan’s most important ingredient: Time
Why the choice to wait is an integral part of our whisky making process
While life sometimes calls for quick decisions, it’s more often than not a game of patience and perseverance in pursuit of something bigger. Without the wait The Macallan wouldn’t be what it is today because whilst water, yeast and barley are key ingredients of our whisky, time is essential at each stage of the journey.
Once our casks have received the stamp of approval from our Master of Wood, Stuart MacPherson, they then travel to the nearby sherry bodegas (wine cellars), where palomino grapes grow in the very special Albariza soil found in the Jerez region of Spain. Containing up to 80 percent chalk, a distinguishing feature of the soil is its capacity to retain moisture, essential for nourishing vines during the dry summer season. Once in the bodegas the casks are filled with dry Oloroso sherry and left to rest and season for at least 12-18 months.
We use a number of different cask sizes, from the 190L American Oak Barrel (used for bourbon) up to the larger 500L Sherry Butts, made in Jerez in Spain and seasoned with Oloroso Sherry.
AMERICAN OAK SHERRY SEASONED CASKS
The sherry industry has long loved to use American oak to mature sherry wines. They are lighter than European oak and are very compatible with dry wines such as Fino and Oloroso. The link between American oak and sherry can be traced back to as early as the 1820s. Our American Oak casks are filled with Oloroso Sherry at approximately 18 per cent alcohol. We use Sherry Butts, Puncheons, and Traditional Hogsheads (500L/250l) cask sizes, which are seasoned for a slow 18 months.
Why take so long with a liquid that doesn’t even make it to the final product? It may seem like an unnecessary step, but for us every stage is intentional, and the extra step is worth the wait. Time is something that there is no shortcut for; you cannot rush or fast-track to speed it up. We choose to unhurriedly season our casks for a full 18 months because we have learned after years of refinement that this is the amount of time that it takes to reach our standards.
EUROPEAN OAK SHERRY SEASONED CASKS
Our European oak is grown in northern Spain (Cantabria and Galicia), into France and further east into Europe. They are air dried for one year as a log, and then up to 18 months as a stave. We also toast our casks to build up an even layer and help set the balance of flavours that for our spirits.
As with our American casks, these are filled with sherry and seasoned for 18 months. Each step of this process will potentially influence the style and appearance of our whisky, a complex and subtle dance which allows our whisky makers to create a diverse portfolio from the same new make spirit.
EX BOURBON AMERICAN OAK
When we use ex-bourbon casks, we take American oak filled with a bourbon spirit at no more than 62.5 per cent alcohol. It is a much higher alcohol content, which tends to narrow the sphere of cask characteristics and colour, creating a distinct atmosphere for our new make spirits. These casks are stored in warehouses set to a high temperature, which helps the small bourbon casks (190L) to be depleted quickly during their maturation, typically lasting for 4-8 years. The legal definition of bourbon means that these casks can only be used once for bourbons.
Patience is required when searching for something bigger. There is no room for compromise or for cutting corners. We hold to the core truth that what is exceptional cannot simply be bought, it must be learned and earned. This is the course that is set, and it must be travelled in full, because the end result is worth it.