Tasting The Macallan's Oldest Bottled Whisky
Few things are more important to the quality of fine single malt whisky than the influence of time and environment, which is why maturing its whiskies under the right influence is the basis of The Macallan's success. But so is the brand’s reputation for pushing the boundaries of innovation and making “the right choices” and not simply the easier ones, shared its master blender Nick Savage at an exclusive preview and tasting of its latest release, The Macallan 72 Years Old in Lalique – The Genesis Decanter, at its new, larger £140m distillery and visitor centre in Speyside, Scotland.
An expectedly limited number of bottles of this extremely precious expression of The Macallan single malt whisky is available—just 600 worldwide. And while it is easy to get lost in the grandiose of its vintage, the distillery’s oldest bottling thus far, its brilliance lies in the expressive yet poised snapshot of the brand’s now-signature sherry oak style of whisky, which it has successfully championed since the late 1800s.
According to Savage’s first impressions of the whisky, which was distilled in 1945, the 72-year-old scotch displays delicate peat on the nose that leads to softer oak smoke with refreshingly citrus notes and a background of vanilla, raisins and ginger. Save for the hint of peat, it was not what I was expecting. Still, these were not empty promises—on the palate, the moreish flavours of green apples and dried fruit were more pronounced, cradled in a soft blanket of aged wood spices, with again a hint of sweet peat to finish. It wasn’t a long finish, but the viscous mouthfeel that is so characteristically The Macallan held enough complexity of flavours to prolong the pleasure.
Why now? Well, Savage believed that the opening of The Macallan’s new distillery last June was a historic event for the brand. It was also marked with the launch of other key products, including the Edition 4 and the seventh instalment of its Masters of Photography series, the Magnum Edition, which was created in collaboration with photographic cooperative Magnum Photos. “And then we wanted to really celebrate the milestone with the oldest Macallan,” he expounded before adding that the brand has a collection of different (super-aged) options, which are still there for future use as part of a 15- to 20-year programme that features various super-aged whiskies. As it turned out, the 72-year-old was in the right place to do just that.
Having tasted it, I believe it had everyting to do with timing. This is exceptionally old for a whisky, and its ability to shine is key, affirmed Savage. With older Macallans such as the 25-year-old and older, he noticed a distinct change in their anticipated notes. On the nose, for instance, there seems to be a lot of wood spice, ginger and cinnamon, and not so much fruit. But on the palate, it is almost the inverse—a lot of dried fruit, dates and a bit of orange peel. And after that passes, he again noticed the warming sensation of wood spice, “but it’s more like antique oak as opposed to aged oak”. Granted, Savage and his team could have just kept the whisky and used it to make a number of exceptional expressions, but they felt that if the brand was ever going to launch something as rare as this, 2018 was the landmark year—one that marked a new trajectory for the brand in terms of innovation, consumer experience and luxury—to do it.
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The Macallan has long been an advocate for innovation without compromise. During the time the brand was making its now‑72‑year‑old, most distillers would have had to be innovative to improve efficiency, especially during and after World War II when barley, as well as coal were scarce, and peat was used as an alternative energy source.
“The practice of maturing the whisky in ex-sherry cask was already established then, but it was only in the 1970s and ’80s when The Macallan established this as its signature style of whisky,” said Savage, adding that although there were more cost-effective ways of making whisky such as using ex-bourbon casks, the brand decided to stick with its approach, resulting in it spending more on its casks than any other whisky brand in the industry.
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This firm commitment to brand equity, Savage posited, is why the brand has been so successful, and also the reason why it opened the new distillery. The facility is part of a £500m investment its parent company Edrington has made in whisky, warehousing and, more significantly, sherry-seasoned oak casks.
The Macallan’s new distillery, which will allow it to increase its production by approximately one-third, is also the first in Speyside to be designed by internationally acclaimed architectural firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, which had come up with a striking piece of contemporary architecture. Cut into the slope of the land (next to where the old distillery still stands), the design of the new facility took its cues from the ancient Scottish hills, thus minimising the visual impact on the scenic Speyside landscape, which the Scottish government has classified as an Area of Great Landscape Value. The genius is in the details. The undulating timber roof structure is said to be one of the most complicated of its kind in the world, comprising 380,000 individual components. Inside, located next to the entrance behind a wall of 3,275 featured bottles, the Jewel Box exhibit houses another 398 archive bottles, nine decanters and nine flasks.
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The facility is certainly a marvel to behold, as is The Macallan 72-year-old. As Savage eloquently put it—it is a minor miracle. “It’s a miracle the distillery is still here after the second world war; it’s a miracle we were able to make it despite fuel shortages; it’s a miracle the cask didn’t leak; it’s a miracle the whisky has not been sold; and it’s a miracle we’ve not used it.”