Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke

Distillery Visits

Macallan Visit

And so I head this post with a picture of the empty countryside. Have I lost it? Is there nothing to see so I’m reduced to a generic photo of greenery? No and no. The reason is quite simple: Macallan sits, isolated amongst its own farmland, overlooking the Spey. Here there is space and openness unlike any other distillery and a peace quite remarkable considering that in the corner they are building a brand new distillery, a huge project. Yet it doesn’t intrude. This is why I have posted the picture – a reminder that macallan is really an estate whisky.

But what of the visit? My reactions are clouded by mixed prejudices. On the one hand I love Macallan. I can remember a coastal walk on a cold November day. When we started the weather was overcast but not threatening but as we walked the wind picked up and then came rain which was driven so hard into your face that it stung. We were glad when we finished and that there was a pub with an open fire and a well stocked bar. Amongst its selection selection of whisky was a bottle of Macallan 18. “You realise this is £7.50 a measure” I was warned “Seems fair to me” I replied and I was right. It was one of my most fondly remembered whisky moments – the tingly warmth that comes after physical exertion in challenging weather amplified by the warmth from a truly magnificent spirit. Tremendous!

On the other hand I hate Macallan. Well actually hate is too strong a word – completely the wrong register of emotion. It is more accurate to say I am disdainful of Macallan.  I have no time for all this super-luxury, oligarch tickling nonsense of trying to prove you are the most most expensive whisky in the world. Whisky sold in 70cl sized pieces of jewellery makes me sigh and feel like an outsider. From that point of view Macallan is a bit self-satisfied, a bit up itself. This is of course  irrational and the fact that the current distillery produces 10 million litres a year, which will increase to 15 when the new building is open, means it is not particularly exclusive and its produce is still within reach of the hoi polloi  like me. Nevertheless, emotionally, I have reservations.

So I approached the visit wanting to know if my mind would be changed,  whether my prejudices would be exposed for what they were – unreasoned nonsense, or whether I would come away thinking “Nice, but still smug”. In the end the result was overwhelming. I came away with a sky high opinion of the place and their ethos of whisky making. I moved from a vague resistance to one of the single malt big boys to an ungrudging recognition that they were big because they were  good.

A small example: the visitor experience might have very little to do with the quality of the whisky but the way it is approached shows you a lot about the attitude of the company. With Macallan you get the distinct impression that they are a company who, when they decide to do something, do it properly. OK the core of any distillery visit is the same everywhere,  a guided wander around the plant, but there is a huge variation in the way things are explained and the effort put in to making it a satisfying experience. Macallan have obviously thought carefully about what they want to present and made sure there are some great displays to reinforce the message and bring us closer to what goes on in the process of distilling and maturation. Take the beginning, when the first thing talked about is water (as it should be). They not only have a panel illustration how wet Scotland is they have a sculptural water feature, fed by their water source, where a thin layer of water flows down the sides of a ball. You can put your hand in it, feel it and taste it – directly involve your senses. Everything becomes more vivid when you involve more senses

Of all the distilleries I have visited Macallan have done the most to give you a full insight into what actually happens in the distilling  and maturing process, i.e. Supplement the standard explanation. For example they have blown-up microscope photographs of the changes that happen when barley is malted and then when the starches are turned into sugars. Wonderful pictures of the underlying structures and chemical processes give you a different insight into the world. When we get to the story of wood there are photos of the different composition of different types of oak. Again you get a view of structure that is invisible to the naked eye and you can see pattern of the grain and the way this will effect the interaction with the liquid. The visit is worth it for these photographs alone and makes me wonder how I could get some of them for myself. The displays are really well thought out and I don’t know why other distilleries don’t do something similar.

Then there is smell. We all know how crucial the complex aroma of whisky is to our appreciation. We spend a lot of time holding the glass just below the nose, gently sniffing, trying to separate out the many notes, trying to identify what they remind us of. It is very confusing and very difficult as there are many competing elements. Oh the number times have I sat, looking catatonic to the outside world, whilst my mind is raced round and round “I know this smell, what is it? Oh give me a clue; what is it? Any clue; I know it; I just need a hint!”. Sometimes I think I need some reference vials. Well Macallan have some containers which you can sniff to help you identify the main aromas in whisky; you know: chocolate, vanilla, dried fruit, spices, that sort of thing. This is great but they missed a trick because they tell you what it is before you sniff. It would be much more fun to turn it into a game where you sniffed, guessed and then lift a flap to see the answer. When I was in France last year I visited Ackerman, who make  a rather fine sparkling Saumur wine. They offered a wonderful visitor experience because it was in huge caves where there were all sorts of museum displays as well as space for art exhibits – huge great installations. Compared to a standard distillery tour, it was high impact. One of the displays was a smell game, with many more aromas than at Macallan, where you guessed then were told the answer. When I saw it I wondered why it wasn’t common in distilleries because whisky is more complex than wine on the nose. This should be celebrated.

You can tell from what I have said I enjoyed the visit. I would go as far as to say that if you were to visit only one distillery I would go to Macallan. This is quite an admission from someone who started off with mixed feelings and who actually doesn’t have a Macallan bottle on his whisky shelf. But this is the subliminal power of a good visit: the more I recognised the care they had taken with their displays the more I made an unconscious assumption that it probably  reflected  the care they take with their whisky.  It had a big role in removing my inverted snobbery and I even became slightly less resistant to their move to NAS in their standard bottlings. I won’t give up on the idea that the main reason for the change is holes in their stock levels but at least I can see the logic of the path they have followed. As whisky varies in colour according to the length of time it has been in a barrel and the type of cask it was in, there is  logic in blending a whisky around its colour. In a way calling a whisky Gold or Amber is as honest as calling it 10 or 12 year old (where the age is only that of the youngest element of the blend). It is certainly more transparent than giving it some fancy name like Founders Reserve, Storm or something obscure in Gaelic.

Most of the people in my tour were American. At the tasting after the visit there were four whiskies: 12 yr old, Amber, 12 yr old Fine Oak, 18 yr old Fine Oak but the Amber was not available in the US because for that market Macallan has stuck with age statement bottles. A good reason to buy in America, you might think, except that the woman next to me preferred Amber and wanted it to be available back home. Interesting! I didn’t sample the drams at the time because I was driving so I took them away in sample bottles. Back in my room I laid them out in front of me for my own private comparison. The only thing I can say is that I found Amber underwhelming, lacking in distinctive character, pleasant enough but nothing more. I thought they got better as they got older and I liked the 12 yr old and 18 yr old Fine Oak a lot but not as much as the 18 yr old of memory, though that is perhaps impossible.

But here is a funny thing. I tasted those whiskies several weeks ago but not washed the bottles out (I know, I know, slovenly or what!) but when writing this I thought I would smell them. The traditional 12 yr old is amazing. It smells so clearly of toffee or fudge it makes you wonder if you are imagining things. Perhaps of the four it is the one that needs further exploration.

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