The Harvey Nichols Bristol Macallan Dinner on 23rd September 2021 was always going to be special, timed to mark the store’s 13th anniversary, and showcasing the Macallan Double Cask range, expertly presented by Joe Ellis of Edrington. Each dram was cannily paired with an indulgent 3 course dinner by our Head Chef Lucy Lourenco. Diners included local restaurateurs, influencers and some of our loyal Foodmarket & Wineshop customers (who know plenty more about Macallan than I do!). But what they did not know was that they would be tasting a very special whisky indeed – the 2021 release of The Macallan 30 yo Double Cask. To appreciate this fully, we learnt firstly about the history of Macallan, and warmed immediately to the founder, one Alexander Reid, who it seems was one of life’s no-nonsense doers, quietly perfecting his craft beside the river Spey, eschewing the limelight to such an extent that there are no photos of him in existence.
Being Bristolians, we admired Macallan’s adherence to the art of sherry cask ageing, sherry having played a key role in Bristol’s wine trade for many a year before the Spanish put paid to the possibility of bottling sherry anywhere other than Spain in the 1980s. This put paid to Bristol’s sherry heritage in large part and posed an evidential threat to The Macallan, renowned for its sherried style. Old sherry casks contain abundant natural compounds and flavours well suited to whisky making, and Macallan was accustomed to buying casks emptied by sherry shippers such as Harveys. Rather than turn instead to plentiful ex Bourbon barrels, Macallan instead forged relationships with foresters in the USA and Europe to source its own wood. This enabled Macallan to retain its sherry maturation heritage while pushing up quality by gaining control over how its oak casks are made.
Joe told us that European oak is knotty, with plentiful drying tannins, and flavours of dark chocolate, dried fruit, clove and cinnamon, and old wood lends more tobacco and “antique” aromas. American oak on the other hand contributes vanilla, citrus, honey, toffee and ginger flavours.
The felled trees are cut into logs and left for a year to season, fully exposed to the elements, which strips away harsh tannins. The logs are then fashioned into staves and shipped to southern Spain where they are left for a further year to mature. Cooperages in Jerez then make casks from the staves in various sizes, and toast them to caramelise the sugars in the wood. Macallan retains its own Master of Wood who oversees these stages.
The casks are then filled with sherry, usually oloroso, which seeps into the casks. In Bristolian optimist fashion, one diner asked what happens to the sherry when the cask is emptied, maybe sensing an opportunity to acquire some. Joe explained the sherry is sold for vinegar or brandy production.
The whole process of making a Macallan cask takes 5 years on average, and each bottle of Macallan bears a barcode so that if anything amiss is detected the exact source of the wood in which the whisky was aged can be identified. The wood used is of paramount importance, being responsible for 70-80% of the flavour. The fact that Macallan therefore have total control over where the wood has come from is key to their reputation for quality. Where ex Bourbon casks as used, for example in the Triple Cask, Macallan therefore have rather less control over the resulting flavours and quality outcomes.
Joe explained that older Macallans generally have slightly more European oak matured whisky in them, and Macallans do not move from cask to cask in the way cask finished whiskies do. They are instead fully matured in one cask from start to finish.
Joe’s tasting tips were never to rush, and in an ideal world to pour and nose your dram for at least half an hour before imbibing. The first sip should be small, and ignored. The second sip should coat the palate for 45 seconds, and the third for 10 seconds – if too much, add a little water to calm the palate. Not to be recommended for anyone taking WSET spirits tasting exams, given the time constraints, and inevitable palate numbing this would entail.
The nose being as key to appreciating whisky as it is for appreciating wine, Joe mentioned that the nose of Dalmore’s Master Blender is rumoured to be insured for £1million. Presumably the premium has risen somewhat in the post Covid era. Either that or Covid induced anosmia is excluded from his policy.
For the purposes of the dinner, the Double Cask 12yo was enjoyed in an apple based cocktail – the writer did not partake, knowing from personal experience that HN’s bartenders make the best and therefore the most dangerous cocktails in Bristol making this creation off limits while on duty.
The 15yo Double Cask was tasted neat and paired with a salmon starter which had everyone in awe. This is classic Macallan, fully matured in both American and European sherry casks. Want to know what it tastes like? Maybe buy some…
The 18yo Double Cask was also tasted neat and perfectly paired with an exuberant and extravagant duck dish. Joe highlighted the very special “rancio” quality of this expression, characterised by descriptors such as old tea chest, antique furniture and old leather.
We then moved on to the 30yo, released a couple of days beforehand, such that we were amongst the first in the world to try it. Entirely sherry cask matured, 43% of the casks used are European as opposed to American which, coupled with the concentration resulting from such long ageing, created much greater flavour focus, intensity and complexity with a finish stretching into infinity and beyond.
Joe aired our drams for at least 2 1/2 hours; lengthy aeration helps old whiskies fully to express themselves. He urged the diners to hold their drams on the palate for as long as possible to appreciate them fully.
The only trouble with tasting something which Harvey Nichols offers for sale at an eyewatering price of £4,500.00 is that it is a struggle to find the right words to convey to you what it tasted like. It’s like tasting a very old Burgundy – they are a breed apart, whether white or red, with flavours which can only come from long ageing, and which the vast majority of beverages would never acquire however long you aged them. The flavour profile is rare, unique and quite often decidedly funky. Possibly for this reason the 18yo was preferred by most of our diners, it being more familiar in style.
So what does £4.5k taste like? All I can say is that this was an exotic, almost ethereal creature, morphing in and out of an orchestral flavour range which included prunes, herbs, whisky marmalade, Christmas cake, sultanas, my old mahogany corner drinks cabinet, tobacco, and dare I say perhaps a hint of weed, and most certainly more than a hint of incense. Impeccably balanced, and not the least bit tannic despite spending so long in wood, it was an undoubted thoroughbred. Its wooden casing emulated its luxurious polished perfection, the magnetic clasps snapping into place with satisfying precision.
Whether I could taste £4.5k’s worth of whisky is another matter. When Joe first ventured into the whisky world, an 18yo Sherry Cask cost £65-70. Not anymore – think £300-400 instead. Many whiskies are now investment propositions, and Macallan is of course the most collectible of all. A 60yo fetched $1.452 million at auction. Macallan Genesis, sold for £500 only on the day Macallan opened its new distillery, exclusively at the distillery, fetched £5,000 at auction a couple of days later. Hence why this event caused traffic chaos for miles around.
So the investment allure of Macallan is such that once released, its value will only increase, at least for the foreseeable future.
My new exotic friend was therefore never destined to gather dust on our shelves. Even so, having made its acquaintance, it was a poignant day when the last of our limited allocation left Bristol for its new home. Pausing in reverence before we parted, I reflected on what was happening in my life when it was created, the course life had taken between then and now, and the good fortune which had led me to experience its unique magnificence. Forget the £4.5k price tag, which may well be exceeded several fold before too long. Tasting this was a priceless, even humbling experience, and one for which I will forever be grateful.