Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Current Pride of My Scotch Whisky Library - Kirkland bottled 19 year old Macallan Distillery whisky!

Almost two years ago now, I stumbled across a true gem of a whisky, and at such a reasonable price. In Yiddish, it's a metzieh (rhymes with "Let's see ya") or a real find! A bargain! A lucky break! Drinking it now, every sip, is such a mechaye (rhymes with "messiah") or a real pleasure! Such a Joy!

The whisky in question is the Kirkland Signature 19-year-old Single Malt Scotch from the Macallan Distillery (Item #235674; production: 780 cases; 80 Proof; as found at the Costco on Hartspring Lane, Watford, Herts, England). The cost? Roughly $65 (give or take, given the exchange rate). I bought about five of these on the spot (I would have bought more, except that I can only transport but so many on the flight home). My saintly Mother-in-Law returned later and bought every remaining bottle at this location. The bottles slowly made their way to me stateside in installments over the course of last year; I have been nursing the library along since -- I have only three unopened bottles left. :-(

To put this in perspective, Macallan -- or more properly, "The Macallan" is recognized the world over as one of the truly great Scotch whiskies. Currently in my area a proprietary, or official, bottle of The Macallan aged 18 years runs about $175. Sometimes more.

This Kirkland labeled bottle of 19-year-old Macallan isn't just cheap, its awesome.

This full bodied deep-amber colored whisky is both complex and balanced. It has an intriguing, fresh nose of something akin to dried currants, dried citrus fruit, something vaguely floral, and with distinct wafts of a sweet spiciness (almost cinnamon-like, but better) and some subtle traces of smoke. On the palate, I get velvety smooth, rather elegant notes of spice, citrus-fruit zest, sweet sherry (but NOT overly sherried), a sort of racy or spicy ginger sensation, caramel, honey, and all with subtle traces of peat and oak in the background. The finish is long and absorbing, soothing, a tad drying, and richly rewarding -- with a heightened interplay of spice, citrus zest, toffee, something like milk chocolate, and pleasingly subtle wood notes.

As for the distillery itself, this seems as good a space as any for a nice "profile" write-up... ;-)

Located just west of the village of Craigellachie in Morayshire (or the county of Moray - better known to whisky marketeers as the heart of the "Speyside" region), just off the B9102 towards Archiestown, stands The Macallan Distillery.

The distillery was licensed by Alexander Reid in 1824 on the grounds of the Easter Elchies estate; Reid had rented the manor house and farm in 1820 from the Grant family and had developed a good relationship with Lord Lewis Alexander Grant-Ogilvy (5th Earl of Seafield), who lived in Castle Grant a few miles away. Reid called the distillery Elchies Distillery, after the estate, though the whisky produced there was known as Macallan, after the ancient church which stands in ruins nearby. Macallan comes from two Gaelic words, MAGH meaning a fertile piece of ground and ELLAN, meaning of Saint Fillan, a legendary eighth century Irish monk who travelled widely through Scotland spreading Christianity.

The Jacobean manor house, "Easter Elchies," still stands at the heart of the estate. It was believed to have been built in 1700 of sandstone by Captain John Grant, based on a carved date-stone above the door, though some believe the actual house is perhaps a century older. Between 1981-1985 the manor house was refurbished and fully restored and is now an integral part of The Macallan Distillery image and branding (a likeness of the manor house appears on every label).

Ownership of the distillery switched hands in 1847 when Reid died, and then again in 1868 and again in 1896, before it was sold, in 1892, to Roderick Kemp from Elgin, a former worker and part owner of the Talisker distillery on the Isle of Skye. Kemp invested in some distillery expansion and refurbishment, and renamed it Macallan-Glenlivet. This renaming was fairly typical of the period, as Glenlivet was then the most marketable name in the Highlands.

Kemp passed away in 1909, and the company was put into the Roderick Kemp Trust. The family remained part owners until 1996 when Highland Distilleries Co plc (later renamed "Highland Distillers Ltd" in 1998) bought the Kemp family out of the business. In 1999 the Edrington Group and William Grant & Sonsbought Highland Distillers, which was already partially owned by Edrington, Suntory (the Japanese whisky company), and Remy-Cointreau.

In 2000, William Grant & Sons and Edrington made Highland Distillers, now a production wing of Edrington, totally private (William Grant & Sons has a 30% share). Thus the Macallan is an Edrington Group plc brand; produced, marketed and sold and controlled by them...simple, right? This is fairly typical of how Scotch distilleries are bought and sold (and I totally simplified much of the corporate stuff and cut-out some of the, now totally minor, players).

While throughout this history and into the present the Macallan earned a reputation for excellence, it is worth noting that the "Macallan-Glenlivet" only became "The Macallan" in 1980; the first official single malt was launched in 1977, and the first official 18 year old bottling wasn't launched until 1984. Something to keep in mind the next time you get too misty-eyed about your traditional Macallan whisky.

The whisky used to be known as an 100% sherry cask aged whisky (meaning that only casks that previously stored sherry wine -- or really that had been seasoned with sherry wine -- were used for whisky destined to be sold officially as The Macallan; the distillery routinely used other casks for whisky being produced for other drinks companies, principally for blending or the occasional independent-label bottling of single malt). Worldwide demand was such, however, that the company determined that a brand expansion was required if they were to make the most of the upward swing in good fortune, hence the introduction of the "Fine Oak" range in 2004 (which allows for the official use of non-sherry casks in the maturation process).

Even still, The Macallan accounts for something like 65% of all the sherry casks imported into Scotland for maturing scotch whisky. The Edrington Group, The Macallan's parent company, accounts for over 90% of all sherry casks entering the system. The regular, or sherry cask, range is still 100% matured in sherry seasoned Spanish oak casks; and sherry casks still make-up about 50% of all the whisky that goes towards the Fine Oak range.

Indeed, not to put too fine a point on it, the Edrington Group plc alone supports the cooperage of Spanish oak casks for sherry. [Sherry is a Spanish fortified wine made in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia, in the province of Cadiz, from within, a triangle of towns -- Jerez de la Frontera, which is also the most important, and Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda.]

The vast majority of sherry today is actually made in stainless steel tanks, and then matured in American Oak (Quercus alba) sherry casks, or butts as they are generally called in the trade. The oak is imported from the US prior to coopering. The Scotch trade, however, learned a long time ago that their whiskies matured well in European oak species, specifically Spanish oak (Quercus robur) in the case of The Macallan.

So when casks of this type became less fashionable in Jerez, Edrington began commissioning the cooperage and seasoning with maturing sherry of Quercus robur casks. Edrington partnered with the Tevasa Cooperage in Jerez who annually select around 10,000 Spanish oak trees from sustainable forests in Northern Spain. The trees are felled, processed in Santander, sun dried for 2 years, and then introduced into various sherry producers' soleras -- or the fractional blending systems of Sherry producers -- for about 3 years of seasoning. All for a princely sum!

The only temporary blip on The Macallan's success was, in fairness, not entirely their fault. The Macallan got snookered into buying some fake "antique" bottlings of their whisky which, before they learned of the forgeries, spun into an antique range of whiskies patterned on the newly found old stuff. A 1874 replica bottling was put out by the previous management in 1996, and Edrington continued the range based on "antique's" acquired at auction and through private sales from 1998-2000, with additional replica bottlings produced in 2001 (the 1861 bottling), 2002 (the 1841 bottling, and 2003 (the 1876).

Then whisky journalist David Broom, in Issue 28 of Whisky Magazine (Dec 02 / Jan 03), questioned the authenticity of a number of pristine "antique" bottles that were suddenly hitting the collectors market; he specifically cited examples of, among others, Talisker, Ardbeg and Longrow and The Macallan. More than a little concerned, The Macallan began an investigation with the help of the Scotch Whisky research institute.

Using the radio carbon accelerator unit at Oxford University to determine the approximate age of the whisky. They had previously tried carbon dating the bottles and labels. but not the whisky inside the seemingly authentically sealed bottles -- which is how they missed that several of their antiques were fakes. Once they learned the truth, and this is to their credit, they went public with it and stopped sales of the antique line of bottles.

That blip aside, The Macallan has become one of the greatest "luxury" brand success stories of Scotland. Yes, it is overpriced and YES, it is mostly hype and marketing blah that is the engine of growth for the brand, but then it is ALSO TRUE that The Macallan is a damn fine whisky.

Given the price and the lack of "branding" crapola that accompanies "The Macallan," my Kirkland bottle is currently the pride and joy of my Scotch whisky library.

1 comment:

  1. Cream sherries are generally sweetened Amontillado or Oloroso and combine a deep mahogany-color with an intense aroma. Sweet and velvety.