For many, enjoying a fine dram is sensorial — like taking a stroll through a weekend market. Aromas of butterscotch and baked apple, perhaps notes of ginger, zesty citrus and spice on the palate, and maybe a warm lingering finish with a creamy mouth feel.
We obsess over a distillery’s character, the craft that goes into blending, age statements and whatnot. But when was the last nose and sip that made our inner snob wonder aloud, “Yup, definitely sherry-seasoned Quercus Robur (aka European oak) from northern Spain”?
The fact is, the wood barrels that age a whisky are as important as the spirit inside. Just ask Stuart MacPherson, who holds the intriguing title of Master of Wood at The Macallan. He notes that at the single malt maker, it’s the casks that account for up to 80 percent of a whisky’s distinctive character. “The investment in our wood has shaped our future with maturation and whisky-making working hand in hand,” he says definitively.
While it’s law that a Scotch whisky matures in white oak barrels, not all oak are equal. American oak is denser and grows faster than European oak, and imparts flavours like vanilla and coconut, while its European kin typically delivers flavours such as dried fruits and spice. While much of the world’s whiskies are matured in more readily available ex-bourbon American oak barrels, The Macallan, however, has built its reputation on pricier sherry-seasoned European oak casks sourced primarily from northern Spain.
Yet, interestingly, the distillery’s most popular single expression of late — Double Cask 12 Years Old launched in 2016 — is one born from both American and European oak, first sourced and transported to Jerez, Spain, where it is seasoned with sherry, before continuing its journey to northeast Scotland. So magnetic is the Double Cask’s global pull that The Macallan has ushered in two new expressions — Double Cask 15 Years Old and Double Cask 18 Years Old — which were released just last month.
The compelling “acorn to glass” journey, from forest to seasoning bodega and finally to the Speyside distillery, has been lensed by Magnum photographer Steve McCurry, whose images accompany MacPherson’s interview.
“In terms of the wood itself, many elements present in the oak influence the flavour and can be traced to the different species and geographical origin. Over time, our understanding of the intricacies of the influence of wood has increased, for example, around the toasting levels, the duration for seasoning casks with sherry, and in turn how this impacts the spirit. During heat treatment of wood, hemicellulose breaks down first into its constituent sugars, then into caramelisation products such as furfural, maltol and hydroxymethylfurfural. These compounds are responsible for sweet, toasted flavours as well as colour development.”
“Although ‘terroir’ isn’t commonly spoken about or discussed when talking about whiskies, it is a factor on the developing oaks. The essence and the terroir of the oak are crucial for the aging of spirits. The grain tightness depends mainly on soil moisture retention, available soil nutrients and the density of the forests.”
EUROPEAN VS AMERICAN OAK
“At The Macallan, we source our European oak from northern Spain, in the regions of Galicia, Asturias and Navarra, where you find the Quercus Robur species. Typically, European Oak will deliver flavours such as dried fruits, spice, and orange citrus. However, for American Oak (Quercus Alba), which we use in The Macallan Double Cask range, we source it mainly from eastern states, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky. American oak tends to be more dense than European oak, and typical flavours associated with it are vanilla, lemon citrus and coconut.”
ACORN TO BARREL
“The journey differs slightly depending on the type of oak you are using. For example, an American oak tree is normally felled around 60 to more than 80 years and European Oak at more than a hundred years. We have close relationships with our cooperages, some of which have their own sawmills, so they’re sourcing direct. Then, the process to prepare the casks can take up to a further six years. We have a dedicated team in place who actively work with our cask suppliers and seasoning bodegas to ensure all casks are sourced, constructed and seasoned to the highest standards.”
“The Macallan’s Whisky Mastery Team use their skill and expertise to select the best balance of spirit from both the American and European oak sherry-seasoned casks to create Double Cask. The result is a perfect partnership, with the sherry-seasoned American oak imparting delicate flavours of vanilla, while the European oak delivers the subtle and unmistakable spice and classic style of The Macallan.”