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Macallan (pronounced: mac-AL-an) is the one whisky name that, perhaps above all others, conjures up an image of luxury. It has been available on shelves as a single malt for several decades longer than almost any other distillery and throughout that time it has slavishly nourished the image of itself as the 'Rolls Royce' of malt whiskies. Although these days a little peeking underneath the marketing veneer reveals a distillery with the third or fourth largest malt production capacity in Scotland and a vast range of products. However, Macallan's reputation remains built on a solid history of producing rich, flavoursome, wonderfully matured malts and there is still much to admire about this grand distillery.
Stills: 9 Wash. 18 Spirit
Water Source: Ringorm Burn
Capacity: 8 Million Litres
Owners: Edrington Group
1900's-1960: Pre-War, Old Style and Amazing!
While Macallan's intensity has been tamed somewhat in recent decades, there was a time when Macallan was responsible for some of the most stunning whisky bottlings ever released. The more realistically 'tasteable' of these bottlings begin to appear around the mid 1930s and are available from several of the old famous bottlers as expressions aged from 10 all the way up to 30-40 years of age. Stunning examples were bottled by Gordon & MacPhail during their time as the official agents for Macallan in a variety of ages and strengths, including several legendary editions for 'Pinerolo' in Italy. Some would argue that the finest Macallans were bottled by the long dead company 'Campbell, Hope & King', it is rumored that they always had the best Macallans because they added brandy to the casks. Whether this is true or not will probably never be known but if you get a genuine bottle of one of their expressions it will almost certainly blow your head off.
Old Macallans from this era were all produced in the days before the distillery went into mega production levels and still made whisky in a very old style at a much more leisurely pace. They were often matured in sherry casks that display the kind of aromatic perfection that has vanished from sherry wood in recent decades. Massively complex fruit qualities are a regular abundance, green, glazed, tropical and dry fruits with dusty mineral, honey and phenolic qualities are usually present along with full on waxy tones. The wartime and pre-war vintages are the ones that are most consistently stunning and often display a greater depth of peat than later years. An official 1938 handwritten label is considered one of the finest expressions from this time, also anything from the war years at Macallan is hyper-desirable for its often unique peat flavours. Later vintages from throughout the fifties were often equally impressive with more delicately oily, mineral and softer fruit complexities and metallic notes in place of the earlier phenolic styles.
1965-1980s: Transition Years
After 1960 Macallan began a very slow era of modernization and evolution, the unmistakable old style qualities of the spirit that were the hallmarks of previous decades began to slowly disappear throughout the sixties. This process was signaled by the expansion in 1965 during which time the stills were increased from six to twelve and the worm tubs were all replaced by shell condensers. Further changes followed in coming years that largely concerned the usual corner cutting in fermentation and distillation regimes.
Macallan bottlings from this time can be exceptionally fine as the quality of sherry casks was still very high, until they began to decline around the early seventies. However the character is noticeably different from previous decades distillate. The spirit reveals a more meaty, sinewy and weighty character than in previous years. Often displaying big, silky, stewed fruit notes with some classical dark sherry characters and plenty of oily, yet graceful, Speyside complexity. These bottlings reveal more spice, chocolate and often more wood infuence as well. The best examples still carry beautiful minerality, elegance and complexity and are often to be found under the new official label series that appeared around the late seventies when Macallan began bottling their own malts 'in house'. The first expressions were often vintages from the early sixties , then some seventeen year old bottlings appeared before the first bottlings of the famous 18yo series. All these bottlings from these times were fantastically consistent and display some gloriously perfect sherry profiles. They are understandably super-desirable malts nowadays though the gap in price between these editions and those from previous decades is still pretty large and there are some good buys to be found.
By the end of the seventies Macallan had completed its transition into the monster that we recognize today. In 1975 it increased the number of stills to 21 and the resultant mass production mentality changed the character of the distillate irrevocably. The character of Macallan that we recognize today was arrived at around the early 1980s.
1990s to present: Modernity and Change.
Throughout the 1990s Macallan continued to bottle stunning aged expressions at fair prices. The official 25 and 30yo bottlings from these years are ever-reliable examples of wonderfully sherry aged malts. However by the end of the decade the inevitably increasing use of more modern distillate revealed some of the changes in the Macallan's character. Modern sherried Macallan as we taste it today is an earthier (occasionally dirtier) affair with more raisiny, glazed fruit sweetness, big chocolate, spice and liquorice notes with orangey and biscuit flavours in abundance. With carful searching there are many gems still to be found. However due to the higher prices that are slapped on official bottlings these days the best examples are to be found in the plethora of independent bottlings that are available.
In recent years Macallan have greatly expanded their range with a whole alternative 'Fine Oak' series in addition to the core expressions. These bottlings are partly matured in Amercan oak casks as well as some Spanish sherry oak. They reveal a lighter, maltier and more cereal citrus side to Macallan's distillate. They have been met with quite a bit of controversy by some people, but they remain an intriguing alternative to the classically heavy sherry style. The best bourbon expressions of Macallan however remain the independent versions. The best examples of this style are full of juicy malt and spice with heavy tones of liquorice, green fruits and herbaceous, buttery notes.
Macallan has ruffled many feathers in recent years with its silly marketing, crazy releases and controversial pricing. However if you doubt that they still make fantastic whisky, just pour a dram of the cask strength 10yo. After all, it's what's in the bottle that counts. Lets hope Macallan can maintain that kind of quality for many years to come.