I travel between northern Vermont and Boston somewhat regularly, and when I do I usually stop at several liquor stores along the way. Sometimes I’m looking for a specific bottling, other times I’m just window shopping; keeping an eye out for new products, following pricing trends, making note of packaging changes, etc.
On one such recent outing I came across a new Macallan bottling; Double Cask 12 year old (clearly, I don’t pay much attention to official distillery press releases). So, what’s this new bottling all about and how does it fit in with their other offerings?
First, a brief history lesson. Although definitely not the case today, if you go back far enough in time, Sherry casks were dominant in Scotch whisky maturation. Their availability was limited during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930’s, forcing some Scotch producers to look elsewhere. When Spain transitioned from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970’s, unions insisted that Sherry be bottled in the country rather than exported in bulk in its oak casks as it had been previously, primarily to the United Kingdom. Finally, worldwide sales of Sherry have been on a steady annual decline since the early 1990’s.
The Bourbon industry has seen periods of strong growth following Prohibition and after World War II, and of course again with the latest whiskey boom. Bourbon producers used new oak barrels initially by tradition and best practice, and have continued to do so by law since 1935. Gradually, over the last century or so, Scotch whisky producers have shifted to primarily using ex-Bourbon barrels for maturation, with Sherry casks falling into the minority.
A few producers stuck exclusively (or at least mostly) with Sherry cask aging though, Macallan being one of them. But even Macallan was sort of secretly hedging their bets. They had quietly been putting distillate into Bourbon barrels since at least the mid 1970’s. If sales growth didn’t develop the way they hoped, all of that whisky aging in Bourbon barrels (which cost about 1/10 what Sherry casks cost) would go into blends. In addition to Macallan, The Edrington Group also owns Cutty Sark and The Famous Grouse, so there would be a ready outlet for the extra whisky.
If sales did take off, The Macallan would have to introduce a second line of bottlings that incorporated the Bourbon barrel-aged whisky. That is exactly what happened in 2004. The new range, titled “Fine Oak”, featured a flagship 10 year old, but also included a 25 year old and a 30 year old, proving the distillery’s lengthy use of Bourbon barrels.
I need to go on a slight tangent about oak here. There are over 600 different species of oak, but the vast majority of casks used today are made from just four of them. Japanese Oak (Quercas crispula), also known as Mizunara, has been used for maturing Japanese whisky since the 1930’s. It produces some unique flavors, but its porous nature makes it prone to leakage. It’s fairly rare and is mostly just used for finishing whiskies these days. American Oak (Quercas alba) dominates the Bourbon industry. It is also used by the wine industry. European Oak will be one of two types; pendunculate (Quercas robur) or sessile (Quercas petraea). Both grow throughout central Europe with mostly overlapping distributions. Quercas alba is primarily used for Sherry, Port and Cognac. Quercas petraea is primarily used for wine.
You may see references to Spanish Oak, Iberian Oak (referring to the Iberian Peninsula, which includes Spain and Portugal) or French Oak, and possibly other European countries. These are all still Quercas robur or Quercas petraea, but with a more specific regional designation of where the trees were sourced from. The only one that really has any significant additional meaning is French Oak. That designation is only possible if the trees are harvested from certain managed forests with sustainable logging practices. The trees are all aged between 200 and 250 years and only the base sections of the trees are used to makes casks, resulting in a more consistent product.
It’s a little known fact is that most Sherry casks used by the Scotch industry are seasoned with fermenting grape must and/or young Sherry (usually Oloroso) for less than two years. The Sherry producers don’t want to use new oak and they now usually keep their casks until they reach the point of rotting. The Sherry from the new oak that they use, whether they will keep those casks for themselves or are seasoning them on behalf of the Scotch producers, will only be used for very low quality Sherry blends, distilled into bulk alcohol, or even just dumped down the drain.
What most people don’t realize is that the Sherry and Port industries use a lot of Quercas alba in addition to Quercas robur. This is also true of casks which are produced for the Scotch industry and seasoned by the Sherry bodegas. European Oak’s limited supply and higher cost (it’s a more labor intensive material to make casks out of than American Oak) likely play a big role in this reality. Most Scotch producers don’t mention the fact that some of their Sherry casks are made from American Oak. This is probably because American Oak has such a strong association with Bourbon barrels and they don’t want to confuse consumers, giving the false impression that they might not be using 100% Sherry cask maturation.
Oak casks used for wine, Sherry or Port, regardless of species, will be toasted, where Bourbon barrels are always charred. This means there is a further difference between Bourbon barrels and American Oak Sherry casks than just their former contents.
Back to The Macallan. They’ve had many different series of bottlings over the years, and they dropped their age-stated lineup in favor of a group of color-designated bottlings for much of the world not too long ago. But that switch hasn’t happened in the U.S. and those age-stated ranges are what I’m discussing here.
Their long running age-stated lineup has consisted of a 12 year old, 18 year old, 25 year old and 30 year old for a very long time. A cask strength bottling was discontinued a few years ago, but a 40 year old was recently added to the lineup. This was basically the flagship series and didn’t really need a name to differentiate it from anything else they offered. Then in 2004 the Fine Oak series came along. Its range of age statements quickly expanded to include 10, 12, 15, 17, 18, 21, 25 and 30 year olds. At some point after the Fine Oak series was introduced, the original series took up the Sherry Oak moniker. At least that’s how they’re now designated on the Macallan website; the phrase does not appear on the bottles.
Once the new Double Oak 12 year Macallan was on my radar I started digging to try to figure out exactly what differentiates these three series. The first thing that got my attention was the description printed on the Sherry Oak series labels; “Exclusively matured in selected Sherry Oak casks from Jerez Spain”. That statement doesn’t really tell us much; “Sherry Oak” doesn’t indicate the type of oak used, just that the casks were seasoned with Sherry. Also, Jerez is in the south of Spain, far from the northern forests where Spanish Oak grows. The location is clearly an indication of where the casks are seasoned rather than where the oak comes from.
On the other hand, the label of the Double Cask clearly describes the cask types used; “Matured exclusively in the perfect balance of Sherry seasoned American and European Oak casks”. A nearby Fine Oak bottling carried and equally detailed description; “The Macallan Fine Oak is triple cask matured…..European Oak casks seasoned with Sherry, American Oak casks seasoned with Sherry and American Oak casks seasoned with Bourbon…..”
That surprised me; I had purchased a bottle of 15 year Fine Oak when it was still a fairly new product and only remembered it being described as aged in a combination of Bourbon barrels and Sherry casks. I ran up to the attic and dug through several boxes of empty whisky bottles before I found what I was looking for. Sure enough, that label carried the following statement; “Carefully matured in a unique combination of Bourbon & Sherry Oak casks”.
After a good bit of looking at images of Fine Oak labels online, I came to the conclusion that the description’s change coincided with a redesign of the label. This happened across the range of ages at the same time, I think around 2008, indicating to me that they most likely had simply switched to a more accurate description rather than changing the whisky’s aging regime.
Considering the vague description on the Sherry Oak label and the fact that both the Fine Oak and the Double Cask bottlings used American Oak Sherry casks, more research was needed. After a good bit of digging, I had finally come across enough evidence to convince me that the Sherry Oak series had been partially aged in American Oak Sherry casks for a very long time, if not all along. So, if Sherry Oak Macallan and Double Oak Macallan both use American Oak Sherry casks and European Oak Sherry casks, what’s the difference between them? Proportions. The Sherry Oak bottlings are aged primarily in European Oak, while the Double Cask bottling is aged primarily in American Oak. All of it is of course Sherry seasoned; only the Fine Oak series sees time in Bourbon barrels.
Output at the Macallan distillery has grown dramatically since the early1970’s and it ranks near the top of the list of Scotland’s largest malt distilleries. In addition to quietly putting whisky into Bourbon barrels as an insurance policy for the future, I believe The Macallan grew its production to the point that their need for Sherry casks far outstripped their supply of European Oak. They’d been using American Oak to make some of their Sherry casks for a long time, but eventually they would have to make a much greater proportion of those Sherry casks from it.
As Macallan’s sales growth continued at a strong pace it would have become obvious at some point that a new series of bottlings would be necessary to utilize all of that whisky maturing in American Oak Sherry casks. Perhaps this would have been the inspiration for the new labeling on the Fine Oak series. Then they could dumb things down to “triple cask” and “double cask” symbols to help avoid consumer confusion. Of course they’d have to keep the Sherry Oak series labeling vague and continue to let people assume that it only used one type of cask. Besides, if they suddenly added clarity to the Sherry Oak description, they’d risk giving the false impression that they had changed the whisky. You can’t really do that with a successful product in an industry where consistency is king.