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Tipsy-Turvy

Published: Saturday August 30, 2014 MYT 11:09:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday September 2, 2014 MYT 12:21:46 PM

Road to good wood

Visitors to The Macallan Distillery can take a two-hour tour around the distillery, which includes a detailed guide to the whisky-making process, and a visit to the still room.

Visitors to The Macallan Distillery can take a two-hour tour around the distillery, which includes a detailed guide to the whisky-making process, and a visit to the still room.

From Spain to Scotland, The Macallan goes to extreme lengths to ensure they get the best wood for their casks.

The road to great whisky is paved in wood. Well, sort of. It’s no secret that the oak wood barrels that scotch is matured in give much of the flavour to the whisky.

Before Scotch producers began using American bourbon casks, they used to mature their new make spirits inside sherry casks, as the fortified wine was hugely popular in Britain in the past. Today, the sherry industry is nowhere near as robust as it used to be, and Scotch producers, especially those that rely heavily on sherry influences for their whisky like The Macallan, have to find a way to keep their supply of sherry casks going.

The Macallan in particular, are famous for their sherry cask-matured whiskies. Founded in 1824, The Macallan is one of the top producers of single malt whisky in Scotland, and their core range is still the sherry cask range (although they have recently released non-sherry cask whiskies as well).

Today, the distillery accounts for some 65% of all fresh sherry-seasoned oak casks imported into Scotland for maturing whisky. However, getting those sherry barrels into Scotland is the easy part – as we found out during an exclusive media trip to Spain, then Scotland, to see how The Macallan gets their sherry casks.

East Elchies House, MaCallan
Beautiful: The Easter Elchies House, the spiritual home of The Macallan.

The sherry city

Our journey of wood began in the city that sherry built, at the Southern Spanish city of Jerez – or to go by its full name, Jerez de la Frontera. The fortified wine is one of the city’s biggest exports – in fact, sherry is a protected export item that can only be made here – and the casks that the sherry is matured in more often than not, end up in Scotland where they are used to mature whisky.

We were here to visit the cooperage owned by the Tevasa company, which is Spain’s largest supplier of Spanish oak casks. The Edrington Group (the conglomerate that owns The Macallan) works closely with Tevasa, part of the only fully integrated “tree to finished seasoned cask” company in Spain, to ensure a long-lasting supply of premium sherry casks.

Narciso Fernandez Iturrospe, owner of Tevasa, said that the company was founded 55 years ago by his father, and has been working with The Macallan for more than 50 years now. “Our main business is timber. We harvest the logs from the forests in the North of Spain, and we have sawmills in Saltander and Lugo,” he said.

Although Tevasa used to supply a large number of casks for sherry makers in Jerez, major changes in the sherry market over the years have changed that situation completely.

In 1980, sherry makers were banned from sending their wine in casks, and could only do so in bottles. That, of course, resulted in a shortage of sherry casks going into Scotland.

Subsequently, in 1985, the sherry business experienced a downturn. With fewer casks being made and sold to the sherry makers, Tevasa decided to explore the whisky market instead.

Beautiful: The Easter Elchies House, the spiritual home of The Macallan. (Below) The Macallan Estate is an impressive sprawling 370 acre area atop a hill overlooking the River Spey.
The Macallan Estate is an impressive sprawling 370 acre area atop a hill overlooking the River Spey.

Today, about 90% of Tevasa’s business is now Scotch, and 80-85% of the sawmills’ production go to the cooperage.

“We are no longer relying on the sherry industry – all the casks we make are for the Scotch industry,” Iturrospe said.

At the Tevasa cooperage, a cacophony of hammering, sawing noises greeted us. Over in one corner, some half-made barrels are sprayed with water before being heated over an open fire, a spectacularly fiery process that allows the staves to be bent into shape using a series of metal hoops.

The cooperage, which employs about 65 workers, produces about 70-75 casks a day. If the casks are ready just in time for the grape harvest, they will first be filled with “mosto” (first fermentation of the Palomino grape juice, the most traditional form of seasoning) and then with dry Oloroso sherry. If not, then the casks will be filled directly with dry Oloroso.

The casks spend a total of 18 months seasoned with sherry wine before they are emptied and sent to Scotland to be filled with The Macallan’s new make spirit.

Oak cast being seasoned with sherry.
Oak cast being seasoned with sherry.

According to Stuart MacPherson, The Macallan’s Master of Wood (yes, that’s his official designation – stop sniggering), Spanish oak is an ideal wood to mature whisky in, as its open grain and high tannin content gives the spirit aromas and flavours of dried fruits, spices, chocolate and orange.

“The pores in the oak are more open so the spirit can extract those flavours better,” he said, adding that the Edrington Group are unique in that they can monitor the entire cask-making process, from the trees to the sawmills, drying process, construction, seasoning and transportation to Scotland.

He also explained that the entire process of getting a cask to The Macallan takes about three years. “If you cut a tree in 2014, it will be made into a cask in 2017, and sent to Scotland in 2019 minimum,” he said.

The whisky estate

Fast forward a couple of days, and we found ourselves on the Macallan Estate, where the sherry barrels made in Jerez eventually end up.

The estate is an impressive, sprawling 370 acre area atop a hill overlooking the River Spey that houses not just the distillery, but also some remarkably large maturation warehouses, a visitors’ centre, a small barley field, a duck pond, and last but not least, the beautiful Easter Elchies house, known as the spiritual home of The Macallan.

Here, visitors can take a two-hour tour around the distillery, which includes a detailed guide to the whisky-making process, and a visit to the still room, to where the surprisingly small and squat copper stills produce the new make spirit that would later be matured in the oak barrels. The warehouses on the estate can house up to 170,000 casks at any one time, and its warehouse management team is the largest of any single distillery in the industry.

According to McPherson, Macallan spends more on sourcing, building, seasoning, and caring for its casks than any other single malt. The distillery used to produce whisky matured only in oak sherry casks; but in 2004, Macallan Master of Malt Bob Dalgarno came up with a new range called Fine Oak that featured whiskies that were also matured in ex-bourbon casks.

The Macallan Master of Wood Stuart McPherson (left) and Narciso Fernandez Iturrospe of Teresa Cooperage.
The Macallan Master of Wood Stuart McPherson (left) and Narciso Fernandez Iturrospe of Teresa Cooperage.

Recently, the distillery also launched the 1824 Series, which consisted of non-age-statement 100% sherry-matured whiskies that were differentiated by the colour of the whiskies – Gold, Amber, Sienna and Ruby.

One other whisky in the 1824 series – simply known as ‘M’ – set a new world record for the most expensive single malt whisky ever sold, with a six litre bottle going for US$628,205 at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong in January.

According to the explanation on The Macallan’s official website, the 1824 series was created based on the “spectrum of naturally-occurring colours exhibited by The Macallan’s single malts after their years of maturation in the finest sherry oak casks”.

Later, over an after dinner drink at the Easter Elchies House, I asked Dalgarno why he decided to come up with the 1824 Series.

“It allows us to express ourselves, and to showcase the natural colour of the whiskies. It also allows us to educate the consumers further, give them a greater understanding of the whisky,” said the whisky maker, who has been with The Macallan for 30 years.

“With the 1824 series, we are doing something different that takes people out of their comfort zone. We’re changing a mindset that assumes that 12 year old is better than a 10 year old. But it’s just a different flavour profile.”

Since it consists of Macallan malts matured for different years in sherry casks, you could say that the 1824 Series was the perfect example of how important those barrels we saw being made in Jerez are. As I sipped my glass of Macallan Ruby at the Easter Elchies House, it dawned on me – what a perfect end to the journey of wood, from Spain to Scotland.

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