Meet The Macallan’s Full-Time Master of Wood
More than 200,000 casks line the walls at The Macallan distillery in Scotland, and inside each cask, Macallan’s signature single malt Scotch whisky is maturing. The barrels are carefully crafted, using oak from a specific region in order to get the best flavor. The Macallan puts so much thought into this process that it’s currently the only Scotch maker with a dedicated Master of Wood: Stuart MacPherson.
Although the title may sound silly, the role is quite important. MacPherson is the sole person at The Macallan sourcing wood from the forests of Spain and transporting it back to Scotland to make the distillery’s casks.
“The majority of the flavors and characteristics of whisky are picked up by the casks in which they are matured,” MacPherson says. “The influence of wood accounts for up to 80 percent of the final flavor, making it the singularly the most significant factor in shaping the character. For this reason alone, wood is vital.”
MacPherson comes from a background in cooperage; he learned the art of barrel-making back in 1979. When he came to The Macallan in 2012, he brought with him a wealth of knowledge about different wood properties based on location and type. He was able to put this information to use at The Macallan instantly, informing all aspects of the distillery’s casks and running an educational program for the brand about how the wood influences flavor and distillation.
“Even though The Macallan is distilled and matured in Scotland, our new casks come in from Spain,” MacPherson said. “Spanish oak, primarily from the Galicia region of northern Spain, has a more open grain with high tannin content, which imparts the flavors we seek in shaping the character of The Macallan, including notes of sherry; dried fruits like sultanas, raisins, and candied peel; as well as cinnamon, nutmeg, wood, caramel, orange, and Christmas cake.”
Some of the oak comes from the United States, too — but it all ends up in Spain at one point on its journey to Scotland. At the beginning of the process, MacPherson’s chosen trees are taken down and sawn into staves. Then the boards are air-dried before shipping, and air-dried again after they head to the south of Spain, to Jerez de la Frontera, to be built by Tevasa Cooperage. The U.S. staves join the ones in Spain at Tevasa.
From there, the finished barrels head to a sherry bodega in Jerez de la Frontera to be seasoned with dry oloroso sherry — a base for many of the sweet sherries sold in the international market.
“European and American oak seasoned with sherry gives the whisky its distinctive flavor profile,” MacPherson said. “The Macallan works closely with the only fully integrated ‘tree to finished, seasoned cask’ company to ensure that we identify wood which meets our exact specifications and enables the creation of casks to our needs.”
And, like The Macallan’s whisky, the process isn’t cheap. MacPherson sources oak for casks that normally cost up to ten times more than barrels used by other distillers — which helps to explain why some bottles of the whisky itself sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars, like one bottle on The Whiskey Exchange, priced at a staggering $19,847.