Replicas Examined: 1950s Macallan vs. Macallan Fifties

Find something rare or desirable enough that’s cost-prohibitive to own, and the odds are there’s a less-expensive replica of it available for ownership. I don’t know why it surprised me so much when it happened with whiskey, but I guess it’s an amusing notion to me: using a drink as a replica of another drink

“There’s nothing weird about replica drinks, Number One.”

The most heralded replica in recent memory was of course Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt, aka “Shackleton’s Whisky”. This one was a replica of a whisky that had been in Antarctica for the better part of the 20th century. Doubtless this inspiration (and the need for a marketing gimmick to sell more bottles) will lead Beam to do a replica of the Old Crow bottles found in some guy’s attic. Hell, if I owned the Old Crow I’d be working on distressed labels right now. (“Missouri Attic-Surviving Bourbon”, aka the Show-Me Phoenix)

You might even be aware of some of the Macallan “replicas” of whiskies from the 19th century. If you’ve wanted to drink whisky that possibly tastes like whisky that predates the widespread acceptance of germ theory, that’s probably your ticket. However, there’s a slightly less heralded set of Macallan replicas – a travel exclusive set of whiskies that were supposed to be “in the style of” Macallans from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Normally I’d laugh and click onto the next page of results from whatever merchant I was purchasing from.

However, in a recent trade with my friend Chris, I’d managed to come up with a few samples of Macallans distilled in the 1950s. These whiskies were bottled by Campbell, Hope & King for the Italian market in the early to mid 1970s. While these bore the 15 year age statement on them, it was apparently not uncommon for these whiskies to have a good portion of their contents be significantly older than the stated age — but why reprint the label when it’s cheaper just to reuse it?

This gave me a clear opportunity to see if the replicas were playing the same game as the originals. Clearly, a set of three samples would be an utterly comprehensive and complete survey of all Macallan produced in the 1950s, so I felt confident comparing those samples to the Macallan “Fifties” replica and making a quasi-authoritative proclamation on the quality of the replicas.

What my methodology lacks in actual scientific or statistical rigor, it makes up for in cost-effectiveness and a desire to avoid spending money I don’t need to spend.

The three Campbell, Hope & King bottlings dated from three separate years – 1959, 1956, and 1952 – a good spread across the decade. They were all bottled at the old British 80 proof, which puts it at about 46% ABV. The Macallan Fifties didn’t have an age statement, and was bottled at 40%.

Again, the scientifically minded will note a difference in proofs and question the validity of this tasting. I counter with the reasonable explanation that these likely represent the sum total of midcentury Macallan that I’ll have in my life, and thus I’m not going to dilute them for something ridiculous like science. (What’s science ever done for anyone anyway!?)

I figured the best way to approach the original 1950s Macallans was to go backwards through time – start with the closest to a modern Macallan and then move toward the early postwar years.

The first one then was the 1959 Macallan. The nose was trademark Macallan: sherry all over the nose, a light dash of raisins, and roasted nuts were there. A subdued orange zest character and slight vanilla creaminess gave it a little more dimension, and for a moment I got a very quick flash of Marmite.

The palate had a beautiful, rich, full mouthfeel with a hint of molasses and I again got a very brief hint of marmite. (Vanishingly quick though). There’s a hint of sticky toffee pudding, and then big, rich sherry notes come through again. There’s tons of dried fruit, and some nice cinnamon spice which gives a gentle heat. Rich fruit and honey sweetness fills it out. There’s a slight vanilla creaminess to the palate, but the focus is all sherry (and that aforementioned hint of marmite).

The finish starts warmer than I’d expect for a Macallan, with dried fruits and a citrus top note that balances with some light wood and dark chocolate. There’s not a lot but what it does, it does well.

This to me is almost an ideal example of a classic Macallan profile – it’s got a rich body and all the sherry notes you’d hope for. The richness of the spirit balances perfectly with the spirit at the age of this one. What a great start! If Macallan was doing them like this on a regular basis, they’d be crushing the competition. I will admit I tend to have a soft spot for their stuff, but they aren’t doing anything quite as amazing as this bottle was. Unfortunately, that’s probably the last of it I’ll ever have.

We now step back in time to 1956, a time when the US momentarily considered if it would elect Adlai Stevenson, but then decided that things were pretty keen for them and went back to drinking whisky. Unfortunately, they probably weren’t drinking this stuff. Again, the 1956 is another (over) 15 year old whiskey bottled by Campbell, Hope & King.

The nose on this one surprised me immediately. There was a definite hint of smoke on the nose – something I couldn’t recall having encountered in any Macallans before. There was a slight mineral quality to it, and I kept thinking of rain on gravel. It had gentle wood presence, light sherry influence and some medium-dark chocolate (say 60% or so).

The whisky was bold on the palate – dried fruit with oranges and plum, with a wisp of smoke. There was a gently insistent note of mint at the top which kept it seeming fresh and bright but it wasn’t overdone. A light leathery quality was balanced out by kumquats and persimmon (and that’s a note I can’t say I’ve ever had). The light minerality from the nose carried through to the palate.

The finish was light initially; the mint top-note from the palate took the lead and brought the dried fruit along for the ride. It was a light, bright and dry finish that was really nice and didn’t go bitter or resolve to anything strange.

This was a real curveball for me and if I hadn’t read the label (or pored over Serge’s notes on older Macallans at Whiskyfun) I would have never in a million years guessed Macallan. Smoke plus sherry is one thing, but the minerality and mint were completely unexpected but really, really enjoyable. It’s extremely hard to compare it to anything they do today, but it would not at all be an unwelcome profile to have in the range as a special expression. This, in my opinion, would be the one to do that with.

And finally, the vintage bottlings concludes with a look at another (over) 15 Years Old Campbell, Hope & King bottling, distilled in 1952. We now predate the discovery of the double-helix DNA structure, but probably a more pressing touchstone for whisky aficionados is that this would predate Playboy magazine by a year. Who knows what people read just for the articles prior to 1953.

The nose on the 1952 led with white pepper, but then the mineral and mint notes from the mid-50s came in. After a while, some oranges made themselves known as the nose opened up, as well as some gentle sherry undertones and a little fresh tobacco. This nose seemed somewhat closed off despite any amount of time in the bottle.

The palate was as rich as you’d expect from a Macallan, leading with the mineral/mint combo. The oranges came through as well as a bit of cranberry, some gentle sherry as an understated foundation, and some baked bread. The relatively low intensity of the sherry was an eye-opener compared to modern Macallan. Some pepper and slightly more direct citrus notes popped up (fresh squeezed lemon?) after a while. There were also old whisky notes of wax, wood, and apple skin, but the apple skin was almost more textural than the kind of lightly floral Fuji apple note you get on some whiskies. A little white pepper rounded it out.

The finish was mouth-coating and lasting. Mint notes were present, and the mineral quality continued with a nice sherry base. Walnuts and apple skin fleshed it out, as it dried to oak and then later, tobacco.

If the 1956 was different, the 1952 I would haven’t ever pegged as Macallan – it’s a lot more mineral, a lot lighter and with a much less overt sherry influence. I can’t think of anything out there today that is like it.

Clearly, three samples is a sufficient size to inform a comprehensive, accurate and total view of Macallan’s output during the decade. If we are to use these as a guide, it seems clear that Macallan was in a transitional period, using more and more sherry influence as the decade went on, and toning down any sort of smoky characteristics. Likewise, whatever provided the mineral and mint notes also went away over time, and by the end of the decade, it was recognizable as modern-day Macallan, just turned up to 11.

The question I had was, which profile would the Macallan Fifties replica aim for? There’s only one fun way to find out.

The nose was pleasant – oranges and sherry with a touch of shoe leather. It was lightly nutty and slightly earthy, with figs and an overall slightly molasses-touched sweetness. It seemed like perhaps the target was somewhere between 1956 and 1959, but leaning closer to 1959 without going all-out in that direction.

The palate was initially thin with some bitter wood. There was a lightly vegetal tone to the body, as well as some hay and an overall farmy character. A little apple skin emerged. This wasn’t really like anything from the above and to me indicated a moderately young whisky used as the base for this.

The finish was light and sweet, gently fruity with apple skin notes, some plums and a touch of lighter sherry. Some white pepper showed up on the tail end of the finish.

It was, to say the least, underwhelming.

It didn’t really remind me of the actual whiskies from the 1950s – mineral and minty or the older one which was a deeply flavored, rich bomb of fruit and flavor. The nose on the replica was pleasant enough, but the palate and finish were almost blend-like, with a lack of depth or nuance. They weren’t bad, they were just bland and relatively light.

It’s hard to say what Macallan was aiming for, but I think this was a novelty project with mostly young whiskies, a dash of some old ones, and banking on the relatively safe assumption that no one was going to be able to do a side-by-side comparison. Unfortunately, when compared, they don’t really hold up.

Fortunately for Macallan, their standard range as it presently exists (the 12 and 18 year) compare quite favorably. So in this case, skip the replica.

Perhaps that’s my general feeling on “replica whisky”. Maybe it’s possible that there are more accurate replicas out there, but without having a point of reference, you’re really at the mercy of the producer who had access to a small sample set which they’re probably not sharing. Unfortunately, as we all know, palates and noses are a very subjective thing and what may seem accurate to one person could be way off to another.

When there are regular releases of absolutely stellar whisky that easily rate into the A-range, why chase the ghosts of the past? I can’t think of a replica that’s been widely heralded as a can’t-miss, must-drink bottle unless an allowance for the novelty factor has been made.

So for me, it’ll continue to be the real deal… especially if I can ever lay my hands on a vintage Macallan at a reasonable price.

Special thanks to Chris H for the rare treat of these amazing samples!

At a glance:

Macallan (over) 15 Years Old, Distilled 1959 – Campbell, Hope & King Bottling 46% ABV
Trademark Macallan. Sherry all over the nose with a light dash of raisins, light aromas of roasted nuts, subdued orange zest and even a touch of vanilla creaminess. Light marmite influence as well.
Rich, full mouthfeel with a hint of molasses and a bit of marmite; a hint of sticky toffee pudding; big rich sherry notes again; lots of dried fruit with a bit of light cinnamon spice. Nice gentle heat, rich fruit with a bit of honey sweetness. Again, a slight vanilla creamy quality to the palate, but this is all about the sherry and a hint of marmite. 
Warm initially, dried fruits and a bit of citrus at the end which balances with a light wood influence and a bit of dark chocolate.
Macallan doesn’t make ‘em quite like this anymore. For me, this is textbook classic Macallan in character and style. The richness of the Macallan spirit balances perfectly with cask influence around this age. 

Macallan (over) 15 Years Old, Distilled 1956 – Campbell, Hope & King Bottling 46% ABV
Well, there’s a surprise: there’s a bit of smoke on this one. Not quite as sulfury as a struck match, but there’s some light smoke. Peppery – a little black pepper, white pepper. Some sherry, but it mainly presents as dried fruit. Faintly figgy; oranges. Softens up around the edges and becomes more inviting. Lightly floral, a touch of buttercream vanilla.
Nice and bold in the mouth. Dried fruit – oranges present; a wisp of smoke; a faint touch of plum. Some mint on the top end, it’s very clean and bright in the mouth but not at all overdone. Light leather. I may be losing my mind but I think I get kumquats and persimmon for a second. Lightly mineral. 
Warm initially, mint top-note leads and takes the dried fruit along for the ride. Light mineral note. Delightfully bright. Dry but not bitter or resolving on an odd note. 
This is unlike any Macallan I’ve ever had. Very interesting, very good. I’d never in a million years peg it as a Macallan, but surprises are fun.

Macallan (over) 15 Years Old, Distilled 1952 – Campbell, Hope & King Bottling 46% ABV
A little white pepper upfront. Mineral with a touch of mint. Opens up to reveal some orange notes, some gentle sherry undertones clearly there but not leading the way. Fresh tobacco. 
Thick and rich mouthfeel, again leading slightly mineral with a mint aspect; some oranges. Baked bread, a touch of cranberry, nice gentle sherry presence acting as a quiet foundation in this – quite a contrast to modern Macallan. Gentle pepper, even a slightly more direct citrus note – fresh squeezed lemon. Apple skin is here but it almost acts as a texture instead of a taste. Lightly waxy, some wood in the mix. White pepper. 
Mouth-coating, lasting. Mint notes present, that mineral quality continues and it’s got a nice sherry basis. Hints of walnuts, plenty of apple skin, drying to oak and later tobacco.
The change from 1952 to 1958 is pretty amazing. Clearly the ’50s were a transitional decade for Macallan. This is a great malt unlike anything today – such minerality! – and while I enjoyed it this wasn’t the knee-buckler some other old Macallans have been for me. 

Macallan “Fifties” 40% ABV
Pleasant – orange and sherry up front with a light note of shoe leather. Lightly nutty, slightly earthy. Figs and an overall, slightly molasses-touched sweetness. 
Slightly thin initially; white pepper and some bitter wood. Lightly vegetal tone to the body; some hay and slight farminess. Some apple skin after a while.
Light and sweet, gently fruity with some apple skin, some plums and a touch of lighter sherry notes. Some white pepper on the tail end of the finish. 
This really doesn’t remind me of the earlier 50s Macallans I tasted – mineral and minty – or the ’59 which was a deeply flavored, rich bomb of fruit and flavor. It has a great nose but the palate seems almost like a blend, lacking depth and nuance; the finish is fine but again, relatively light.
Rating:  B-


6 thoughts on “Replicas Examined: 1950s Macallan vs. Macallan Fifties”

  1. If you count Aberlour A’Bunadh as a replica (that’s the story they’re going with, at least), then there’s at least one well-respected replica scotch besides the Mackinley’s out there.

    Also, i really wish Macallan would put out something like the ’56 whisky. That sounds absolutely divine.

    1. Right, I completely forgot about a’bunadh. I’ve seen some pretty hefty variation on those (and honestly haven’t been a huge fan of the batches I’ve had), so I wonder how close, say, batch 40 is to batch 1 at this point.

      The ’56 Macallan would be a perfect counterpoint to their range. It’s complementary but just different enough to be really interesting. I thought the ’52 went a touch too far, but the ’56 is very interesting.

      And heck, they could probably find an easier name-fit with their new NAS range if they did.

  2. The Glenlivet Nadurra is also billed as a replica (the label states Nadurra faithfully captures the original distillery character). Of course there’s one major difference since George Smith’s whisky spent very little time in the cask. Nadurra spends 16 years in ex-bourbon casks. But the Glenlivet whisky of 1824 and today’s Nadurra are both bottled at cask strength so at least one thing is accurate.

    1. Ahh, interesting. I didn’t know Nadurra was coming from that angle. I thought it was just a no color/no filter cask strength bottling for the hardcore nerds and not trying to replicate anything. I still have that on my “to try” list.

      1. Nadurra is my favorite of the Glenlivet line. I think it’s a great cask strength to start on. I’m actually glad Glenlivet has kept the 16 year age statement since so many cask strength offerings are NAS.

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