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Summer Celebration #2: Macallan 25 Sherry Oak

One year ago today, I launched Scotch & Ice Cream. At the time, it was an even mix of feeling like I launched it before it was ready, tempered with the excitement of finally having my personal outlet to share my reviews and recommendations as well as the life-in-progress with a lot of my friends I used to work with.

It’s been an amazing journey since then and I’m glad to have shared a large portion of it with everyone – either via twitter or here on Scotch & Ice Cream. It’s been a time of a lot of personal growth, and I honestly credit launching this blog last year as one of the major turning points along the way. You see, in the last year, S&I has been wildly successful beyond my imagination. I figured this would just be my private spot to publish stuff that had been accumulating in my Evernote file of tasting notes, hopefully letting some of my friends keep up.

But it’s been so much more than that. I’ve seen tens of thousands of hits, light-years beyond what I’d ever expected. In my old world, we’d call that a vanity metric and want to dig deeper – and so we shall. I’ve made tons of friends who I’m in regular correspondence with. I’ve met interesting people and have enjoyed some really fun sample swaps over time, getting to try all kinds of amazing whisky. Unfortunately for what I review here, that’s certainly had a tendency to make those “A” grades so much harder to achieve – so when they happen, it’s worth taking note.

That as a group, while fun, doesn’t really do much for me. I’d be happy to keep doing this in total obscurity even if I had a hundred hits one year later and was still working through the same stuff as always. For me this has been a major exercise in learning the value of “good enough” – because S&I launched before it was perfect (and it’s still far short), and succeeded on its own. That really got me thinking about not overthinking and overdoing. That’s been a major change for the better in my life. So remember: whisky blogging is good for the mind and soul.

One year ago, the first whisky I reviewed to mark the start of the blog as well as my son’s birth was Macallan’s 30 year sherry oak. This stands at the top of their range and was the virtually unobtainable high-water mark of likely perfection. I decided I needed to obtain some and had it and was fairly disappointed with the whisky. It wasn’t bad – it just wasn’t the legendary whisky that must be unbeatable (given distillery and age and my inexperience with whiskies in the 30y+ range).

The obvious whisky to try at the one year mark was the Macallan 25 – also a highly priced, long-aged whisky. I theorized that the extra 5 years in wood really did nothing for the 30 year old, and my operating theory was that the 25 might actually be the pinnacle of the range.

After a long week in northern California with a son who, it turns out, isn’t particularly fond of travel, I was ready to mark my return with a glass of the 25.

The nose was an immediate treat: Rich oak in abundance with some nutty sherry; molasses and treacle sponge pudding giving some dense, dark sweetness. Some of the youthful Macallan character was evident on the nose, a great sign. Orange and dried plum, a touch of apple and a light bit of spice gave some more body to the nose, and even a touch of shoe polish rounded it out.

The mouthfeel was full, rich and coating. The whisky immediately showed evidence of age – heavy but not overbearing oak; white pepper with a dash of cinnamon. The dried fruit came through, as well as a little plum. The sherry influence on the palate was rich and full, but it’s not a lopsided over-sherried whisky. The youthful Macallan character is still there (tempered by the signs of age), and complemented by a faintly earthy tone.

The finish was again, unsurprisingly, led by woody notes which started to dry. A little apple skin was evidence of age, and surprisingly a momentary kick of fresh celery brightened it up and added dimension, but didn’t make it bitter or rooty. There was a little orange and faint pear, as well as a much later kick of cherries and chocolate.

Macallan 25 is all about the wood, prominently featured on the nose and the palate. There’s a strong dried fruit component, which reminds me a lot of the Balvenie 1401 releases I love so much, but with the more zesty and bright Macallan spirit at the core, versus the more straightforward fruity, rounded Balvenie spirit. This is, for my money and with my now-complete experience of Macallan’s standard range, the grand dame of Macallan’s now-disappearing standard range. It’s a fantastically well-balanced whisky.

If you’re faced with the first-world problem of deciding between the 25 and the 30, buy the 25. It’s miles better and at a lower price. Can’t beat that.

At a Glance:

Macallan 25y (Sherry Oak) 43% ABV
Nose:  Rich oak upfront with some nutty sherry notes; a bit of molasses and treacle sponge pudding. Some of the youth of Macallan still comes  through. Orange and dried plum; a touch of apple and a light bit of spice. A little touch of shoe polish and leather.
Palate:  Full mouthfeel, rich and coating. Immediately leads with a heavy but not overbearing oak influence. Nice white pepper with a dash of cinnamon at the edges. Dried fruit again; a little plum note. The sherry is again rich and full on this but it’s not a lopsided sherried whisky in the least. Plenty of youthful Macallan character; a faint bit of earthiness.
Finish:  Wood which dries slightly. A little bit of apple skin and a momentary flash of fresh celery brightens it up but doesn’t detract. A little orange and a faint touch of pear. A little late kick of cherries and chocolate.
Comment:  This is all about the wood, with a prominent display on the nose and the palate. There’s a strong secondary dried fruit component – reminds me a lot of Balvenie 1401 but with the more zesty and bright Macallan spirit versus the more straightforward and fruity (but rounded) Balvenie spirit. This is unquestionably the grand dame of Macallan’s standard sherry oak range; a fantastic balance.
Rating: A-

Macallan 1963 Rinaldi Special Selection

Macallan 1963 Rinaldi Special Selection – 43% ABV (dist. 1963, bott. 1980)
Nice, wonderful fruit notes lead – deep and powerful sherry with a good apple presence on top. Light touch of cinnamon and a slight whisper of nutmeg. Plenty of wood and a lightly mineral presence. A faint wisp of smokines. Light hint of grapes and maybe some white wine. A little figgy presence too.
Palate:  Mouth-coating and leading with a nice mix of light white pepper, woodiness and mint; a faint wisp of smoke on the roof of the mouth. A little light molasses note, some figs again, a touch of oranges adding brightness. Slight lemony note as well, but this is not overly citric. A little jammy.
Finish:  Nice. Old wood, a little zip of raspberries for a second, slightly minty top note, some figs and a bit of apple skin.
Comment:  Old Macallan, you’re so fun. A great mix of older and modern Macallan.
Rating:  A-

At the risk of this seeming like all-Macallan, all the time, I just wanted to feature one last fun old sample that didn’t have a broader set of samples around it. Back to other stuff next week!


Depression-Era Macallan

Last week I discussed some post-war Macallan bottlings from the 1950s. They were a pretty interesting trio of tastes, showing an evolution of style from a more flinty and minty profile to a much more traditional, recognizably Macallan (to today’s palates, at least) profile. I thought they were all really interesting. Unfortunately, the travel-exclusive replica came up short.

Today, courtesy of the same batch of samples, I have the opportunity to go even farther back and look at some Macallans distilled in the 1930s. These two 1930s Macallans are also in excess of 30 years old, so there must naturally be some comparison to Scotch & Ice Cream’s debut post which covered Macallan 30.

The 1930s samples under consideration are both Gordon & MacPhail bottlings from the latter 1960s for the Italian market. There’s no point in dragging this out with a lengthy preamble, let’s taste:

The first whisky is a 32 year old distilled in 1937 and bottled in ’69. The nose is a nice mix of lightly floral and slightly farmy notes – hay comes forward most noticeably. There’s a little green apple early on, which gives way to white pepper and the familiar mineral quality encountered in the 1950s distillations. In this whisky it’s very reminiscent of rain on gravel, with a weighty earthiness but a slightly metallic quality shows as well. There’s some gentle smoke underpinning it, which reminds of the aftermath of 4th of July fireworks, but not sulfury. There’s a light sherry presence as well as some oranges. A slightly minty quality is present and balanced by a more prickly evergreen (fir?) quality.

The palate is oily and full, but still lighter than most modern Macallans. It comes in with a nice but not too strong sherry quality that is still fairly dominant. There’s a nice taste of clementines, which are balanced by a smoky note which reminds me of pu-erh tea. There’s a light young (not waxy) apple fruitiness, some gentle and reasonable wood, and a light dab of honey.

The oranges lead the finish with some mint, and as a pair they balance against one treacle and sticky toffee pudding. There’s a quick emergence of sherry, which are a little more dry overall and don’t show a big nutty presence. It’s slightly waxy and faintly dusty and goes more woody after a bit.

This was a really enjoyable and nuanced Macallan. It doesn’t show its age at all; it’s got a lot going on but it never seems confused or fragmented. This old bottling really shows Macallan near its absolute height.

The other whisky from this era is a 32 year old distilled in 1936 – also a Gordon & MacPhail bottle. This one has a little more smoke on the nose than most Macallans I’ve had. While some have had light, wispy suggestions of smoke, this one is definitely moving into the territory that I’d comfortably call (lightly) peated. It’s rich smoke but not overpowering, and it mixes wonderfully smoothly with a gentle sherry presence. It has a lightly perfumey character that reminds me of older laundry soaps, but I wouldn’t call it “soapy” in the traditionally perforative sense of the term. It’s almost slightly floral, and has subtle hints of evergreen fir and mint.

The peat is obvious on the palate initially; it’s not overpowering but it can’t be missed. It almost leans to a slightly rubbery note (like a bicycle inner tube) but it’s not objectionable or off. It’s got a light dash of white pepper, and some faint orange. There’s a bit of dried fruit from the sherry, a touch of cranberry, a hint of nutmeg and some slight cinnamon.

The finish warms nicely with some spice – a gentle, light cinnamon presence. There’s some pleasing sherry sweetness, which sits nicely with the smokiness. There’s also some faint hints of black licorice.

This 32 year old is so much better than the current standard issue 30 that it’s not funny. It’s got an incredible nose – the smoke is rich and full but it’s not an aggressive blast like a lot of peated whiskeys can be. This, like the modern 30, again conjures up images of sitting by a fire at Christmas time and just nosing and enjoying it for a while. Unfortunately, it’s a bit unfocused on the palate and seems to have lost some depth (like the modern 30). It’s a heck of a lot of fun though.

Both of these whiskies from the 30s are really great and enjoyable. I’d gladly have more of either; the nose on the 1936 is just great. Again, I have the opportunity to compare the 1930s whiskies against a modern replica – this time the Macallan “Thirties” travel exclusive.

The nose on the “Thirties” is an oddly spicy and alcohol-heavy one, with a curiously integrated peat character. There’s some light vanilla and oak; the whole thing is sharp and going off in a dozen different directions. It’s got a lightly antiseptic character, and a hint of sherry, but everything is loud and drowns it (and a slight citrus character) out.

The palate is very thin. It’s got a light mix of peat and white pepper. It’s got some sherry undertones, and a bit of cinnamon that’s a bit sharp, and black pepper comes up later on. There’s also a very faint show of oranges later on.

The finish has dry wood, white pepper, moderate sherry and a faintly rubbery peat influence. Unfortunately, the same as the “Fifites” replica, this is just an uninteresting whisky. It’s got a slight peat influence, but it doesn’t have the effortlessly great integration like the 1936. It’s definitely trying to go in the direction of the 1936 whisky, but it’s clearly a much younger whisky that needs a lot of time in the wood to settle down and develop. The peat lacks any sort of richness and is just young and aggressive still. It’s not really worth hunting down unless you can try a sample.

This has been a fun run through some old and special Macallans, and once again, thanks to my friend Chris for providing the samples. It’s been a really interesting education in older style Macallans. If you have an opportunity to try them out at some point, I highly recommend it.

At a glance:

Macallan 32y (Gordon & MacPhail). Distilled 1937, bottled 1969. 40% ABV
Nice mix of lightly floral and slightly farmy (hay) notes. A little green apple early, which gives way to a white pepper and mineral quality again – very much the rain on gravel kind of earthy yet metallic quality as well. A light bit of gentle smoke underpins it, kind of like the aftermath of a fourth of july blast, but without a heavy sulfur kick. Light sherry underneath with some oranges. A slightly minty quality is also balanced by a more prickly evergreen (fir?) quality.
Palate:  Oily and full but not as full as modern-day Macallans. Comes in with a nice, not too strong sherry quality that still dominates. Nice tastes of clementines which have a slightly smoky balance and almost reminds of pu-erh tea. Some light fruitiness – apples that are still young but ripe (not waxy), gentle and very well-behaved wood, and a light dab of honey.
Finish:  Nice lead of oranges with a mint top-note that also simultaneously dances with a rich treacle and sticky toffee pudding undertone. A very quick shift to sherry notes which lead the way, a little more dry and nutty than on the palate. Slightly waxy, faintly dusty. Goes to wood after a moment.
Comment:  Tons of nuance. Doesn’t show its age at all; just a lot going on in abundance, but not confused or all over the place. Really great.
Rating: A-

Macallan 32y (Gordon & MacPhail). Distilled 1936, bottled 1968. 40% ABV
A little more smoke on the nose than most Macallans and it’s definitely pushing well into peated territory. Rich but not overpowering smoke mixes nicely with a gentle sherry presence. It’s lightly perfumed and reminds of older soaps but I wouldn’t call it “soapy” in the usual perjorative sense. Almost slightly floral. Light hints of evergreen fir, slight mint. 
The peat presence is obvious initially – not overpowering but unmistakable nonetheless. Slightly leaning towards rubber inner tube, but not to the point of being objectionable. The lightest dash of white pepper, some faint orange influence. A bit of dried fruit, a touch of cranberry, a hint of nutmeg. Slight cinnamon. 
Warming gently with nice spice – a gentle, light dash of cinnamon. A pleasing sweetness from the sherry which balances agreeably with the slight trace of smokiness. Faint hints of black licorice. 
This is so much better than the standard-issue 30 it’s not even funny. It’s probably best on the nose and the finish has a nice tingle which, like the modern 30, would be great around a Christmas fire. Unfortunately it’s a bit unfocused on the palate and seems to have lost a little depth. A heck of a lot of fun though. 

Macallan “Thirties” 40% ABV
  An oddly spicy and alcohol heavy nose with a kind of curiously integrated peat to it. There’s some light vanilla and oak there; the whole thing is sharp and going off in a dozen different directions. Lightly antiseptic. A slight suggestion of sherry but everything is quite loud over it. Slight citrus.
Palate:  Very thin on the palate. Light mix of peatiness and white pepper. Some sherry undertones to it, a bit of cinnamon that’s somewhat sharp; black pepper later on. Very faint show of oranges.
Finish:  Slightly dry wood, white pepper, moderate sherry and a faintly rubbery peat influence.
Comment: Same as the Fifties, this is just uninteresting. It’s got a slight peat influence but it’s not sitting in beautifully like the ’36. It’s definitely in the same direction as the 1936, just a lot younger and needing many, many more years in wood to settle down and develop. The richness of the peat in the 1936 is utterly absent. I’d pass unless you get a sample.
Rating: C+



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-


Gift Packs: Bargains Galore

A while back, I wrote about how useful a good glass can be for appreciating everything a whiskey has to offer. The right shape of glass will help focus some of the aromas that would otherwise blow past your earlobes and set on your forehead in a traditional old fashioned glass. My favorite, as I’d mentioned, was the Glencairn glass.

In the last few weeks of shopping, I’ve seen holiday gift sets starting to appear on shelves, and there’s been a number of them with Glencairn glasses. Better yet, the price is right. If you’ve been curious about these glasses but don’t want to pony up $10-12 for a single glass, then the holidays are your absolute best time to pick one up at a low cost.

One gift pack I saw is an Old Pulteney 12 Gift Pack (I saw the actual article at the Wine House recently). This pairs two Glencairn glasses with an Old Pulteney logo, as well as a bottle of the 12 year old Old Pulteney. It’s a great bargain: about $35 gets you the two glasses and a bottle of Old Pulteney. If you’ve never had Old Pulteney, it’s a great, low-risk way to try it – even if you don’t like the bottle, you will have two great glasses.

Another was a Glenfiddich gift set. It looks like the major stores will be selling an Americanized version with two old fashioned glasses. However, I have stumbled across a different version: a bottle of Glenfiddich 12, a Glenfiddich logo Glencairn, and a small “tasting diary”. The tasting diary looked like a pretty decent quality, small, moleskine-type notebook (but very very thin). At less than $25, you’re basically paying $12 for the whiskey – a great deal.

You might also find that some stores put out old stock they may have gotten at a low cost from distributors, or have had warehoused over the last year. I saw an Old Forester Prohibition Repeal set this week as well. This set couples an Old Forester logo Glencairn (their press release from the time calls it a “snifter” – fine) and a 375mL bottle of Old Forester in a prohibition-era style bottle. It also includes an Old Forester logo pen and a scroll of the 21st Amendment. “Suitable for framing”, no doubt. I can always use a pen. This gift set was released in 2008 and I found it on shelves at the end of 2011. Keep an eye out.

If you think the Glencairn is impossibly dorky and just for people who are too precious about the whole thing, you could be right. There are some decent quality old fashioned glasses to be had out there; and sometimes you want a cocktail (say… an old fashioned). My favorite example of these were the Four Roses Single Barrel gift set. A bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel (recipe unknown, at least on my bottle) and two old fashioned glasses of pretty good quality. Four Roses is a great bourbon. If they ever start putting recipes on the label, keep your eyes peeled for the OBSK recipe – it’s great. Most of the major bourbon producers seem to be going the route of old fashioned glasses, so it’s an easy pickup.

Beyond that, there are some great bargains to be had. I’ve seen Glenmorangies cropping up recently with samples of their finishing experiments (Astar, Lasanta, Quinta Ruban, Nectar D’or) bottled alongside a Glenmorangie Original. The usual Macallan 12 with samples of Macallan 18 tucked inside are also showing up. Given the entry fee of $140/bottle for the 18, it’s a great way to try it if you haven’t.

I’ve also seen Johnnie Walker Black packaged with a small flask as well as Jim Beam white label with a flask. If you don’t have one, this could be a good place to pick one up along with a good, accessible bottle for guests who may not share more esoteric tastes (or might simply want to mix with something).

Hopefully you can find something that kills two birds with one stone this season – and don’t forget to pick up a gift for a friend. It can be an unexpected gift that might kick off a passion – especially if they have someone to help show them the ropes.

The Macallan 30: A Long-Awaited Whisky

For a long time, I’ve been a fan of Macallan, for better or worse. It’s been my “calibration malt” – the one that helps me know where my palate sits on a given day – for some time. Macallan 12 is the whiskey I know better than any other I’ve had.

Like many novices, Macallan 18 was the pinnacle of the form for me – the highest attainable “old” whiskey you could reasonably afford – a great showcase of some reasonable time in the barrel but with some youth and vitality still in the mix. When I was willing to splurge, I’d drop some change on the older Macallan.

The almost-unattainable whiskey that was the source of curiosity and wonder was, of course, the 30 year old Sherry Oak, which sits at the top of Macallan’s standard range. (Certainly there are rarer and more exclusive Macallans to be had; however, I am not inclined to share my tasting notes of the 60 year old Macallan Lalique. Suffice it to say that it is the finest scotch I’ve ever had while behind the wheel of my Bugatti on the way back from shopping at Bijan’s boutique in Beverly Hills.) I’d promised myself a bottle of this for various occasions: My 30th birthday (too busy); the startup I was working for at the time achieving profitability (still TBD); and a host of others. Finally, when we moved to our new place and my wife was pregnant with our first child, I knew that his birth would be the right occasion for this one.

Fast forward to mid-August of this year and he was born. The Macallan 30 finally was opened and tasted after years of waiting.

Macallan 30 Sherry Oak

I could hardly believe I had the bottle in front of me (and that bottle above is the exact bottle I had – yes, it really is that dark!). Macallan cultivates an image of exclusivity for the higher end of their range, but here it was in my hands – in my glass!

Unfortunately, exclusivity doesn’t really have a taste. So what was the experience of this whiskey?

The nose was gentle, rich, and buttery, like you’d expect from an older whiskey. There was none of the prickle or punch of a younger whiskey, the age was evident. The sherry influence was profound, but it was not overbearing – it had the raisin notes you’d expect with a heavily sherried whiskey, but it had more dimension than that. A lot of sherried whiskey tends to have a one-dimensional raisin note and it smells like liquid Sun-Maid, which is really a turnoff. Additionally, there’s a strong toffee note. After it sat in the glass, it started to reveal some gentle spice notes that made it smell like those Thanksgiving to Christmas meals. There was chocolate and soft grain, as well as old, worn wood.

On the palate, it was thick and started warming to a degree that surprised me given its age. Many of the older whiskeys I’ve had lose a lot of their heat with age; this still had she vitality. There was cinnamon and pepper as well as the toffee from the nose. Nutmeg and harvest spices were evident; there was some maple syrup in there as well. A little wood paneling could be perceived as well. A sign of good cask selection: the wood contributed to the flavor but didn’t give it a dry and bitter or over-oaked flavor that can ruin many older whiskeys.

The finish? Slow and lasting, as you’d expect from a Macallan. The sweetness continued, as did the toffee and sherry. The wood made itself known but was never overbearing.

All in all, it was really enjoyable and easy drinking. That said, it’s not amazing. It’s lost some of the vitality of a younger Macallan and it’s not the best 30+ year old whiskey I’ve had (In recent memory, that would be a 1977/2007 30 year old Brora (Diageo’s official bottling)). I could see this being a great “mood whiskey” – it would be a perfect one during the holidays, enjoying a long quiet evening with it.

Curiously though, that’s not the final word on this one. I just finished this bottle this week – and noticed substantial development in the bottle. Over time, there were more wax and apple notes on the nose and palate. There were also some caramel notes that weren’t as evident initially. Unfortunately though, the wood notes become more dry and bitter over time.

At a glance:
Macallan 30 year old Sherry. 43% ABV.
   Gentle, rich and buttery. The sherry influence is profound but not overbearing. A gentle hint of raisins, a ton of toffee. Slow to open up, but revealing gentle spice. Smells like thanksgiving to Christmas; chocolate and soft grain. Old, worn wood.
Palate:  Thick, warming to a degree that belies its age, with cinnamon and pepper; toffee; hints of maple syrup, nutmeg and harvest spices. Wood paneling in the distance.
Finish:  Slow, easing off the warth of the palate, retains its sweetness, lasting and rich. Toffee continues;  sherry influence. Wood is present but not overbearing.
Rating: B

A note on ratings:
I rate whiskeys on the LAWS scale - it seeks to remove price as a component (as well as exclusivity) and grade strictly on taste. If I were to consider price on this one, I’d be inclined to downgrade it as there are better values for your money. However, strictly on a taste basis, this one rates firmly as a B: Good, and might want to own.