Image credit: The Macallan
It has been produced in Scotland since the 15th century and, today, many connoisseurs will travel half the world just to experience handsome distilleries and toast to stories from the very makers of the bright golden and sometimes ruby-rose dram.
When it comes to Scotch whisky (derived from the Gaelic term “uisge beatha”, which translates to “water of life”), there is little debate that the drink not only has a superlative charm in its origins, but also an efficacy unlike any other in winning over new converts worldwide. This intoxicating elixir simply lures one to unearth more of its history and art of creation.
To get a taste of the whisky world, Quotient talked in-depth with Macallan’s Master of Wood Stuart MacPherson, who took us through a visceral journey into the art of the ancient craft of coopering and shared why oak sits at the very heart of whisky-making.
In his role, MacPherson is the primary source of information on Macallan’s oak casks and their influence on the whiskies. Wood defines the flavour of the whisky, with over 60% of the character derived from the cask it is aged in. According to MacPherson, wood is a natural product and matures differently, just like human beings.
The expert was in Singapore in conjunction with The Macallan Rare Cask interactive exhibition, which offered visitors a multi-sensory experience revolving around the exquisite craft of whisky-making.
Quotient: Hi Stuart. Tell us a little about your personal history and how you broke into this field of work.
MacPherson: At an early age I was fortunate enough to get a summer placement in a cooperage, period during which I became fascinated by the world of crafting casks and, well, the rest is history. In essence, I stopped my studies, went on with the apprenticeship, and worked for Edrington (manufacturer of Macallan and other Scotch whiskies) for 36 years. I was lucky enough that in these 36 years I was able to support the brand and other aspects of the company.
What does a Master of Wood do?
I assumed the Master of Wood role in 2012 (at Macallan). When I was offered this position, I had the knowledge and background of working with casks throughout my career. What then came along was being responsible for running our cooperages in Scotland and ensuring the distilleries receive casks that meet the quality standards of our brand.
Through the Master of Wood role, I also became the primary source of the brand education programme for Macallan — talking to the markets, media, journalists and consumers about how important wood is in the process of whisky-making. Also, with this role I get to spend two weeks per month in Spain where I liaise with cask supplier and seasoning bodegas.
What does it take to be a great Master of Wood?
I’ve been in the industry for so long but I think you’re always learning. I learned so much from the chemical and scientific side because there is a lot more research done now within the industry — about how important wood is and the impact it produces on the spirit.
I am probably the only person in the Scotch whisky industry with this title and one of the reasons is because of the importance wood has in Macallan. I think in the past, the consumer didn’t really understand the impact of wood. But today it’s paramount to make people more aware and I am happy to be able to share my knowledge.
Why is oak important for the whisky-making process?
For us at Macallan, the wood is the greatest and sole influence on our single malt whiskies. Some might think that everything has to do with the barley or the water, but actually 60% of the final taste of the whisky flavouring and aroma come from the wood. Also, 100% of the natural colour comes from wood. Different oak species give different colour profiles and also different flavours.
Could you briefly share with us what is the cask-making process?
Wood drying lasts for about 2 years in total — around 6 months in the north of Spain, in regions such as Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria, and another 18 months in the south of Spain, in Andalusia and Jerez. After the casks are crafted, they will be seasoned with oloroso (sherry) wine for approximately 18 months. After the seasoning, the casks are then delivered to Scotland. From the cutting of the trees to the delivery in Scotland it takes approximately 6 years. It’s quite a long and arduous process but we are one of the very few Scotch whisky companies that follow this process.
What type of wood do you use to make Macallan barrels?
We use Quercus alba, which is an American white oak, and Quercus robur, also known as European oak. It’s these two different types of oak that give different flavours and characteristics to the whisky. But we also use American bourbon barrels — they’re predominantly used for the creation of our fine oak range whereas the vanilla, the sweetness, the light colours are derived from the Quercus alba type of wood.
What other characteristics make for a great whisky?
To be legally called Scotch whisky, there are two rules: firstly it has to be distilled in Scotland, and secondly it must be matured in oak for a minimum of 3 years. It depends how often you use the cask, how much you are able to extract from the wood. At Macallan we don’t use the casks more than twice.
What are some of the changes that you have seen during your career? Have methods and tools changed over the years?
There are still some traditional tools that are used, but like most industries, machinery has taken over. We’re not fully-automated — although there are some cooperages in Scotland that are — we still have a lot of hand tools that we use. I think one of the major changes is the growth of the Scotch whisky industry.
As we explore new emerging markets to introduce a range of whiskies to the consumer, the increase becomes a challenge for us in terms of the volume of stocks. If we are creating a 12-year-old product, I have to look for timber 6 years in advance. From my perspective, we are looking at a total of 18 years in advance and that’s the challenge. It’s also one of the reasons why we look at taking our numbers off the bottle, because really, it’s not about compromising our product, it’s about the whisky maker being creative and imaginative and using his skills in creating a unique product.
When you are not drinking whisky, what do you like to drink?
During the day it’ll be beers, in the evening wines, and late at evening whiskies. I think this is one of the ways of changing people’s perception about how to drink whisky and when to drink it. It’s part of a cultural change. Some of the most frequent questions I get asked are “how do you drink your whisky?” and “how should I drink my whisky?” I always tell people that they are the consumers, they can just try and experiment the way they like it. All palates are different. There is no wrong or right way. These days, more and more aficionados are drinking whisky in cocktails or high glasses. It’s just another perspective on how whisky drinkers want to go about it.
Where in the world would you travel for a drink?
Lately it’s been everywhere looking at my passport. But it’s always nice to sit in a bar in Jerez in Spain, drinking a Macallan, knowing that the suppliers I’m sitting with are the ones producing the casks. There’s definitely some sort of romanticism to that.
You live in Scotland. In your opinion, what are some of the best places to visit there?
Actually I spend half my time in Scotland and half my time in Spain. I think it just shows how much focused and committed we are as a company and brand to follow this process, to ensure that we have the right materials, the right casks for our products for the future. I’m actually fortunate enough to live in Scotland’s central belt from where I have the opportunity to see more of the countryside.
As for what places I’d recommend in Scotland, well, from a cultural experience, I’d probably opt for Edinburgh. For nature lovers, I suggest the Highlands, the countryside, the mountains, distilleries, and the Whisky Trail. There is indeed a lot of stunning scenery in Scotland.