One of Scotland’s first legal distilleries, The Macallan has been in fairly continuous operation since 1824. And they’ve built up a reputation that reflects their longevity! They hold the record of the highest price on a bottle of scotch and people are willing to pay. Fortunately, their introductory level scotch, The Macallan 12, is reasonably priced. But you have several options when you buy: Double Oak, Triple Oak, or Sherry Oak.
The Macallan 12 in a Nutshell
- Begun in 1824
- Comes from the Speyside region
- A darker version of Speyside
- More caramel, toffee, spicy and nut notes
- Matured in specialty Spanish oak casks
- The 12 year comes in a variety of styles: double oak, sherry oak, triple oak
What is Macallan 12?
Macallan 12 is a Single Malt Scotch that has been aged for 12 years in oak. It is closest to the Highland/Speyside style and is full of rich caramel, vanilla, and hot spice notes.
What is Scotch?
Basic definition: Scotch is whisky produced and matured in Scotland. But I assume you want a little more than that. First, let’s define whisky.
Whisky is any liquor made from distilled grains. These grains could include barley, wheat, corn, or rye. The distilled liquor is then aged, usually in wood, for a number of years to develop more flavor and color.
Scotch, however, is a very specific type of whisky. Yes, it comes from Scotland. But there is a little more to it. In fact, the Scotch Whisky Association created a set of rules to fully define and guarantee quality from all scotch distillers. They can get very complicated, so, for now, let’s just focus on the 4 basic rules.
To be legally defined scotch your product must be:
- Distilled, produced, matured, and bottled all in Scotland
- Created only with barley and water
- Aged for a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels
- Have the maturation and bottle years marked on the bottle
What is Single Malt?
The Macallan 12 is technically designated as a single malt scotch, which is even more specific. Single malt simply means this scotch is the product of one single distillery and it is made from malted barley only. Single malt is a somewhat misunderstood term. Many people assume it means the scotch came from a single barrel or a single cask.
Actually, most single malts are blends of different barrels. This is done to create consistent flavors throughout bottles (since each barrel can taste slightly different.) By blending different bottles, distillers can be certain each bottle of Macallan 12 tastes the same from year to year. And, in Macallan’s case, the coloring looks the same too. (More on that later).
The age marked in any single malt represents the youngest whiskey included in the bottle. So The Macallan 12 means that the youngest whisky used came from a barrel that aged 12 years. You may have Macallan 15 or 18 in there as well, but since 12 is the youngest, that’s the age listed.
Some people assume “single malt” means the scotch is made from a single grain. Single malts are made from one grain, that assumption is true. They are made from barley exclusively. But the single refers to the distillery. The “malt” portion refers to malted barley as the sole ingredient.
How is Single Malt Scotch Made?
Thanks to the Scotch Whisky Association’s rules, there is a fairly uniform process for making scotch, blended or single malt. Of course, each distillery makes its own minor changes which sets them apart from everyone else.
Harvested barley is soaked in water to germinate. The barley is dried overheat to halt germination in a process called “malting.” The malted barley is then ground in a grist mill and combined with warm water to form “wort.” Barley’s natural enzymes begin early conversion of sugar into alcohol.
The wort is transferred to washbacks and combined with yeast. These yeast further fermentation and create a “wash” of around 8% alcohol by volume (ABV).
The wash is transferred to copper pot stills and heated to allow the alcohol to separate as vapor. Once this vapor has been fully separated and cooled, the ABV has increased, but it is still called “low-wine.”
The low-wine moves to a second round of distillation in spirit stills where the lower alcohol portions, the head, and tail, are removed. The “heart” of the distillate is then set aside as the future scotch whisky.
The heart is transferred to oak barrels and aged for several years to several decades in a warehouse kept at specific low temperatures.
Blending and Bottling
Once the whisky has aged for a set amount of time, the master distiller tastes all barrels and determines which are fit for aging. These barrels are blended together and then either aged a little longer or bottled for production.
The Macallan: Speyside Scotch or Highland Scotch?
The Macallan is technically a Speyside scotch, and that is how the brand prefers to be known. However, you will note on their bottle the label says “Highland Single Malt Scotch,” which obviously leads to some confusion. Since Speyside is a sort of subregion of the Highlands, just off the shoulder of Scotland, technically both are correct.
Speyside scotches are typically very light, citrusy, and fruity. Compare Macallan to Glenlivet or Glenfiddich and you’ll be shocked it’s considered a Speyside. Macallan represents the darker side to Speyside. These are the rich, sweet, heavily sherried versions with a bit of spice and caramel.
What does The Macallan taste like?
We’ll get into the specific tasting notes of the Macallan 12 and it’s different iterations below. But generally scotch from The Macallan distillery will be heavy on spicy sherry, rich caramel or vanilla notes, and touched with dried fruit. They are sweet and spicy.
- Christmassy Fruit Cake
- Caramel Toffee or Butterscotch
- Hot Chili or Pepper
- Cinnamon and baking spices
- Toasted nuts
- Green herbs or pine
- Sherry cream
A Brief History of The Macallan
The Macallan was founded in 1824 by farmer and school teacher Alexander Reid. Reid’s farmer produced barley, and what should anyone do with extra barley in the winter? Distill it of course! Distilling was only legalized in Scotland in 1824, so Macallan was among the very first legal distilleries in the land.
The Macallan has been owned by a variety of owners and companies over the years, including the Japanese Suntory company. But it is now owned by the Edrington group who own several other distilleries in Scotland.
The Spanish oak casks for which Macallan is now famous were first brought to the distillery in 1892 by owner Roderick Kemp. Kemp also spread the word about Macallan’s superior product and created the first boom in popularity for Macallan scotch. But he was something of a difficult boss apparently. And, as difficult bosses are wont to do, he now haunts the grounds, keeping an eye on all that expensive scotch.
In the 1970s The Macallan distillery was one of the driving forces behind marketing of single malt scotch as a desired product. The aggressive marketing campaign had positive results, if today’s whisky stats are any indication.
Together with Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, Macallan makes up ? of the entire whisky market in Scotland! And in October of 2019, a 60-year bottle of The Macallan 1926 sold for 1.9 million dollars – the highest recorded sale price of any bottle of scotch. That’s proof of its reputation even today!
What makes The Macallan special?
Obviously, if people are paying nearly 2 million a bottle for it, there must be something special about the way Macallan produces its scotch. The reputation for superb whisky doesn’t appear overnight. Rather, 70 years of experimentation followed by 127 years of consistency might have something to do with it!
The Macallan distillery uses smaller than average copper stills for the first distillation. The small size of the stills has two effects. First, it makes smaller batches which are easier to control and much more precise. Second, it allows greater interaction between the copper surface and the soon-to-be scotch. These interactions increase flavor development.
In the second distillation, the master distiller chooses when to cut the product between the head, heart, and tail. The smaller the cut, the more pure and precise the final scotch flavor will be since most of the impurities and extra compounds will be left in the head and tail. The Macallan uses the smallest cut, only 16% of the entire distillate!
Perhaps the most famous technique of The Macallan. The distillery places huge weight (and a huge part of their budget) on the quality of their casks. The oak wood for these casks is handpicked and imported from Spain. The wood is then cut, shaped, seasoned, and fashioned into barrels onsite at the Macallan cooperage.
So they have absolute control over all flavors that enter the scotch through maturation. Many casks are seasoned with sherry. Others are first-fill (Meaning no other alcohols have touched the wood; this is fairly uncommon). The Macallan finds their casks so important that they are the only distillery to permanently employ a Master of Wood onsite!
One final note, The Macallan is one of the few distilleries that does not add any coloring to their scotch. All color in Macallan scotch is the product of maturation in various forms of oak. This means that while the master blender is blending barrels for flavor, he’s also blending to achieve consistent color between years.
Other Macallan Products
Of course Macallan 12 is hardly the only option. The Macallan 10 is actually their most basic entry level, while Macallan 12 is the most common and possibly most beloved bottle of the brand. (Don’t mistake beloved for best quality. The 18 is truly outstanding, in my opinion!)
- The Double Oak series is the smallest with 12 year old and Gold.
- The Triple Oak series ages from 12 to 18 to 25.
- The Sherry Oak series has ages ranging from 12 to 18, 25, and 40.
- The Quest Collection – Quest, Lumina, Terra, Enigma ranging in order from light citrus, to sweet vanilla, darker toffee, and mature oak and cinnamon
- Rare Cask – a simple dram that focuses on the effect of The Macallan’s renowned casks
- The Master Decanter Series – similar to Quest, but with a focus on the effects of sherry aging, each bottle increases in depth and maturity as you move through
The Taste Test Choice: Macallan 12 Double Oak, Macallan 12 Sherry Cask, or Macallan 12 Triple Oak
- Double Oak-Aged first in American oak seasoned with sherry, then with European oak.
- Sherry Cask – Matured in Spanish oak casks from Jerez, Spain, seasoned with Sherry
- Triple Oak – First Maturation in European oak seasoned with sherry, Second Maturation in American oak seasoned with sherry, Third Maturation in American ex-bourbon casks
The Macallan 12 Double Oak Eye
Dark Amber with a deep wood coloring
The Macallan 12 Sherry Cask Eye
Deep Amber with Gold, Orange Flecks
The Macallan 12 Triple Cask Eye
Gold Hay with tinges of Orange
The Macallan 12 Double Oak Nose
Strong oak. Dried fruit: raisins, apricots, mango perhaps? A mix of butterscotch and caramel, not much spice.
The Macallan 12 Sherry Cask Nose
Hot baking spices, rich intense vanilla, a bit of caramel, Some hints of oak
The Macallan 12 Triple Cask Nose
Vanilla with slight orange peel and strong cantaloupe. The oak notes hit first, but hot chili pepper isn’t far behind. Just a hint of baking spices like nutmeg.
The Macallan 12 Double Oak Nose with Water
Oak is lessened. Intense dried cherries and ginger mixed with raisins and dried orchard fruits. Sweet creamy caramel.
The Macallan 12 Sherry Cask Nose with Water
Much stronger vanilla and some hazelnut, followed by nutmeg and cinnamon, intensely sweet caramel
The Macallan 12 Triple Cask Nose with Water
Strong creamy melon and vanilla hints. Orange oil wafts from the glass. Chili pepper hits later with hints of cinnamon and other spices
The Macallan 12 Double Oak Palate
A good dose of sweet dried fruits drowned in vanilla. Caramel and strong sherry cream. Definite notes of oak and nutty edge. Something like a bakery flavor.
The Macallan 12 Sherry Cask Palate
Hot chili and cinnamon, followed by vanilla, raisin sweetness and something dark and nutty, a bit of milk chocolate, some fennel or rosemary
The Macallan 12 Triple Cask Palate
Orange and creamy melon first, but rapidly overtaken by vanilla and oak. Nutmeg and hazelnut in the back palate. Long finish with hot spice and creamy melons and pears.
The Macallan 12 Double Oak Palate with Water
Nothing but vanilla and hints of sherry cream. All the complexity is gone.
The Macallan 12 Sherry Cask Palate with Water
Rich sweet butterscotch pudding followed by nut mix sprinkled with savory green herbs. Hot baking spice in the back palate. The finish is full of feisty spice and a lingering dried fruit sweetness tinged with green herbs.
The Macallan 12 Triple Cask Palate with Water
Stronger vanilla and bourbon-like spices. But the pear and melon cream comes in more quickly. A long spicy finish remains with remnants of oranges as well.
Price of The Macallan 12
The three choices for The Macallan 12 are fairly similarly priced, those these exact prices will vary based on location.
- Double Oak Price: $54.99
- Sherry Cask Price: $59.99
- Triple Oak Price: $59.99
Triple and sherry are both slightly higher priced which makes sense for the differences in maturation.
The Macallan offerings only go up in price from here from the 15 to the 18 and 25 years. Each line: double, sherry, and triple, has its own range of years available.
FAQ’s About Macallan
Most whiskies that have been finished in Sherry casks will be similar. As will most dark, rich, caramel noted scotch.
• Aberlour – very sherry heavy, though not as complex
• Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask – less sherry but still a rich caramel flavor from their casks
• Dalmore – light and smooth but rich
• Glendronach 15 – very similar in taste and style these days
• Glenfarclas – another sherry bomb
The Macallan distillery prides itself on impressively high quality. Consequently, they make it pretty difficult for themselves to achieve their goals. One of their fresh-made barrels alone costs around $1500 and they spend around $25 million a year on barrels. They also use first-fill for many of their bottles, which means these barrels have to be made fresh.
And they create smaller batches and use smaller cuts than most other distilleries. All of which cut down on their usual production amount and final profit. (This doesn’t even include color blending since Macallan does not use coloring in their whisky.) With all of that fine tuning and quality control, it’s a wonder we get any Macallan at all! No wonder it’s pricey.
Keep in mind the spice and cream when pairing. Cream dishes go excellently with Macallan.
• Main Dishes: Lobster Mac and Cheese, Seafood Pastas with cream sauce, Tuna, Gamey poultry like quail or cornish game hens
• Cheese: Blue, Goat Cheese, Camembert, Aged Sheep’s Cheese, Pecorino
• Desserts: Creme Brulee, Bread pudding with caramel
The “The” at the start of many single malt scotch distilleries marks back to 1884 when Glenlivet had to secure the title of “The Glenlivet” to avoid nearby distilleries (including Macallan) from capitalizing on their success.
My personal preference is The Macallan 12 Sherry Oak. It’s an exceedingly smooth and pleasant sip but that hint of hot sherry spice makes for a festive finish. Granted, I first drank this on Christmas Eve so the festive spark felt appropriate. And I added a bit of water to draw out more complex flavors.
Overall, the simple Double Oak is also very pleasant, but it lacks some of the punch that makes the Sherry finish shine. And the Triple Cask is very strong and woody in its flavor, but the warmth of the sherry is missing.
Any of these three make an excellent choice, it just depends on your mood and your taste preference. If you like spice, pick the sherry oak. If you like the simple caramel and vanilla flavors, pick double oak. If you like richer, deeper, nuttier, oakier drams, take the triple cask.