The Malt Mariners distillery reviews are the adventures of one malty soul and memory. My perspective is subjective so please do take it as that! Enjoy maltmates!
Ahoy maltheads and malt maidens!
I continue my efforts to reach the english speaking malt mariners as well and since I am sure most of you german maltsters are good english speakers I´m keeping it that way till I find a way or the time to write articles in both languages. I´m sitting comfortably on the bench outside Beechwood watching the rain soaking the malt country, supplying us with more fresh water that will some day maybe become our beloved whisky. By now I am living in Scotland, Aberdeenshire for about 8 weeks. Jesus, how time flies by. And for those among you who haven´t heard much of me, here´s a little update on my off-work activities that are about… well surprisingly… whisky! I´ll tell you a little bit about a great day on a charity (neo’natal unit Aberdeen) speyside bus trip and will review Macallan Distillery on my way… So hop on the malt mobile and join me on a mad journey through „malt whisky country“ Morayshire, better know as „Speyside“.
It all started with a text from my colleague Karen at GlenDronach Distillery. There would be a free place available on a bus tour through Speyside for 120 £ containing two distilleries, breakfast, lunch and dinner… Let me think for a moment… Just kidding, I´m so in! The trip started with breakfast at 8:30, luckily I could sleep at a colleagues place in Keith where the tour started. I managed to get me a coffee and a egg toast before the first dram was poured in front of me.
If you have never been to Scotland on a whisky journey, let me tell you one single thing about distilleries… They don´t like to be open late! And most don`t like to be open really early as well, but thats another story ;). So if you want to see more then one distillery in one day, be prepared to start drinking early. And with early I mean 10 am plus. Before this breakfast dram I´ve seen a few distilleries, some visits at 10 and 11 so I would have notconsidered myself a light weight. But having your first whisky of the day at 8:30 in the morning… That was new to me. Anyway it went down shockingly smoothly! We had a little quiz going to guess the casks out of the 5 „driver drams“ of the day (being chauffeured in a bus makes the word „drivers dram“ much more appealing). This first one, I was quite sure, was a sauterne finish and I was quite convinced it must have been and Arran since it know and love that malt quite a lot (spoiler: It was in fact the Glendronach 12 Sauternes Finish, a Dram I should have known… thats why I love blind tastings so much!).
After breakfast off we went in the bus… Let the games begin. I am pretty sure in the bus we had the second dram of the day, although I can´t really recall every detail… Anyway the first stop of the tour was Macallan Distillery. Lucky for me since I´ve never been on a tour at Macallan and wanted to review it anyway. Macallan sits in the middle of Speyside near Aberlour (although its not really walking distance if you´re a lazy bastard like me) so the drive was very nice, specially because I could actually look at the landscape this time and did´t had to concentrate not to crash into a couple of suicidal sheep or pheasants or -feel free to add the animal of your choice!-. Entering the distillery site we passed the massive wracked warehouses of Macallan, a site that gives you a glimpse of the big picture of mass production of malt whisky. To let everybody know we where there, the bus driver set a mark when trying to turn the bus around in front of the visitor center. So if you ever see a second „natural“ step next to the cement steps… that was us!
Before hop on the Macallan tour let me say a few words about Macallan and why I have a not-quite-neutral perspective on this distillery. The Macallan Distillery has some funny (or embarrassing) history such as lying about their cask policy. The other two things that go together is that Macallan has become a very „collectable“ whisky, meaning the prices of many bottlings (specially old ones) has gone crazy. And Macallan is very much aware ofthis releasing loads of high-end bottlings for the luxury market such as the „lalique“ (round about 460.000 $). Like everywhere in the world if there is a lot of money involved there will always be dark corners and souls following trying to make a profit out of it by selling fake products. Thats bad enough but Macallan actually tried to buy some old bottles back from an italian retailer to relable them, overlooking the fact that they where fake. Epic fail. So yeah having that in mind, I didn´t arrive at the distillery quite open minded, I admit it.
At the time we actually arrived at Macallan I would have considered myselfe as sober-ish. We (about 25 people) entered the visitor center and there where already about 10 people inside. With the lot of us the place was packed. I was slightly surprised that a distillery by the magnitude of Macallan had such a small VC including a small bar as the tasting area. There seemed to be no separate room for tastings so the first of the 6 drams of the „6 pillars tour“ where handed to us on trays. Since the tasting bar was occupied already by other guests we stood there with our drams happychatting and drinking away. Of we went on the tour then with a sympathetic tour guide with tattooed arms who´s father had already worked as a cooper. All thumbs up for „street credibility“!
The tour was stuffed with little stylish whisky gimmicks such as a huge drop of water from the well (you can drink from it… well… its water! No pun intended) a miniature open pot still (pretty damn cool!) and a transparent pipe-system. They even show a rock of the ground the distillery is built on… „And thats a rock“. Yeah. You really CAN take things too far I guess.
The whole production area of mashing, fermenting and distilling is quite nice looking at although it all feels kind of fake since Macallan actually has two sets of buildings on site, one „visitor attraction“ distillery and one industrialized one for the lions share of production. All of this will soon be outdated anyway since Macallan builds another huge distillery on site at the moment that will replace the two old ones as soon as its finished. The old buildings will be mothballed until the production need a even bigger increase and they can back up the super modern mega distillery they are building right now (like really I´ve seen the mashtun…. its HUGE). Anyway back to the tour. Wooden washbacks, check (although as mentioned stainless steel in the industrial distillery). The stills where surprisingly small and the guide explained, that Macallan is looking for an oily character that should represent the smooth speyside-spirit. Distilling is a science of its own and I´m still working on that, but I was pretty sure short stills will give you a full bodied, spicier and sometimes harsher character. Please comment on that if you know more about it! Very curious!
So out of the still house… warehouse time. NOT. Macallan prouds itself to have a very high quality wood and cask management and they are not afraid to show off… ahm it! Lost intranslation, sorry about that! No guys but seriously the we-have-to-get-every-single-sensation-in-the-experience-art-exhibition-museum-thingy is for my personal taste really over the top. I love my fancy pics and my cask displays, but Macallan goes a bit wild on this part of the tour. But finally we entered a warehouse! At last! We didnt really go inside, but one of those cages that hinder the tourist from touching, hugging, kissing casks and other forms of physical contact or abuse. BUT we went in a warehouse! At this point of the tour even the most geeky distillery visitor is thinking „where the hell is my freaking dram!?“. Well maybe that is Macallans way of pushing your anticipation to the limit.
Back in the visitor center all our tired feed and eager noses and mouthes are keen on sitting down and enjoying our five remaining drams. Since our absence the visitor center hasn’t changed much and the guides have not magically come up with a quiet room with comfy seats, couches or anything to sit on. So standing and drinking it is again! And slowly that seems to become quite exhausting. Hope the mega-malt-macallan-metropolis will have at least loads of comfy seats! The drams (Gold, Amber, 12, Sienna, Fine Oak) all came in small (warm) glasses, obviously straight from the dish washer. The whisky was carefully poured, so carefully that it went warm altogether with the glasses. Not cool (again no pun intended). Nose and taste wise I have to admit that the only one of them I knew was the Sienna and that was still my favorite. Although every single Macallan available in the shop was way to expensive for what it could do to my mouth. So nope. No pleasant surprises. Macallan presented itself as I had pictured it before. So I can say: I´m not a big fan, and I probably never will be. Don´t get me wrong, there is plenty of mindblowing Macallan whisky out there! Only you and me will most certainly never get a mouthfull of it except we all become millionaires and don´t have to give a damn about how much money we spent on our booze. Because yeah.. Then I would gladly take a bath in Macallan 10 cask strength (one of the best whiskys I´ve tried so far). With Macallan I can´t shake the feeling of, that they fool around in the luxury market at lot but kind of forgot about the little malthead on the way. Shame, cause the whisky used to be and can be magnificant!
From now on the speyside tour gets a bit hazy. But I remember the next stop pretty good, the Highlanders Inn in Craigellachie. I great whisky pub.. well restaurant… well museum? One of those places you want to fall down on your knees and thank your mother you where born (or curse the deity of your choice that you have to drive!). The place is owned by Tatsuya Minagawa, a japanese guy who worked in various whisky related businesses (Suntory to mention one). He gave us a superb compass tasting with the standard malts from each region of Scotland (Auchentoshan Three Wood, Aberlour 10, Dalwhinnie 15, Springbank 10, Bowmore 12, Highland Park 12). The guy is an icon if you ask me. Not onlydo we share a lot of ideas, attitudes and the passion when it comes to whisky, he is also a great entertainer. He literally tasted the whiskys with us which is quite rare (and sensible if you think about it). If you come near that place its defintely worth a visit!
For the rest of the trip I save some of your and mine time for another visit, I can only say: We visited Glenfiddich Distillery, The Mash Tun in Aberlour and had great whisky dinner in the end (not to mention various „drivers drams“). Even though I cut out a few of the well known drams in the middle of the trip, I had more whisky on one day then ever before in my life. Its a matter of fact: The Scots are all mad! At about 11 pm I fell in my bed exhausted (not even drunk), happy, saturated and tired with only one thought in mind… „I love my life“.
Oh and the next morning was surprisingly… Really good! It amazes (or shocks) me every time how good my body seems to process whisky, specially compared to other types of alcoholic drinks.
Résumé: Macallan is an ambivalent distillery. Although is has lost many of its followers over the years it still seems to be on the uprise. It can produce amazing malts but the every day bottlings seem to suffer from the expansion of the brand. The tour is great if your a Macallan fan and you will see plenty of cool stuff. But if I would have only one or two days in Speyside, I´d rather visit Glenfarclas down the road.
Well I hope you enjoyed another journey with the malt mariner and I meet you further on up the road!
Facts (April 2016):
Owner: Edrington Group
Capacity: 8.000.000 lpa
Stills: 9 Wash Stills, 18 Spirit Stills
Adress: Craigellachie, Banffshire, AB 38 9 RX, Scotland
To reach by: car only