In the fairly traditional-leaning whisky world, it can be tricky to do new things. People tend to like their brands, to know that the whisky they enjoy is going to be on the shelf the next time they head to the shop, to play it safe.
But at the moment, the whisky industry is going through a lot of change. More markets are opening up, demand is there, prices are rising and companies are needing to figure out how to continue standing out in a competitive space.
This year, we’ve seen increased chatter about “flavoured whiskies” (not, technically whisky due to the flavour additives) and seen a big influx in the number of no-age statement (NAS) products on the market.
Many brands are flirting with the idea of changing their ranges to include editions of the latter, to ensure that a) they don’t run out of older stock as it becomes more in demand and b) to allow master blenders to have more options with what whiskies they can use in the creation of those products.
So, it probably didn’t come as a massive surprise to many when the lauded brand, The Macallan, decided to join in on this trend in its main markets (having tested out similar ideas in the duty free space since 2009) and launch its 1824 series, based not on age but on colour.
Many commentators were…how shall I put this…slightly sarcastic about the move. After all, in a market where most companies add that little ingredient E150a (or, caramel colouring) how can you attempt to speak to the consumer about colour variations in whisky simply from the wood?
Macallan’s point was that it doesn’t add anything to its whisky and spends a lot of money (£16.4 million in 2013/2014) on new casks, so in showing the colour changes from one style of cask to another, and from one age range to another, it should better emphasise how whisky develops.
But, I agree: it’s tricky. Consumers have spent decades getting used to age statements. Now the industry is flipping this idea on its head with NAS whiskies and The Macallan is further adding to the need to widen consumers’ knowledge base by throwing in colour. It could get confusing. Or, maybe, just maybe, most consumers are smarter and more interested in trying different approaches to whisky than many commentators may assume. Only time (and sales) will tell on that one.
In order to get a better grasp on the new series myself, I sat down with Joy Elliott – UK Brand Ambassador for The Macallan – to go through the four whiskies in the range: Gold, Amber, Sienna and Ruby.
According to Elliott, the idea for the new range was born out of a similar idea trialled in the duty free space, which played around with various releases of The Macallan at different alcohol strengths.
“With the 1824 series, we wanted to do something unique and different. Consumers already understand age statements, and we’re keen to now talk about the cask policy and look more at maturity than age,” she said.
The Macallan buys its wood straight from the forests of Arkansas and Missouri (for American Oak) and from Galicia (for the European Oak) rather than buying in pre-used casks. The wood is air dried for two years, before being shaped into 500 litre butts, lightly toasted and seasoned with dry Oloroso sherry for 18 months. The butts are then emptied and shipped whole (rather than in staves) to Scotland for filling.
The idea of the colour range is to show how each of these casks imparts a different colour. Gold, for instance, is made from a majority of first and second fill American oak, sherry seasoned casks, while when you get up to Ruby, it is comprised of whisky matured in first-fill European oak casks.
The whiskies are currently available in around 60 markets, with the UK and Canada the only ones to have all four in the range.
So, what do the whiskies actually taste like? Here’s a look at what I thought:
Macallan Gold: 40%: around £36:
(n): Quite salty and citrussy, with notes of the fleshy part of a lemon, along with some vanilla.
(p): Oily and vanilla heavy, with some woody and malty notes, golden raisins and sherbert. Fairly sweet with a medium-length finish.
Macallan Amber: 40%: around £46:
(n): More spice heavy than the Gold, with dark chocolate covered ginger, pineapple, orange and apple skins replacing some of that vanilla hit. Some sulphury struck matches on the nose for me too.
(p): Peppery with lots of creamy oranges, mangoes, green grass and sulphur. Bit of a flatter finish for me on this one.
Macallan Sienna: 43%: around £64:
(n): A sudden shift into berry territory on this one for me: dark cherries mostly. Then figs, raisins and dark muscovado sugar.
(p): A bit punchier – I preferred this to the 40% ABV on the first two, which I felt made them a bit flat. Sienna takes things up a notch with candied licorice, oranges, toffee and a herbal bite. My favourite palate of the four expressions.
Macallan Ruby: 43%: around £118:
(n): The sherry kick comes in more on this one with lots of dried fruits (cranberries and stewed cherries), cocoa powder and candied oranges.
(p): Quite soft on the palate, with just a bit of zing after a sip or two. More red fruits, dark chocolate and wood chests lead into a spicy finish.
Out of the four, my preferred favourite (in terms of bang for buck in correlation with flavour profile) would have to be Sienna. I didn’t think Ruby – even if it contains older malts – was worth nearly double, but that’s just personal choice. Gold wasn’t too special (I found that vanilla note far too heavy and sweet), but as an interim, Amber stood up with better balance and range in flavour profile.
What was key about these was sitting down and tasting them side by side to see the influence of the wood on both the colour and flavour profile. I’m quite geeky when it comes to whisky, so it was of interest to me. My only other comment? I was slightly annoyed to see on the label the phrase: “Exclusively matured in sherry oak casks from Jerez, Spain.” While it is technically true the casks are made and the wood matured with sherry there, it felt a bit misleading since a good portion of the wood comes originally from the US. But maybe that’s just me being picky.
Whether or not the general consumer will prefer this new range over the regular age statement editions which have been on the market is hard to say, but I do think it’s good for whisky companies to be exploring new territory in this competitive space, even if it does lead to some eyebrow raising in the whisky community. Only time will tell as to whether this way lies the future.