There’s Magic in Them There Stills

Any Joe who’s versed in the sweet auburn nectar that is fine whiskey is hip to the legendary products of The Macallan—likely the most famous highland Scotch label in the land. But how much do you know about their history and legendary process? Inspired by our current partnership that offers an engraved gift and The Macallan 12, 15, 18, or Rare Cask with every Eleven James Memberhip, we’re pulling back the curtain on this fabled distillery to find out what makes this stuff so damn magical.

One of the first distilleries in Scotland to be legally licensed, The Macallan was founded in 1924 by Alexander Reid, a humble barley farmer and school teacher, on the same Craigellachie site where the barley is harvested and nearly 200,000 casks of whiskey matured today.

For nearly a century, the soul of The Macallan has sprung from the 315-year-old Easter Elchies House at the center of the 390-acre estate—the distillery’s self-described spiritual home. The incredibly fertile farmland of the estate can produce nearly 2.5 tons of barley (which yields around 1,800 bottles) per acre. But much of the land, replete with a pristine river and grazing sheep, is kept uncultivated, to encourage biodiversity and environmental harmony (no doubt contributing to the harmonious nature of the spirit).

The Easter Elchies House at the center of The Macallan estate

Even the barley itself is unique to this distillery. A proprietary strain called Minstrel is cultivated by 40+ select farmers in Scotland and England exclusively for The Macallan, contributing to the rich, oily quality necessary for The Macallan’s ‘new make’ spirit to weather its long wood aging, particularly in high-tannin Spanish oak casks.

But before that special barley can even reach those casks, it must first pass through The Macallan’s “curiously small stills,” petite, elbow-shaped stills whose uncommon design provides maximum spirit-to-copper contact. The result is the characteristically fruity, full-bodied flavor of the ‘new make’ phase of The Macallan scotch. Fourteen of these wee stills (the smallest in the distillery-rich Speyside region) do the noble work of creating this ‘new make’ spirit. Such a beloved homeland symbol are these stills that they’ve even appeared on a £10 Bank of Scotland bill. This is a nation that has its priorities straight, folks.

But even after all the seriously hard work of the curiously small stills, only 16% of their output is deemed worthy of moving on to barrel aging. Another smallest-in-the-industry distinction for the brand, this elite cut—‘the heart of the run’—is the is the robust, flavor-rich essence of all The Macallan products.

Now, if you know a thing or two about wine or spirits, you know how fundamental barrel-aging is to every facet of a casked potation—the color, the aroma, the mouthfeel, and, of course, the flavor. On the Macallan estate this matter is treated with the utmost seriousness. Stuart MacPherson, The Macallan’s awesomely-titled Master of Wood oversees the seasoning, care, and selection of all The Macallan’s casks along with his team of 15 coopers. His employer invests more into their cask fleet than any other single malt whiskey.

Making The Macallan

As the single largest contributor to the personality of a fine whiskey, The Macallan seeks out distinct flavor profiles in the wood selected for its oak maturation casks. Tannin-rich, sherry-seasoned oak from the northern forests of Spain deliver notes of chocolate, orange, dried fruits, and spices; while American sherry-seasoned oak lends lighter, sweeter citrus and vanilla notes to the whiskey; and bourbon-seasoned American oak barrels bring with them the sweet, rich, citrusy characteristics associated with our nation’s spirit of note.

And it is here in these barrels that the “world’s most precious whiskey” matures in sweet, highland peace for at least 12 years, and all the way up to the 60+ years of the famous Macallan Lalique 62, one of the most expensive scotches in the world.

Are you thirsty yet? Yeah, us too. But before you run out to your nearest liquor store, remember that you can not only score yourself a bottle of The Macallan 12, 15, 18, or Rare Cask with the purchase of any Eleven James Membership until Dec. 31, but the latter two feature custom-engraving with the name of your choice. You may never realize the dream of becoming a professional Master of Spirit, but that bottle with your name on it (or the name of a lucky gift recipient) may just go a little way toward making you feel like one.

Photos courtesy of The Macallan Distillers Limited

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