Interview of David Robertson,
Manager of The Macallan Distillery
By Dr. David "The Scotch Doc" McCoy
(The following is the text from
an audio-taped interview that occurred in the Sample
Room of The Macallan Distillery on the early afternoon
of June 26, 1998. The considerable amount of time and
patience that Macallan Distillery Manager, David Robertson,
so generously provided me, from his very busy schedule,
is much appreciated. I hope that you will, also, find
the candid nature of his answers and his knowledge enlightening.
The purpose of the interview was
to obtain data concerning the actual procedure and process
that Manager Robertson and The Macallan distillery officials
engage in determining the contents of a typical bottling
of The Macallan. With education being the major objective
of The Scotch Docs Scotch single malt endeavors,
this was a subject that the literature never seemed
to completely satisfy for me. After this rather extensive
interview, I also understood how Manager David Robertson
has come by his nickname "The Nose." For an
individual as youthful as he is chronologically, he
has gained a tremendous reputation among his peers,
and certainly, those of us who enjoy the "fruits"
of his art and craft. Thanks again, David.)
Doc: David, it is truly
exciting being here in such an important room at The
Macallan Distillery (The Macallan Sample Room). On behalf
of myself, and for the many fans of The Macallan, could
you share some of the process that you engage in order
to determine the contents of a typical bottling of The
Macallan? Lets suppose that you have just completed
a bottling of The Macallan and you are now at the very
beginning stages of preparing for the next bottling
of The Macallan 12 or 18 year-old. On that point, are
there any differences in your preparation for bottling
these two ages?
David: No. There is no
difference. The process is exactly the same in identifying
the casks for sampling for the next bottling. We go
into the maturation warehouses and obtain samples from
between 100 and 150 casks of the appropriate age (the
age that we are bottling such as the 12, 18, 25 year-old.)
We then bring the samples back to the Nosing Room, the
room in which you now stand this afternoon, for consideration.
Doc: Looking around this
room, I see several rows of probably 100 milliliter
(3 ounce) bottles. They have several different shades
of amber, with some being very light and some being
very dark. These are all sherry casks, correct?
David:Yes they are. As
you know we (Macallan) always use sherry-cask matured
whisky for the Macallan single malt. But sometimes we
fill a cask more than once. The combination of first-fill
and second-fill sherry casks will produce several variations
in color. The color of the Macallan is determined entirely
by the influence of the cask. What you are seeing here
is typical. The first-fill sherry cask matured whisky
gives us a deep (dark amber) color and rich character.
Obviously, a second fill sherry cask is lighter in color
because the first filling has subtracted (leached) some
of the sherry color, and other wood extractive components,
from the cask.
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Doc: That seems logical
enough. Okay, as I examine one of the several bottle
samples here, I see the numbers and letters of the alphabet,
"553-SB-82." This is, obviously, a code of
David: Yes. The "553"
designates the identification number of the cask. The
"S.B." tells us that the cask is a sherry
butt. The "82" designates the year of distillation
Doc: Here is a much lighter
sample in a larger bottle with the number 6147. That
would be the cask number, right?
Doc: I see that it was
distilled in 1985. Would the young age of this sample
account for its much lighter color?
David: These samples
come from American bourbon oak cask matured samples.
A portion of Macallans business is selling "new
make" (recently distilled spirit) spirit to the
blending industry. They will choose whatever wood (cask)
they like for their own blends. So we have two sales
outlets for our produce, the provision of new spirit
for the blended industry and the other, as you know,
The Macallan bottlings. The larger portion of our spirit
production, by far, goes into The Macallan. These larger
bottles, such as the one labeled "6147 1985"
is from an American oak bourbon cask that the blender
would have supplied us to fill with Macallan new spirit.
Doc: I see. Now what
is the situation on the other side of the table? I see
two, seemingly, regular bottles of The Macallan 12 year-old
sitting amongst thirty to fifty 100 milliliter (3 ounce)
David: Along with some
general untidiness, the large bottles that you can see
here have their crown tabs unbroken which indicates
that it is a sealed bottle. For every bottling of The
Macallan, after the casks have been selected and they
have been vatted and married (blended), we take an actual
bottle, selected at random, from the bottling line.
Our quality control team, consisting of other Macallan
employees and myself, take the bottle back to the distillery
for final approval before the bottling is approved.
Only with this kind of attention to detail can we be
sure that this bottling of The Macallan has not been
contaminated at the bottling facility. This also ensures
that this bottling meets all of the standards of a classic
Macallan and that it is ready for the market place,
for example, in your Dallas, Texas.
Doc: So this is part
of the well-known Macallan quality control?
David: Yes. As you can
see here on the back label, we also have the "bottling
run" number. This enables us to identify when a
particular bottle was run and who bottled it. We can
also check the filtration regimes etc., etc.
Doc: Up there on those
shelves, I see hundreds of small bottles that contain
absolutely clear liquid in them. What is this?
David: Those bottles
are current samples of new-make spirit that has just
been distilled. You see, we also evaluate the quality
of the new-make to make sure that it has the right characteristics
before we fill it into casks for maturing. We draw samples
of spirit almost every day to make sure that the new-make
spirit contains the desired estery, fruity and slightly
oily character that we want for The Macallan spirit.
We will check it again at the end of the week and make
up a composite sample of the previous spirit runs that
week. The other bottles that you see in front of you
are from the other distilleries within the Highland
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Doc: Interpret this bottle
for me. It has the numbers 19/01 along with several
other numbers and letters of the alphabet.
David: Sure. The numbers
"19/01" mean that it comes from the filling
designated as "period 19." As we read down
the label on the bottle, we see "SRWV1." This
informs us that this sample came from "Spirit Receiver
Warehouse Vat #1." The remaining information informs
us that the sample was drawn on May 18, 1998, and the
alcoholic strength is 63.6 % by volume.
Doc: Again, the attention
to details. Oh yes, I wanted to go back to an earlier
conversation with you concerning the spirit cut at the
time of distillation. The, seemingly extreme, narrowness
of the cut really got my attention. Is it just about
the most narrow cut in the industry?
David:We like to think
of ourselves (Macallan) as being fairly unique in the
industry in a number of things that we do. One of the
fundamental things that delivers the quality of new
spirit character that we are looking for is the very,
very narrow spirit cut that we take. During the distillation
spirit run, we begin to collect the spirit at a strength
of about 73% alcohol and stop collecting the spirit
when the alcoholic strength falls below 68%.
Doc: Does this not add
significantly to the base production costs of the spirit?
David: Certainly. You
see, our spirit stills are charged (filled) with only
4000 liters (1040 gallons) of low wines (or "wash"),
which comes from the first distillation. Then the foreshots
(head) and feints (tail) are recycled every spirit distillation.
So by its very nature, due to the fact that we take
such a very narrow cut, it means that we are having
to recycle (redistill) a fairly large volume of feints
and foreshots at every spirit distillation. Obviously,
the broader/ larger the spirit cut, the less you have
to recycle and the more economic the distillation expense
becomes. However, it is very important to be able to
influence the spirit character prior to filling the
casks. With the more narrow spirit cut, we can better
manage the spirit character prior to filling the casks
and have confidence in the Macallan malt that we will
be bottling in 10, 12, 18, 25 years, and even longer.
In summation, it means that every time that we run our
spirit stills, we only collect 640 bulk liters of spirit
at 71% ABV (alcohol by volume) out of a charge of 4,000
liters. This amounts to only 16 percent of the charge.
Doc: So obviously, the
higher quality spirit incurs more expense. This attention
to detail, from the very beginning, along with the other
quality control nuances, helps to explain the reputation
of The Macallan that continues to grow.
Now what is the destiny of this grouping of bottles
that contain several different shades of liquid?
David: This is a grouping
of bottles that weve selected. We believe that
they will go together very well, perhaps well enough,
to become our next Macallan 12 year-old.
Doc:Each bottle, again,
represents an individual cask?
David: Yes, each bottle
is labeled with a number, cask type and year of distillation.
I am putting together a small composite sample by using
50 different casks to give us the The Macallan that
we hope to bottle. We will vat and marry a proportional
amount from each cask to give us a balance of flavor
that we believe will be consistent with our 12 year-old
Doc: Will the cask types
always be used in exact proportions?
David: No. It will depend
on the cask type. For a hogshead, we need to add only
half as much as we would for a butt since a butt contains
twice as much (500 liters) as a hogshead (250 liters).
This is one of the reasons for stating on the bottle,
the size of cask from which the sample comes. It is
for this same general reason that we record information
such as first or second fill sherry filling. Macallan
normally sells their casks after they have been filled
twice usually to other distillers. The reason
for this is that the malt characteristics arent
the same and are not acceptable for what we are looking
for in our malt. As you know, The Macallan is a naturally
colored malt. We dont add any caramel. By vatting
together our light and dark colored whiskies, we can
obtain, not only the color, but the flavor characteristics
that we desire, as well.
Doc: So the maximum number
of uses for your casks is twice? Are there any exceptions
to this policy?
David: In some very rare
instances, if we discover a second-fill cask that still
retains the exceptional maturation characteristics that
we require, we would use it a third time. On the other
hand, when we use a first-fill cask, and it fails to
provide the product (Macallan character) that we require,
it is rejected for further use by Macallan. There is
a demand for these casks from various industries. Garden
furniture and wood for smoking salmon are two such markets
for our casks.
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Doc: I see a large assortment
of half-liter bottles, much larger than the 10 milliliter
bottles, on this table. Are these a combination of "cask
Doc: About how many cask
samples are usually represented in one of these composite
sample bottles and would you describe your method of
selecting the "individual cask" samples for
the "composite sample" bottle?
David: Our method at
Macallan may be different than that of other distilleries
in the industry but it works well for us in creating
the Macallan that we export all over the world. Briefly,
the process occurs like this: We use about 10 milliliters
of sample whisky for each butt that goes into a vatting
prior to bottling. If we use 50 butts in a vatting,
then we have 500 milliliters of composite sample for
every vatting that we make. We can then go back and
check the components of every vatting for comparison
of vattings or for any other purpose.
Once we arrive at the "composite bottle stage,"
we leave the sample to "rest" for 2 or 3 days.
We then compare the new vatting sample with the last
Macallan of this age that we last bottled, or bottlings
that were released to the market several years ago.
In making the final vatting selection, that will become
the "next Macallan" for the marketplace. I,
and three of my colleagues on the "nosing panel,"
will nose samples from four composite samples: the new
vatting, the last vatting sample that was accepted,
one from a vatting from two years ago and a vatting
from four years ago. For purposes of objectivity, the
composite samples are labeled "A," "B,"
"C" and "D." This ensures that we
are minimizing any possible product shift that may take
place from bottling to bottling and year-to-year. We,
therefore, assess our new vatting sample "blind"
against previous bottlings of The Macallan. During these
nosings, we are looking for a consistency of character
throughout all four samples. After selecting the "best
matched" vatting, if we determine that it is too
inconsistent, such as being too woody, spicy, fruity,
dry, oily, musty, or whatever, as compared with the
past Macallan sample, we go to the retained composite
sample of that previous bottling (as explained previously).
Then, with a lot of patience and more nosing, we ultimately
determine what was unacceptably different and make the
necessary cask sample changes to bring the current vatting
in line with the previous Macallan character. We then
have the new bottling of The Macallan that will be on
the store shelves around the world.
Doc: What a fascinating
process. I just hope I can transcribe this into a readable
form for my readers. I am very impressed and feel a
new respect for The Macallan that we all, so casually,
take for granted as well we should. Incidentally,
how long do you retain the vatting samples?
David: We have vatting
samples of the 12 and 18 year-old Macallan bottlings
that go back to the mid 1980s.
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Doc: So, would it be
fair, or would it be an oversimplification, to say that
the composite sample and cask sample collection of bottles
are, in effect, "The Macallan Library of Malts"
to which they can refer in order to maintain the historical
character, lineage and pedigree of future Macallan bottlings?
David: Yes. I like to
keep such a library of samples for obvious reasons.
Doc: On one of these
samples, I noticed considerable "beading,"
or an accumulation of small bubbles, when you poured
it into the nosing glass. Could you explain this for
David: The "beads"
give you an indication of the alcoholic strength of
the whisky and other information.
Doc: The more beads,
the greater the alcoholic strength?
David: Broadly speaking,
maybe. The length of time that the beads remain, and
the characteristics of the beads, will also give you
an indication of the sort of oiliness of the spirit.
It has to do with "surface tension" and alcoholic
content. The higher the percentage of alcohol, the more
beads you will get. How long the beads last, before
they burst, will be influenced by the oiliness of the
spirit. The more oil and viscosity, the longer the bubbles
will last. Im no expert in this nuance of the
Scotch single malt but this has been my general personal
Doc: David, Id
like to return to your demonstration awhile ago of what
happens when you mix two different whiskies. As you
slowly poured the darker malt into the lighter malt
sample, the darker one seemed to go to the bottom of
the glass and just settle there. Would you explain your
point of this demonstration to my readers?
David: I was illustrating
that when you mix whiskies together a complex set of
reactions take place. You see, with two different casks,
you may have two very different types of whisky. Just
by pouring them together, not a lot may happen. It is
vital that the different malts being combined be well
mixed and that they be given time to, not only "mix,"
but to react to each other and stabilize. The Macallan
bottling may include 50, 60, or 70 different casks for
a vatting. This policy is designed to give us a complex
and as broad a range of character as possible, but with
as much consistency of character as possible. After
the vatting meets our standards, the whisky is then
filled back into the casks for the final step before
bottling. The common industry term used for the "reaction"
of the whiskies that occur, once it is satisfactorily
completed, is "married." This gives the many
different casks of whisky in the vatting time to stabilize.
In the industry, many distilleries have chosen to discontinue
the "marrying" process. Macallan not only
continues this historical industry practice on site,
but our sample room and testing is also conducted on
site. Typically, with other distilleries, if the marrying
procedure is practiced at all, it is carried out in
the bottling facilities.
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Doc: From this most interesting
explanation, could we not correlate the useful practice
of allowing the splash of water that we pour and swirl
in our dram to stabilize and "marry" before
we taste it?
David: You are exactly
right. Put a splash of water into your glass of malt,
swirl it around to release some of the volatiles that
you can then nose to enhance the taste of the malt.
You see, water and spirit are completely different densities.
Within the whisky you have a mixture of oils, esters
and ketones which give the whisky character and flavor.
By pouring water into the whisky, and drinking it immediately,
you have not given the whisky and water components time
to reach equilibrium or to "marry." At best,
the drink will vary in character and flavor from sip
to sip, until it becomes thoroughly mixed.
Doc: Even now, as I look
at the bottle that you placed the darker malt into the
lighter one, your point continues to be validated. Even
after several minutes, the darker malt still sits at
the bottom of the glass.
David: That is true.
Nothing seems to have changed in the mix.
Doc: David, you have
been most informative and I have acquired a greater
body of knowledge pertaining to the production of The
Macallan. I have also gained a deeper appreciation of
The Macallan specifically, and the Scotch single malt
production process, in general. As much as I appreciate
the many nuances of the Macallan production process,
how would you explain this complex operation to the
"person on the street" in three minutes?
David: Not very easily
but I will try with the following summary:
We sample 100 to 150 casks of whisky for every
bottling of The Macallan.
We nose each of these casks and determine which
50 of the casks would best vat together to produce
a whisky that is consistent with our previous bottlings
of this particular age of Macallan.
We would then make up composite samples of the
casks that are being considered for the bottling.
We then compare these composites with a composite
of the last bottling of Macallan to determine a
sample "match" that is consistent with
the last bottling and previous bottlings from the
"library" of Macallan malts.
Any character discrepancies are corrected by studying
the cask sample options and making the necessary
changes to bring the vatted sample to the quality
Once the nosing panel approves the vatting sample,
the casks of whisky (of the composite samples) are
vatted (mixed) together and reduced, with our high
quality process water, (the same water that is used
for our mashing step), to a strength of about 45%
alcohol by volume.
The whisky is then filled back into the casks for
marrying. The length of time allotted for marrying
varies with the age of The Macallan that we are
bottling. The 12 year-old Macallan is married for
about three months, the 18 year-old for 6 months
and the 25 year-old for 12 months. The malt is frequently
checked throughout the marrying process to ensure
that the "marriage" is going according
Once we are absolutely certain that the whisky
is ready for release, it is sent to the bottling
hall in Glasgow for bottling and packaging.
Doc: That is definitely a comprehensive "nutshell"
explanation. Now for my last question.
The Macallan is well known for its policy of using
only sherry casks for maturing its whisky. What is the
process used by Macallan to acquire their casks?
David: There are two
primary ways in which we procure the casks in which
we mature The Macallan spirit. One is where we select
and harvest the Spanish Oak trees in the north of Spain.
They are then cut into staves and air dried for a number
of months. These bundles of staves are then shipped
down to Andalusia, in the south of Spain, and on to
Jerez de la Fronterra, located in an area known as "the
golden sherry triangle." The staves are then further
air-dried for two to two-and-a-half years in the significantly
hotter climate than in the north of Spain. This is an
important step since we dont kiln-dry our wood,
as some distilleries do. The casks are then constructed
at cooperages in Jerez, Spain. The casks are then taken
to various sherry bodegas in Jerez, Pekurto de Santa
Maria or Sanlucar de Barameda, which are the three main
"sherry towns" in the sherry triangle, in
Andalusia, Spain. The casks are then "seasoned"
in one of two ways:
One, the cask is filled with, a fermenting Mosto (grape
"must")for a few months, which is later fortified
with grape spirit to about 17% alcohol by volume to
ensure the development of the Olorosa sherry. Fino sherries
are fortified to 15 % alcohol by volume but we specify
Olorosa as our preferred sherry type. The casks are
later emptied and refilled with an older Olorosa for
an additional period. The total seasoning period for
the casks, that will later be used to mature The Macallan,
is about 2 1/2 to 3 years.
The other way is essentially the "open market"
purchase of quality sherry casks that meet our standards.
For example, a sherry bodega may contact Macallan and
offer for sale their casks that have been used to mature
their sherry. Macallan representatives will go to this
bodega and evaluate the casks by nosing the casks and
the wine that was matured in them. If the quality of
these casks pass our standards, we will purchase them.
So essentially, we either completely make the casks
from raw wood that we prepare or we purchase actual
casks that were used by sherry bodegas to mature their
Doc: I am aware that
sherry casks were once practically free and very plentiful
in Scotland. Can you tell me what a typical, good quality
sherry cask that meets The Macallan standards, now costs?
David: You are exactly
right. Up until the early 1980s, when sherry was shipped
into the United Kingdom in the casks in which it was
matured, there was a glut of high quality casks. However,
when Spanish laws were passed which required that their
sherry be bottled in Spain, this abundant supply of
cheap sherry casks disappeared. A good quality sherry
cask now costs Macallan about $560.00 to $640.00 dollars.
By comparison, a bourbon cask can be purchased for $60.00
to $80.00 dollars.
Doc: That is an interesting
and dramatic change with a very expensive result for
the distillery that insists on maturing its product
in sherry casks, especially ALL sherry casks.
Finally, David, not only have you answered all of my
questions, but you have expanded my knowledge in general
and you have cleared up some "fuzzy" areas
that were never completely clear for me. In short, you
have enabled me to be a much better informed and more
knowledgeable "Scotch Doc." I am indebted
to you and my seminar/tastings and participants will
be the beneficiaries of your generosity. Thank you very
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