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Spirits: Casks of a Lifetime

Pip Hills

Very old spirits are always very expensive, which is not surprising, considering that their maker’s capital is tied up in a wooden cask for many years. Some people admire aged spirits and assume that, because of their rarity and cost, they must have a fine flavor. That, alas, is not always the case. Maturing spirits in wood is like salting a boiled egg: At first, the egg tastes better; but with continued sprinkling, the flavor soon peaks and thereafter declines as the egg becomes too salty. When spirit matures in a wooden cask, its flavor is modified and mollified. Yet there comes a point at which the effects of the wood, like those of the salt, take a downward turn, and the inexorable accumulation of unpleasant flavor components commences. Tannins extracted from the wood are the worst offenders: While their bitter taste is an essential component of good old whisky, above a very low level, these compounds tend to overpower other characteristics with their harshness. Bitterness brings astringency, a small amount of which is fine; a great deal of it is nasty.

The trick in bottling old liquors is to catch them just as they peak, but very few distillers have the foresight to do so. Historically, most Scotch whiskies were bottled after a few years, and very few distilleries have stocks of old whisky. The most important exception is the Macallan. Long ago, Macallan understood what recent research has confirmed: that most of the flavor of a malt whisky comes from the cask, and that good casks make for good whisky. For generations, Macallan has bought its best casks straight from the sherry importers and filled them. Today, the sherry trade having declined, Macallan owns a bodega in Jerez, the sole purpose of which is to secure a supply of sherry casks. The company has always retained a fair number of casks from each year’s distilling in its warehouses. As a result, it has what is probably the finest stock of old whisky in the world.

Between 1969 and 1975, Macallan bottled casks that dated from the 1930s to the 1940s, judging the whiskies to have achieved their peak. (Whiskies, once bottled, for all intents and purposes cease to age.) And in 1986, the distillers discovered a cask of whisky that had been in their warehouse since 1926, when it was produced. The staff bottled it at 60 years old, but did not sell it. Last year, the firm bottled casks that date from 1945 to 1972. All of these whiskies were made available late in 2002, though in very small quantities. Prices range from approximately $120 for a miniature of the 1972 to $42,000 for a bottle of the 1926 (of which only 40 bottles are available).

I rarely praise old spirits because their prices are often disproportionate to their flavor. But having tasted the Macallan bottlings, I’m forced to admit that here are very old whiskies well worth buying and drinking. The wood notes, which normally overwhelm any old spirit, are muted, and they disclose those elusive flavors which only age confers: subtle combinations of fruit and spice that even the best-matured young whiskies never attain. The subtle alchemy of age transforms the flavor of the raw spirit into a thing quite as noble as the oak that was hewn to form the cask. And the variety is astonishing. After 37 years in cask, the 1937, for instance, is relatively pale in color, a mid-gold hue, as contrasted with the 1954, which, after 47 years in cask, is the color of laburnum, the darkest and richest of northern timbers. The latter whisky has tannins and dried fruits on the nose and a sweet, highly spiced taste, while the former is all citrus fruits, pears, and nuts over a base of muted wood. Both have proven deliciously worth the decades-long wait.

Interested buyers of the Macallan’s extremely rare single malts should contact the importer, Rémy Amerique (212.399.4200), to reserve the vintage of their choice. When calling, ask for Caspar MacRae, the Macallan brand ambassador.

The Macallan Vintage Selection
These vintages are currently for purchase in 750 ml bottles, though quantities in stock range from 40 to over 500 bottles, depending on the year. The list includes the year the cask was bottled and the number of bottles currently available. All prices are approximate, based on current exchange rates and import costs.

 
Year
Bottled
 
 Bottles
Available

 Price

1926

1986

40

$42,000

1937

1969

174

$6,660

1937

1974

288

$6,372

1938

1969

198

$6,084

1938

1973

48

$6,750

1939

1979

54

$7,722

1940

1975

420

$4,968

1940

1977

132

$5,400

1945

2002

152

$6,750

1946

2002

350

$4,338

1948

2002

124

$4,788

1949

2002

160

$4,338

1949

2002

228

$4,050

1950

2002

433

$3,378

1951

2002

348

$3,420

1952

2002

465

$2,946

1952

2002

414

$3,096

1953

2002

100

$3,960

1954

2002

366

$3,240

1955

2002

175

$3,528

1958

2002

100

$2,952

1959

2002

199

$2,664

1964

2002

119

$1,926

1965

2002

447

$1,602

1966

2002

439

$1,548

1967

2002

432

$1,314

1968

2002

109

$1,650

1968

2002

135

$1,602

1969

2002

548

$1,350

1969

2002

173

$1,260

1970

2002

544

$828

1970

2002

186

$1,018

1971

2002

536

$720

1971

2002

515

$774

1972

2002

64

$1,404

1972

2002

128

$1,206

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