Sunday, December 05, 2010

Macallan Scotch: A Master Class Tasting



On Saturday night, December 4, 2010, I attended a Macallan Scotch Master Class Tasting in New York City. Despite the fact that I’ve attended several Scotch tastings over the past couple of years, this was my first time at such an event and I found it to be quite a standout and highly recommended, should you have the opportunity. The tasting was sponsored by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America.

Upon registration, we were immediately whisked into a reception area where a bar was set up to serve Macallan 12 and 15 year old Scotches to start out the evening. Initially, I was a little disappointed – not in the quality of the Scotch, but by the selection – I had one of those Peggy Lee moments (“Is That All There Is?”). After about a half hour of tasting both – alternating with neat, water and ice – we were invited into the main room where a group was seated at a bunch of tables. This semi-captive audience was then subjected to a marketing pitch for Macallan Scotch that almost made me feel as though we were all going to be told to sign on the dotted line to purchase a time share by the evening’s end. Any hard-sell tactics were substantially mitigated by the great whisky and snacks we were offered throughout the evening.


The evening’s tastings would include 18, 21, 25 and 30 year old Macallan, in that order. Starting with the 18, while it was acknowledged that there are many who prefer their Scotch with a splash of water or some ice, it was recommended that we drink this one neat. I found this one to be somewhat deceptive in that its nose seemed a bit on the sweet side, but there was a bit of a burn in the back of the throat upon tasting. The 18 was described as viscous and rich, with a distinct taste of the sherry cask in which it was aged.

It was explained to us that while a splash of water in Scotch can open up its taste a bit, ice can actually make certain of its tastes more concentrated, accentuating some of its flavors. To that end, we were then introduced to something of a novelty item – a Macallan Ice Ball machine. Basically, it is a device originally developed in Japan that takes a block of ice and converts it into a sphere which would fit into almost any rocks glass. We were told that the ice was anodized by the machine and that while best to finish your Scotch before its ice melts, I found that the ice ball in my glass took a very long time to melt. My experience with this ice ball and the 18 year old was simply that while it certainly cooled down the Scotch, it also had the unfortunate effect of killing the nose and diluting its taste.


The Macallan representative was quick to note before advancing to the 21 year old that when their Scotch is aged, it always stays in one type of cask only – usually, either a sherry cask of Spanish oak or an American oak bourbon cask. By contrast, the 21 had something of a lighter feel to it – honey, vanilla and butterscotch notes were suggested by some tasters. As far as food pairings, attendees suggested cheeses (especially gorgonzola) or smoked meats. However, the Macallan representative suggested that it be paired with desserts – in particular, crème brulee – due to its sweetness and texture.

The 25 year old Macallan was served in what might be called a sherry glass, which helped to enhance its nose – I found it to have a delightfully sweeter aroma, with a sharper, “whiskier” taste. Tasting this one, there was an obvious distinction compared to the 18 year old because the extra aging in the sherry cask provided something of a soft woody flavor.

Moving to the 30 year old, tasters were quick to pick up on the peat, which was used to dry the barley; it possessed an intense taste, retaining the flavor of the cask. Perhaps because of this, the nose had a delicious outdoorsy quality. Holding it up to the light gave it a particularly lovely golden glow, allowing us to appreciate this special distillation even more.

Although we were given to understand that this was the final item on the menu, we were surprised to discover that we would be treated to a Cask Strength to end our evening. Aged between 8 to 10 years, it ranges anywhere from 53 – 65% Alcohol By Volume. Once sipping this one, it was clear why it was saved for last because it completely dominates your taste buds and palate. Sniffing this one, I almost felt as though my nasal hairs may have been singed, which generally indicates to me that I’m about to taste a Scotch I’ll really enjoy. We learned that the term Cask Strength means that the whisky is bottled straight from the cask in which it was aged, as opposed to being slightly watered down as is the process with the others we tasted earlier in the evening.

If you ever have a chance to attend one of these Master Class events, by all means, try to do so – you’ll not only come away with a deeper appreciation of the whisky, but also an enhanced education about the way it is manufactured – not to mention why it can be so expensive!

Until next time, as philosopher Rene Descartes once said, “I drink, therefore, I am”.