The Macallan Fine Oak – How fine is it?

By Andrew Derbidge


Devotees of single malts will be no stranger to The Macallan.  One of the more famed Speyside distilleries, The Macallan earned its reputation by making consistently brilliant sherried whiskies. 


Malt whisky today is matured in oak casks that have previously held either bourbon or sherry.  The selection of one or the other is no accident, and each distillery usually has a dedicated wood policy or regime designed such that the selected wood is the one that best suits their spirit.  Many distilleries will mature their spirit in both types of wood, and then vat them in appropriate proportions at bottling stage to achieve the desired flavour profile.


For The Macallan, the decision was made in the late 1960’s to mature their single malt chiefly in sherry butts, which had previously held dry oloroso.  These casks imparted a rich, nutty sweetness to the whisky, and Macallan came to epitomise the sherried style of malt whisky sought after by so many today. 


However, sourcing sherry butts is an expensive exercise.  The figures are now a little out of date, but about five years ago, a distillery could purchase an ex-bourbon cask for around US$90, whereas an ex-sherry butt cost closer to US$600  (bearing in mind that a Sherry butt has a holding capacity roughly double that of a bourbon barrel). Whilst Macallan’s single malt bottlings were matured exclusively in ex-oloroso butts, they also matured some of their spirit in ex-fino casks and ex-bourbon casks, which they sold off to blenders.


Unfortunately – for us as consumers – it seems the practice of using only ex-sherry casks for their single malt expressions has became prohibitively expensive for Macallan.  The Macallan has recently launched a new range of single malts under the name “Fine Oak”.  Available in a range of aged expressions, (e.g. 12, 18, 21 years, etc), the Fine Oak range is a vatting (combination) of both sherry-matured and bourbon-matured Macallan. 


The product matured exclusively in sherry casks has been withdrawn from several markets (including Australia), and many countries will now have to adjust to this new style of Macallan.  Not surprisingly, the move has attracted its fair share of controversy.  Given that a 30 y/o Fine Oak expression is available, one wonders how long ago this new launch was planned, as it is unlikely that stocks destined for blenders would be kept for this amount of time!  


So with all this as background, how does the Fine Oak compare against the Macallan we all knew and loved?  I pitted the Fine Oak 12 y/o against the “normal” Macallan 12 y/o, both sampled without the addition of any water.  Let’s compare the two at each stage of analysis, starting with the nose:


NOSE:  It’s difficult to describe the 100% sherry version without resorting to the signature Macallan characteristics, but they are all there in spades - rich toffee, some sweet dried fruits, (dates, apricots, figs), and healthy malty, cereal aromas.   Other concealed spices flit around the nose, making for a tantalising mix of aromas that are complex and not immediately or obviously identifiable.   A delicious nuttiness also revealed itself after 10 minutes or so.  The regular Macallan 12 y/o seemingly suffered a dip in quality in recent years, but the nose on this bottling suggests a return to fine form. 


The Fine Oak version certainly demonstrated some of these features, if a little weakly in places, although the signature Macallan fruitcake-type scents still shone through.  I went looking for some caramel or vanilla notes, usually a good indication of bourbon wood, but none were immediately obvious.  Nevertheless, it was still a pleasant nose and as attractive as most going around Speyside.


PALATE:  The 100% sherry version was silky in its texture.  The sweetness present on the nose follows through into the palate, integrating well with the rich & spicy flavours.  The nuttiness is again evident, but well balanced against the fruity, malty background.  The sherry is very abundant and at the forefront of everything, but strangely not in a negative way.  “Smooth” is a somewhat crude and simplistic term for describing a whisky, and I usually try to avoid it, but I’m stuck for a more apt description in this instance.   


The Fine Oak version was surprisingly sweet.  Almost candied – I likened it to fairy floss.   It was still spicy, and a very interesting pineapple note floated around, adding further to the sweetness.  However, the spirit was a little hot, and I suspect this could have overpowered some of the more subtle aspects of the malt.  A perfectly good palate in its own right, but still somewhat inferior to its predecessor.


FINISH:  Both whiskies had a good length on the finish; they were warming, and also maintained their sweetness.  This is a plus for both whiskies, as many malts trail away leaving a bitterness behind.  Neither malt seemed to add anything new to the finish, but both held their ground and confirmed all that was evident on the palate.


SCORES & COMMENTS:  The 100% sherry version scored 7.85 and the Fine Oak version came in at 7.3.  It took considerable effort at all times throughout the tasting to judge the Fine Oak on its own merits, rather than compare it against what a Macallan “should” be.  However, without the legacy that comes with the Macallan name, it must be said that the Fine Oak was still a pleasant whisky, and was reasonably well crafted.  It did exhibit less complexity, (ironic, given that not one, but two woods were used to mature the spirit), and this is chiefly where it lost ground against its stable-mate.  The flavours in the Fine Oak were also less integrated, and the whisky as a whole did not strike as good a balance.


The Fine Oak Macallans will have their detractors, and fans of the Macallan brand and style will have to work hard to overcome their bias and shed the baggage.   This comparison of the 12-year-old expressions suggests we have been short-changed in the affair, although I have it on good authority that the Fine Oak 21 y/o is a particularly stellar dram.


As a consumer though, I still have one question… if bourbon casks are so much cheaper than sherry casks, why does the Macallan Fine Oak range retail for the same price as the 100% sherry range?   


Editor’s notes: Talking to Shane Kaloglian, Australia’s foremost Macallan collector he had the following to say about the Fine Oak range:


“I have tried the 12 y/o, 15 y/o and 18 y/o only at this stage. I find the 15 y/o the most palatable of the three. (Score 8.2/10) The 18 y/o is thin and watery and lacking intensity, with a short finish (Score 7/10). The 12 y/o is a lot fuller in flavour and has a much better finish, but it also displays a raw and unappealing spirity character (Score 7.6/10). The 15 y/o is in between the two, with a bit more sherry and spice, although still quite dry, showing the maturity of the 18 y/o with the zest of the 12 y/o (Score 8.2/10). There is no doubt in my mind that the traditional, sherried range is far superior!”