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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Single Malt Report: The Macallan 18 year old Sherry Oak (w/guest reporter!)

Distillery: Macallan
Brand: Sherry Oak
Age: minimum 18 years
Maturation: Oloroso sherry casks
Region: Speyside
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

"I come here to bury the Macallan 18yr, not to praise it."  Okay, not really.

I may lose some readership today, but I will be truthful.  This is just my moderately-tested opinion.  And if opinions are like a$$holes (everybody's got one) then behold......my moderately-tested a$$hole?

Let's do the tasting notes, first.  As mentioned in yesterday's Macallan 12yr report, my Scottish Scotch pal James and I undertook a Macallan Taste Off on February 18th.

After we sampled the Macallan 12 year Sherry Oak, we went to the 18 year Sherry Oak.  Then went back to the 12 to compare.  Here are our notes:

Color - Darker than the 12, red hint in the center, approaching a maple syrup look
Nose - Heavy Sherry
Palate - Deeper and larger than the 12, meaty, Sherry
Finish - Long burnt finish, Sherry

Color - a reddened dark brass, warm maple syrup
Nose - Sherry, cherry cordials, almond extract, toasted almonds, Sherry, Sherry
Palate - Thicker than the 12; mostly Sherry, meaty, creamy, maybe coffee beans?
Finish - Sherry, burnt, Sherry reduction

(Everything that follows below, James is innocent of.  But I will say that all of my Scotch buddies have a very similar opinion to mine when comparing the 12yr to the 18yr.)

Seeing a common theme?  Sherry.  Capital 'S' Sherry.  A good creamy Sherry...that drowns out everything else.

If you like Sherry, then why not buy a bottle of Sherry?  You can get a bottle of "good creamy Sherry" for $15.  Macallan 18yr costs $149.  In Spain, one can get an entire case of great Sherry for that price.

Let's take this a step further.

This is a pricing chart of official bottlings (with one exception), showing an average of five liquor sellers (both major and minor, the same stores I always use for reference in my "Pricing" listings).  I've included all of the official current 18 year old single malt releases in the US.  Where distilleries didn't have an 18-year release, I've used the closest in age.  Those younger are in green, those older are in pink.

Let's first address the bottlings near Macallan's price.  Dalmore also markets itself as a luxury product, but its distillery's production is only 40% that of Macallan's.  Like Macallan 18, the Dalmore 18 is largely bereft of the critical raves compared to many of the others on this list.  So Dalmore 18 sits in a similar luxury-sherry-oak boat as the Mac 18, but is in considerably shorter supply.

Meanwhile, the Springbank distillery uses all local barley, does their own hand malting, bottles everything by hand, and has an output 1/11th the size of Macallan's.  And that Springbank 18 year old?  It's only been released twice in the twenty years since the distillery reopened.

Now, the rest of the list.  Highland Park 18 is perhaps the highest rated officially bottled single malt in the world, has a complexity likely unmatched by anything else in its age range, and is produced by the same company owns Macallan.  And it's $50 cheaper than Mac 18, even $70 cheaper in some stores.  The Talisker 18 has a brain-melting complexity, has picked up raves everywhere, and is released in such limited numbers that it may have sold out completely in LA.  It's almost half the price of the Macallan 18.  Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, the only distilleries who can match Macallan's production levels, have malts at the same age for much less than half the Mac 18 price.

And that Rosebank 19-year may be from an independent bottler (Duncan Taylor), but that beloved distillery doesn't even exist anymore.  That, I believe, is a vision of scarcity.

Or maybe you prefer the luscious sherried style?

Glenfarclas, one of the last of the family-owned distilleries, produces about a third of the malt compared to Macallan, has comparatively limited releases in the States.  Their sherry casks produce a multi-faceted sophisticated malt that's highly regarded by professional noses (and unprofessional ones like mine!).  Their 25-year-old goes for the same price as Macallan's 18-year-old.

Then there's the grand Glendronach.  (Oh, how I hope to do a Glendronach Taste Off!  In May, perhaps?)  Let's put aside the fact that Glendronach has one-sixth of the malt production of Macallan.  Opinions as varied as all of the Malt Maniacs AND Jim Murray agree that Glendronach has the best sherry casked releases for at least the last three years.  Their SINGLE CASK releases are cheaper than Macallan 18.

Macallan has both large supply and high prices.  So, is it the Apple of the whisky world?  In my opinion, no.  Their work isn't revolutionary, nor are they the most innovative of distilleries.  They produce a good brand that is well liked.  As long as their fans don't venture too far off into other malts, they can keep edging their prices up as they market themselves as a luxury brand.

At the Raise the Macallan tastings, the Ambassador goes into depth about their work and investment in oak casks.  This in turn raises their production expense.  And they say that 65% of sherry casks imported to Scotland go to them, thus they have more first- and second-fill sherry malts than anyone else.

I don't begrudge them for their pricing.  They are a business and their customers keep paying for Mac 18.  I'm just rooting for those same buyers to branch out into Macallan's peers' releases.  I think they'll find high (or higher) quality products at lesser prices.

And in the end, price aside, I like Macallan 12 more than Macallan 18.  If you compare our notes on each, you'll see the greater complexity we found in the 12.  These notes vary very little from my own previous samplings.  If I didn't know the ages and I had to pick which one I'd pay more money for, I'd pick the 12.

The 18-year is by no means a bad malt.  It's good.  Very smooth and creamy.  Very Sherry.  And if an extremely sherried mellow malt is your style and you have $150 (plus tax) burning a hole in your pocket, then the Macallan 18 is all yours.

This a$$hole will take the Talisker 18 AND the Lagavulin 16 together for the same price and will be happier than a pig in whisky.

 - Overpriced at $140-$160

Rating - 84

Tomorrow, we'll take a look at one of Macallan's Fine Oak series...


  1. I overpaid for a glass of this recently because, well I'm a newb and we do things like this but the glass of Bulleit Rye I had prior was indeed more enjoyable. I had a conversation with a co-worker who recalled a tasting she went to and even she remembered the 12 being better than the 18, and she's not an aqua vitae drinker per se.

    Hell, what was better than all this was the High West Rendezvous Rye I had yesterday that Eureka Burger has on hand, but I digress...

    1. Hey Popeye! I agree with you completely.

      But I also think that there's no way to know what's good and what's not without the live experience. Mac 18 has become an iconic luxury whisky, something to have out at your home to show off (like JW Blue Label). And I could have been full of hot air about Mac 18 and just used this site as a soap box to whine about their pricing. Actually I am full of hot air and I did use this site as a soap box to whine about their pricing. Too bad the 18's so pricey just to sample it. Oops there I go again... :)

      Good news, I should have a Rendezvous Rye report out within the week too!

    2. You have absolutely no credibility if you think Bulleit rye tastes better then Macallan 18. There is absolutely no comparison and it is apples to oranges. Lagavulin 16 vs Mac 18? Okay, that is just preference as they taste completely different and are both good. The fact that Mac spends more money on their barrels than any other scotch distillery and has the record for the most expensive bottle ever sold does not happen by accident. 60% of the taste comes from the barrels...do you think Bulleit shells that out for their rye? Now, Bulleit bourbon is very good but can't hold a tee to Knob Creek or Woodford.

    3. Hi Jeremy. You're clearly a big fan of the Macallan brand, so I'm not going to try to convince you not to be. I cannot comment on the ultra-luxury five- and six-figure whiskies as they're really exist more in the ultra-luxury market (a category with which I don't have any experience) than the whisky market. Macallan certainly does spend more money on barrels than any other distillery. Their style depends on European oak casks and European oak is very expensive. Add into that the fact that their distillery is one of the five largest in Scotland (and easily the largest of the sherry bomb producers), that all requires an incredible investment in their barrels.

      I wrote this original post almost three years ago. I've since tried three current Mac 18s from three different people's bottles. And they've all been strangely flat. Even (arguably) less complex than the one I originally reviewed, and thinner in texture. While I would agree that their 18s from 5-10 years ago were lush and lovely (I tried one distilled in 1984 that was awesome), I think there's been a decrease in quality since then. If you have the opportunity to do so, I encourage you to do a blind taste test between a current Mac 18 and Glendronach 15. If afterwards you still choose Macallan 18yo first, that's cool. I might then recommend the last Cask Strength edition they released (60.1%abv) a couple years ago.

      Meanwhile.....while I'm the last person to compliment Diageo, they do source Bulleit Rye from a high quality rye producer. Yes, there are better MGP ryes out there. And yes it wouldn't hurt if they selected older barrels and upped the ABV. But it's still a quality rye. And I like rye A LOT. I'd take the Willett MGP ryes over 95% of the single malts I've ever tried. There's a complexity and depth to some of the Willetts that melt my brain.

      Though most reviewers try to be as objective as possible, subjective preferences do color our reviews. Though I read a lot of other folks' reviews, I take more interest in the writers whose palates lean closer to mine. That makes for fewer headaches when I buy something blindly. They're not necessarily better reviewers, they're just more reliable for my non-theoretical needs.

      Thank you very much for your comment. Apologies for the TL;DR response.

  2. Indeed you are correct, but I do pay attention to those persons such as yourself who are able to bring to the reader a sense of truth, value and immediacy to the fray. And though verily one must experience these sustaining liquids themselves to fully know the inner truth, a guide is indispensable for the novice. I would have passed on the Mac 18 that night had I read the review prior but alas I was out $32 (La Jolla *sigh).

    I shall await the Rendezvous report with anticipation! And keep up the hot air, please! lol

    1. Oof, $32. That's about the price Mac 18 is around here too. We can get a decent bottle of bourbon at that price.

      Thank you very much for your comments. They mean a lot to me, so I will continue to strive to keep a level of quality to my discourse. Cheers!

  3. Wow, just got a bottle of this and have the exact same opinion. Water is smooth. Kool-Aid is smooth. Maybe in a post-apocalyptic future those things will sell for this price too, but for now, I'm sticking with the Islay malts for their uniqueness. I guess I'll keep my Macallan 18 Sherry on hand for comparisons against other non-interesting whiskies. (I'd also say to show off, but I'd rather show off *not* having it).

    1. Agreed. Up until about seven or eight years ago, the Mac 18s actually had all sorts of big beautiful character. Around that time it also got very popular in Asia. That was the double-whammy Macallan needed to boost prices. Around here it's $200 now. And, to me, it's one of the least interesting 18yo malts right now. So much good stuff can be had for much less than that price.

      You can always keep the Mac 18 on hand to compare and contrast with other older sherried whiskies. Or if you're feeling particularly zany, you can make some fancy home blends.

  4. Great post. I do like the Macallan 18 but never really thought about the price as I had recently sourced some for $110 in LA. I guess I lucked out!! Are you going to do a Mac 25 comparison any time soon? Now that's great, but extremely pricy.

    1. Thanks, Steve! You may have gotten the best deal in the country on that Mac 18.

      I had the 25 year old eight years ago and remember it being very good. If I had a sample of it, I'd certainly do a post on it. But because I don't know anyone who actually has a bottle of it anyone, I'm not sure how soon I'll get a chance to try it again. But if I do, I'll review it!

  5. Even better, these were from 1989 which has a little more depth compared to 1995/1996 releases. Now if I can get my hands on the older Mac 18s, that's my real goal! :) As for the 25, If you want to arrange a 25-year themed tasting or something comparable in the LA area, I'd be willing to source a bottle. I have an extra one laying around somewhere.

    1. I lucked into the opportunity to try a 1984 a couple years ago and it was very good, so I had a chance to experience what's behind the 18yo's fame. Something has changed in the product whether it happened with the massive production increases or is related to their casks. Not sure.

      Thank you for the offer of the 25! I might be able to work something out with LASC or OCSC or SCWC (initials!), but it'll take some time. Being a new father means that everything takes twenty times as long as it used to. But if you email me (to divingforpearlsblog at gmail) your email address I'll forward the idea along to some local club folks.

  6. I have 2 little ones, so I'm used to 20x and even 40x the delay =)

    1. Yep. Understood. I used to write a whisky post in one sitting. Now it takes four or five tries over three days. Good times!

  7. i love this article so much. i have been able to grab some knowledge. the macallan brand is best brand. thanks