T

The Macallan Vertical

Objectivity, integrity, transparency, truth. These are concepts (pardon the pun) that we discuss frequently here at MALT. Lots of the criticism you read from us is grounded in the ideal of maximum independence; MALT attempts to be free of the considerations that might create a conflict of interest, or even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

This takes a few forms. The first, as you may have noticed, is that the site does not have any paid advertising on it in the form of ads. Commission links are occasionally embedded within articles, though these are always noted as such and – more importantly – do not affect the scores. My own recent review of the Glenlivet 12 was a point-in-case; readers could have clicked through to buy a bottle of the whisky I called “perhaps the most pointless age statement in existence” and rated a 3/10. I haven’t checked, but I doubt the MALT coffers were filled following that less-than-effusive assessment.

MALT doesn’t do paid content, and we clearly disclose when a sample was provided by a third party of any type: distillers, independent bottlers, retailers, barmen, and even friends (though this latter type of disclosure serves as more a type of public acknowledgement of an individual’s generosity). In total, I’d say Mark and Jason have done a comprehensive job of removing the financial incentives for anything less than an unvarnished assessment of a given dram. On the whole I assess these policies as highly effective, and it’s part of what makes me proud to contribute here.

However, a financial reward for a good review is only one form of potential bias in whisky reviews. Without impugning the ethical standards of any of my colleagues, I am considering here those other types of subjectivity and prejudice that will inevitably creep into our work. No matter how pure the heart or keen the intellect, Kahneman and Tversky have shown us that we’re all the unwitting victims of accumulated cognitive biases of one kind or another.

This meditation, in particular was prompted by a recent back-and-forth on Twitter in response to another review on this site. The argument was, in essence, that saying something negative about a distillery (or the shape of their bottles) was proof of a lack of objectivity that compromised the integrity of the subsequent whisky reviews.

While the argument was not well-reasoned or well-researched in this case, it got me thinking about objectivity more generally, and our internal perceptions of it, as well as the external perceptions of others.

The maximally skeptical view would be that there can be no objectivity in whisky reviews. How could there be? We’re talking first about colors, aromas, flavors. These are filtered through our noses and mouths, which are all differently attuned. However, there’s enough commonality (the presence of smoky aromas and flavors in peated malts, for example) that my tasting notes are of some general utility to people who aren’t me (that’ll be most of you).

Then comes the critical assessment, which is inherently subjective. She likes peat, he hates it. He has a high tolerance for sulfur, she can’t stand to sniff a knackered sherry cask. What is pleasing to me is boring to you, and vice versa. Throw in the fact that MALT’s scoring framework includes an assessment of value for money (itself the subject of Nobel Prize winning work in economics), and it’s a wonder that anyone reads these at all!

Assuming that you have perused enough of my reviews to know that we have generally similar tastes in whisky and assessments of good value, you could be forgiven for still being skeptical of my objectivity. After all, I come to this with some experience (tasting lots of whisky, visiting distilleries on several continents, and having done a fair deal of research), but also some prejudices. Some of these may be rational, or at least empirical (I have had a lot of not-very-good official bottlings of Glenrothes), but some of them may not be (romantic attachment to Japan; a poor tour guide or irritating brand ambassador).

Some of this makes me a better critic – I am knowledgeable, I have a frame of reference for a distillery and distilleries like it. I have tasted better and worse examples of many styles of whisky and can place each new one somewhere along that continuum. Some of it, on the other hand, will taint my perceptions. I’ll excuse away flaws and emphasize strengths of whiskies I am positively predisposed towards, or I’ll underrate drams from distilleries I’ve already decided I don’t care for.

There’s no way to resolve this, other than to be conscious of my biases, to acknowledge them, and to question myself constantly. In that spirit, I am revisiting Macallan after a comprehensively disappointing (but really, really fun to write) run-in with their travel retail exclusive Concept Number 1.

My bias in this case – put bluntly – is that I believe Macallan has become whisky for the type of people I wish didn’t drink whisky. Yes, their marketing materials lapse into self-parody, so overwrought is the meaningless pablum they produce by the truckload. Yes, their sprawling range expands in size to match the steady increase in prices for their trophy drams. When you do get your hands on a bottle they’re pretty good, or would be for 50% less than what you paid.

What really rankles me, though, is that the stupidest and most superficial people on the internet seem to worship Macallan, when they’re not flipping it. It’s whisky for the Instagram-and-auction set. Whisky for those people who want to photograph a bottle, collect a load of likes, and then sell it on it for a tidy profit. The whisky itself is incidental – it could be a share of Apple, a Ferrari, a Rothko painting, or a bitcoin. Macallan is something to be acquired, bragged about, then sold.

To quote the other Taylor, “At least, that’s what people say.”

Being completely honest, there’s a deeper source of potential bias for me. In my heart of hearts, I worry that Macallan whiskies – some of them, at least – are really very good indeed, and I’ll be forced to admit that. I worry, in part, that liking them will earn me the bemused disdain of my peers. Mostly, though, I’m concerned that I will crave them, need them, not be able to live without them. Perhaps they’re even good enough to justify the premium to comparably-aged Speyside malts? I’m keeping food on the dinner table, but I certainly don’t have the whisky budget to support regular purchases of bottles in the $250+ range for everyday consumption.

Fortunately, I have a generous benefactor in the form of Carl, who has agreed to a regular swap of samples with me. He gives me stuff he think’s I’ll like, I give him stuff I think will be educational. We both get to taste more broadly, and we have some fun back-and-forth about our relative likes and dislikes. It’s perfect whisky symbiosis, and I am once again grateful to him for having provided the three drams being considered today.

In the spirit of objectivity, I’m trying to set aside everything I think, or know, or think I know about Macallan. I am researching these as diligently as any other dram, and I am evaluating them in their context, which includes their price. Judge for yourself whether I have maintained my objectivity:

The first bottle is a 17 year old expression from the defunct Fine Oak range. This crowded category contained 10, 12 (reviewed by Jason), 15 (considered here by Mark), 17, 18 (reviewed sentimentally by Jason), 21, 25, and 30-year-old expressions. It was rebranded Triple Cask in an April 2018 shakeup and slimmed down to include only 12, 15, and 18-year-old expressions.

Both ranges share in common the maturation of the whisky in “European and American sherry seasoned oak casks and ex-bourbon American oak casks.” This whisky is bottled at 43%. My local liquor superstore still has bottles on the shelf for $240.

Macallan Fine Oak 17 Years Old

Color: Medium-pale honey

On the nose: Light toned and woody, but well-balanced. Underripe grapefruit, starfruit, green grapes, apple juice. Distinct sherry influence, with handfuls of dried fruits. Toasted nutmeg. Salutary vanilla touches from the ex-bourbon casks. A green note of freshly-trimmed hedge.

In the mouth: Light and airy to start, witha gently sweet note of buttery wood. More taut, astringent wood flavors move across the middle of the tongue in consecutive waves. Soapy texture at the top of the tongue, with a nippy bite of lemongrass. This finishes with a teasing wisp of ground cinnamon, floral perfume, and pine sap before disappearing into a vaguely sweet rosewater flavor.

Conclusions

This has a lot going for it on the nose, where I feel that the interplay between the three cask types is most convincing. There’s a range of aromas, each distinct, but balanced and mutually reinforcing. The palate doesn’t really deliver in terms of breadth or depth of flavor. It’s weak mostly, and where it does assert itself there’s an angularity to the wood that lapses into bitterness. As far as value for the money: there isn’t any.

Score: 5/10

The next two are bottles from the Sherry Oak range, “matured exclusively in hand-picked Oloroso sherry seasoned oak casks” per Macallan. We have here a mini-vertical, comprised of the 2017 and 2018 releases of the 18 year old expression. This is a bit of a thrill for me; I have long wondered about batch-to-batch variation in single malts but have never had the chance to taste expressions side by side which are identical but for their date of release. All that changes today! These currently retail for $280 near me, and are also bottled at 43%.

Macallan Sherry Oak 18 Years Old – 2017 Release

Color: Medium brownish-gold.

On the nose: More brooding nose than the Fine Oak 17 Years Old. Meaty notes of slow-roasted pork shoulder. Ample spice: whole clove, kola nut, white peppercorn, black sesame seed. This is rounded out by the rich sweetness of clover honey and a fruity note of ripe Red Delicious apple.

In the mouth: Starts bitterly, with hickory wood and tart lime peel. Chopped semi-sweet chocolate is the high point. Again, the wood influence crescendos with a pointed bitterness at the middle of the tongue. There’s an uncanny note of private label supermarket cola. Texturally the finish is similar to the 17 year old, as this lapses into a muddled and watery mix of vaguely earthy flavors.

Conclusions

Not nearly as intriguing on the nose, and about as disappointing in the mouth. Paying a price in the high-$200’s could get you access to a Speyside malt matured for 20+ years in a high quality sherry cask (Cadenhead’s Linkwood 1989, for example, is $270 “over by here” in the local parlance) with something to say for itself. Instead, you pay for the privilege of letting Macallan’s master blender blend and blend and blend and blend this beyond coherence.

Score: 4/10

Macallan Sherry Oak 18 Years Old – 2018 Release

Color: Identical medium brownish-gold to the 2017 release.

On the nose: A bit less expressive than the year prior. The meaty notes are not as rich; think roasted turkey breast. There’s the rubbery sweetness of freshly-tapped natural latex. A faintly cheesy whiff of shredded mozzarella. Golden raisins, chocolate-covered orange slices, and baking spice round it off.

In the mouth: Less intense, but also less bitter than the 2017. A fairly toothless milk chocolate flavor marks the transition to the midpalate, which has the coffee-plus-water sensation of caffé Americano left to cool. The only real notes of interest are a graham cracker flavor and some caramelized banana that poke their heads out for a microsecond before this sloshes down the gullet. Again, there’s little delineation of flavors on a finish that has the weak roastiness of the dregs of an iced coffee.

Conclusions

This has fewer of the aggressively woody notes of the 2017 release, but sacrifices a lot of flavor to get there. Pick your poison? As before, $250+ should get you so much more.

Score: 4/10

Hallelujah, I’ve been saved! I don’t need to take out a third mortgage to keep the cupboard stocked with these drams that, while offering some appealing points, ultimately collapse under the pressure of their price tags. At $100 these would be competing with Glenfarclas 17 years old, itself a very nice sherried Speyside dram. At their current prices, they exist for those who will never consider whether these will offer good drinking value for money, namely: people who will never drink them.

So, for all the studied consideration I gave these, I’m back where I started from. Is this my failure, or Macallan’s, or both? Did laying bare my insecurities only serve to subconsciously reinforce them, and indeed yours? Am I pandering to a select group of readers who I know share my biases and heuristics? Most importantly: is all of this objective enough?

The world may never know… but seriously: don’t buy any of these whiskies.

Images from the Whisky Exchange.

CategoriesSingle Malt
Taylor
Taylor

Taylor's a native of Chicago. After heading to university in Scotland, he graduated from drinking Whyte & Mackay and Coke to neat single malts. He's also a keen fan of Japanese whisky, having visited the country regularly over the last several years, where he was able to assemble a decent collection before prices went batty.

  1. Avatar
    Juju says:

    The last statement is a killer. A testament to how far this brand has fallen. I’ve had some Macallans when I first started but quickly grew tired of it. And I’ve never looked back. People collect these nowadays like a prized trophy and a conversation piece. Sad.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Sad indeed, Juju. Before a friend generously passed these along, I hadn’t tried these expressions since… I can’t remember when. And that says a lot about how Macallan has lost the semi-serious whisky drinkers with escalating prices and silly marketing. Hopefully they’ll be persuaded to stop the insanity, but I’m not holding my breath.

      1. Avatar
        Sid says:

        Well written and a sad but true state of a once great brand! A fellow chicago whisky nerd Taylor. Maybe we can grab a dram some day.

  2. Avatar
    PBMichiganWolverine says:

    I think the wrong assumption made here is that this decade’s (and maybe last one’s,too) Macallan is made for drinking. It’s made to collect as show pieces with artificially high values, like the housing bubble caused by subprime mortgages.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Interesting comparison, PB. Assuming whisky is in a bubble, and that it will pop as all bubbles do, what will happen to the prices of these? Will Macallan put them back down, a la Mortlach? Or will they soldier on defending the luxury end of the market as bottles pile up, hoping for a new dawn? Time will tell, but in the meantime I would advise our readers to get their kicks elsewhere. As always, appreciate the constructive engagement, and GO BLUE!

  3. Avatar
    PBMichiganWolverine says:

    Personally, I think discretionary spending on the $100-$250 bottle range will go down once our economy takes a dive ( we’ll pay for these tax cuts in about 5-10 years, or when corporate hiring slows significantly). The luxury, $250-500, will go down as well. But the super premiums $500+, won’t go down. That segment of the market are either 1% of our economy top earners or the collectors that’ll buy and auction these off anyway. Then of course there’s the entire Japanese side of whiskey. Will these prices go down in 10 years when they finally meet demand? I think yes. But the old ones will climb up citing better quality from the previous generation. So…maybe some parts of Macallan will go down (the NAS ones ), while others stay the course?

    Oh—and GO BLUE! They’ll hopefully make it to face off against Gonzaga.

  4. Avatar
    TomW says:

    I originally read “nippy bite of lemongrass” as “nipple-y bit of lemongrass” and thought you were getting a bit risque with your tasting notes.

    It’s disappointing to see what Macallan has become but not surprising given the current state of the whisky (and wider) world. I’ve been resisting the siren call of a couple of “Edition” bottles on the shelves of my local liquor store and this will help stiffen my resolve. There are more intriguing options (an independent Croftengea 11 or Miltonduff 11 perhaps) for my discretionary whisky budget.

    I don’t understand the mindset of buying whisky for anything other than drinking it. Seems like an entirely joyless and transactional approach to something which is supposedly crafted to bring pleasure.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Tom, thanks for dropping by! Based on the feedback to these articles, I can confidently say that your confusion and disappointment is shared by many whisky enthusiasts. We can only hope that Macallan takes note and comes to their senses. In the meantime, as you note, there’s plenty of other options available that won’t stretch the budget so demandingly.

  5. Avatar
    Everwind says:

    I think the key to any subjective review is to let the readers know what you look for and value in a subjective review of food/whisky. For example I value and rate whiskys that have long finishes higher than whiskies with short finishes. I like complexity if the flavors are complimentary and not fighting one another. Cost is an important aspect to me but I recognize that everyone’s budget is different than mine. I think the greatest and best recommendation is how fast you would go out and replace a bottle when it is empty, or would I go grab another bottle before it empty because I enjoy it so much and don’t want an opportunity to get another one.

  6. Avatar
    Jeremy Watt says:

    Interesting article, and important to address a point that we all have bias. Clearly Malt is avoiding any financial bias, but whether it’s great friendships with people at one distillery, or say the bottles we have tasted in the past it will often give us baggage we take into the next tasting. I always wonder what say Whiskybase would look like if all the ratings were completely blind (ignoring if ratings do actually mean anything in themselves)!

    I personally find some Macallan as great drams (normally stuff from the past), but the cost of these are now prohibitive and so I’d rather buy other stuff that I regard as fantastic whiskies for far less.

    However one thing most whisky commentators seem to forget is that we are a very small part of the purchasing public. So it can appear brands like Macallan are all about collectors and showing off. Whereas in reality most of their market are drinking say the 12yo, special edition bottles and the odd occasion something more upmarket, but never mention it anywhere. They’ve lost the “hardcore whisky geeks”, but now have a very powerful brand that means the normal public who treat whisky like any other drink will chose Macallan over many other brands. As a business it works. So we’re forgetting to be objective if we say they will lose out due to the current strategy. It’s unlikely Macallan will crash and burn – they’ve lost us, but they’ve gained far more mass market customers instead. The big question comes when whisky loses it’s popularity and the mass market moves onto something else – who will support Macallan in enough numbers then?

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Many worthwhile points, Jeremy. To respond to just one: the model you described works until it doesn’t. Whisky is fashionable now, but tastes are fickle. In a few years, I can envision ordering a whisky being as outré as, say, ordering a Cosmopolitan is now. I’m trying to prevail upon Macallan to keep the prices down and the quality up. They’d be leaving money on the table, but sacrificing some near-term profitability might result in the retention diehard fans once the lean times come. They seem to have gone the other direction and I, as a social anthropologist and student of economic history, am fascinated to see how it all turns out in the end. Cheers!

      1. Avatar
        Jeremy Watt says:

        I very much agree. The big question long term for Macallan (and some of the other big distilleries who are also expanding currently) is if the current demand is sustainable? New countries, new wealth etc – and so in general long term support? Or is it just a phase, and will the distilleries “do a Tomatin”, crashing to less than 20% of the production it used to have in the 70’s? If the latter I assume it will be a repeat of the downsizing, some companies going bankrupt etc. that we have seen before. But the distilleries will likely survive in some form as they have enough market name to be of interest to someone else to buy when the price is right. Just have to remember some of the positives too – there are many more distilleries offering decent stuff. We’ve probably never had it so good to be able to taste drams from the less loved distilleries these days. And some who feel pushed away from their favourite brands will be discovering these too.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *