AS SOMEONE WHO spent most of their 20s and 30s slinging drinks behind a bar (or perched on the other side of one), I have long been witness to the power and mystique of the Macallan Scotch whisky. The very definition of top-shelf, Macallan is the drink of choice for whisky connoisseurs the world over, and the elixir I poured most often for discerning drinkers who were willing to spend a few extra bucks for a premier single-malt Scotch.
Founded in 1824, Macallan was one of the first distilleries in Scotland to be legally licensed. Since then, the venerable company has turned the production of fine whisky into an art. For anyone interested in going down the rabbit hole, learning about Macallan’s production — a process involving perfectly sourced and seasoned oak casks, small stills, artisanal techniques, and the lack of artificial colorings — is both fascinating and involved. Even for a former bartender like me, the world of Macallan (and high-end whiskies in general) is as vast and deeply varied as that of fine wine — with price points to match.
Even though I’ve been gingerly sipping Macallan for most of my adult life, I didn’t fully understand the fine shades of difference or the time-honed processes that go into producing the many varieties (known as “expressions”) of Macallan — or the lengths people will go to collect them. Rare bottles are routinely bought and sold at auction, and the release of a rare expression is cause for excitement. At the time of this writing, Macallan had just announced the oldest expression ever to be released, called the Reach; the rare 81-year-old whisky (distilled in 1940 during World War II) would be released worldwide in an edition of only 288 decanters, each going for a suggested retail price of $125,000.
Having loved Macallan for years, it was with no small amount of glee that I visited the company’s Manhattan outpost (a veritable whisky wonderland) to sample some of their finest offerings (not the Reach, sadly) and learn more about what exactly makes Macallan so special.
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While some of the more rare Macallan bottles aren’t always easy to find, this particular single malt is relatively easy to get your hands on. Part of Macallan’s Sherry Oak range, this whisky is aged exclusively in Oloroso sherry–seasoned oak casks from Jerez, Spain, for 18 years. Like all of Macallan’s offerings, this whisky is distinguished by its color — in this case, a light mahogany — and has a fruity quality with notes of ginger and raisin. It’s remarkably easy to drink and beautiful to look at, particularly when poured into the ideal glass vessel and placed on the bar in full view of the afternoon sun. SHOP NOW
The most striking thing about this whisky, other than its intensity of flavor, has to do with its presentation. Part of the Macallan Decanter Series, which was conceptualized to show off the range of the whisky’s natural color, M comes housed in a chic black case, which opens up to reveal a crystal bottle handcrafted by Lalique, itself designed by creative director and designer Fabien Baron. Given that this particular rosewood-hued whisky is developed from some of Macallan’s rarest casks, it’s not surprising that this particular bottle could set you back anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000. Still, if you are a connoisseur, it seems a fair price given M’s exquisite taste — exotic dried fruits, deep wood spices, and a long-lasting finish that leaves you reeling with hints of orange and treacle. Deep and divine. SHOP NOW
The idea of using artisanal distillation techniques to engineer a whisky that could evoke the taste and sensibilities of a particular city sounded a little dubious to me, but after having a sip of the London Edition, I was convinced. A combined effort between Macallan whisky maker Steven Bremner and the Roca brothers, owners of El Celler de Can Roca in Spain (twice named Best Restaurant in the World), this particular expression provides the remarkable flavors of caramel, curry spice, and Earl Grey tea, along with a long, warm, vaguely savory finish that lingers on the palate. Those looking to spring for the full London experience will appreciate the exceptional packaging — a case that includes “a unique three-dimensional curved map of London” that lovingly surrounds the bottle. SHOP NOW
This is a whisky that truly lives up to its name. With only 467 bottles available (and a price point nearing almost $20K per bottle), this isn’t the kind of single malt you’re likely to find languishing on the top shelf of your local dive bar. It is, however, the kind of exquisitely rare whisky that Macallan devotees love to collect and obsess over. The whisky is matured in a single sherry-seasoned oak butt cask for over 30 years and, in addition to its glowing rosewood color, is said to impart the aromas of sweet honey, vanilla, peach, antique oak, and caramelized apple, along with notes of orange, almond cake, nutmeg, and licorice. It also comes in a European-oak presentation box and is identified with the cask number, year of distillation, and the year of bottling printed on the label. For lovers of single-malt whisky who appreciate the value of a very nuanced sip, this Fine & Rare is the stuff that dreams are made of. SHOP NOW
The Macallan has a long history of fruitful collaborations and this one, with renowned British pop artist Sir Peter Blake, is no exception. This special single malt was created by Macallan’s lead whisky maker, Sarah Burgess, to commemorate Blake’s visit to the Macallan Estate located on the legendary River Spey. Designed by Blake, the bottle’s label depicts a variety of the colorful characters who have defined Macallan’s history and the box that houses the bottle also includes a larger version of the artwork printed in scroll fashion, along with an overlay that explains the history and context of the people being depicted. And while all of this is lovely and fascinating, the true star of this show is, of course, the whisky itself. Of all the Macallan offerings I was lucky enough to taste while visiting their offices, this one might have been my favorite. While not the most rare, it was in many ways the most distinctive, offering notes of black pepper, clove, and orange, with a warm finish that was almost chocolaty. I could have easily consumed much more than my one already generous pour, but I was wisely not allowed to. SHOP NOW
T. Cole Rachel Writer
T. Cole Rachel is the managing editor of Departures. A Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent.
Ahonen & Lamberg Illustrator
Ahonen & Lamberg is a multidisciplinary design studio based in Paris. Founded in 2006 by Finnish designers Anna Ahonen and Katariina Lamberg, the studio concentrates on art direction, creative consultancy, and graphic design.