Here's why wood has the single biggest influence on whisky
The Macallan—the single malt whisky from Scotland that remains the malt against which all others are judged— has its very own Master of Wood. Stuart MacPherson is the man who holds this title. He has become the primary resource on not only The Macallan’s hand-crafted oak barrels, but the authority these casks have on the whiskies. It’s a crucial position. The impact the oak maturation casks have on the final character of The Macallan is one of its defining characteristics.
The official title though is one that still gives MacPherson a bit of a rise.
“It’s funny we say Master of Wood,” he remarks. “I tell people that I came from being a lump of wood to the Master of Wood, although some people may say I’m still a lump of wood!”
All kidding aside, it’s a title and a role that he takes with extreme seriousness. According to MacPherson, the wood itself has the single biggest influence on the whisky. After all, up to 80 percent of the flavours and characteristics are derived from the wood species that The Macallan uses. The wood also gives the whiskies 100 percent of its natural colour.
As Master of Wood, MacPherson spends two weeks of every month in Spain working with cask suppliers and seasoning bodegas. It’s something MacPherson calls a true ‘acorn to cask’ method. His role involves looking at timber in the north of Spain, monitoring the air drying technique, the overall cask construction, the toasting and manufacturing processes, the seasoning of the bodegas and then ultimately the delivery to Scotland.
“We are one of the very few Scotch whisky companies who can lay claim to a start to finish process,” he states. “The casks are made to our specifications, then they’re audited right through the process. Emphasizing the wood and its importance to The Macallan. I just think it gives you so much more control from a quality perspective.”
Commitment to quality has been a lifelong pursuit for MacPherson. It’s a characteristic he recognized during his initial cooperage apprenticeship in 1979, where he first became fascinated by how casks were manufactured and repaired. The skill and the craft that is required to produce a barrel that is sound and fit for filling with a peerless spirit, which will in turn produce a Scotch whisky is riveting.
“In the early stages, you obviously begin to identify what’s acceptable from a quality perspective. It begins to grow from there. You learn more about the wood itself, how durable it is, then how it begins to perform. So, as I was working through my apprenticeship years, I was building up my knowledge; my experience.”
The nearly four decade journey, from apprentice to master, is one Stuart MacPherson has relished. He considers himself extremely fortunate in his career to have started at the very bottom and reached the top, learning every aspect of his craft along the way. He now has the opportunity to meet consumers, journalists, and influencers from all over the world who are not just passionate about The Macallan, but passionate about whisky period.
“People never really appreciated the significance and importance of wood [and its impact on the whisky]. And now, even within our own company, we’re beginning to understand just how influential it is and what it can actually deliver in terms of flavour and character and colourful ranges.”
MacPherson’s role as Master of Wood has afforded him the opportunity to travel worldwide educating people on the importance of the vital material, wood, discussing the different varieties of wood and casks and which are used to achieve certain characteristics and flavours in The Macallan.
“People automatically associate The Macallan as luxury and it is. But in my opinion, what is luxury? We all have different aspirations in life. For me, it’s talking about just how that whisky’s been produced and what the expectations are for it. From that acorn to the cask, it takes about five years from the air-drying process to the seasoning of the wood, cask instruction and more. So, it’s not just about buying a cask in the open market that’s available. It’s this commitment that we have to sourcing and producing the best casks that are going to deliver for us what we believe is one of the best malt whiskies in the world, if not the best.”