Life at the Big Mac

These are exciting times for The Macallan. Its state of the art distillery is whisky making to a new level. Sarah Burgess is at the centre of it.

The Macallan is one of the world’s great luxury whiskies. Indeed, it is one of the world’s great luxury brands. Old and rare bottlings sell for large sums of money, with collaborations between The Macallan and leading French glassmaker Lalique being particularly desirable. Indeed, in 2014 at a Bonham’s auction in Hong Kong, the sale of a Macallan six-litre ‘M’ Decanter by Lalique set a new world record auction price of 4.9 million HK dollars (£460,000). That record was only broken in May of this year when a 1926 60-year-old ‘Macallan Valerio Adami’ bottling fetched 8,636,250 HK dollars (£814,081) for the same auction house.

As well as enjoying such acclaim, and the sort of popularity that makes the Speyside single malt the world’s third-best-seller, The Macallan also boasts an innovative new distillery and brand home, created as part of a £500 million 12-year commitment by owners Edrington.

These are clearly exciting times for The Macallan and its employees, and at the heart of the action is ‘whisky maker’ Sarah Burgess, who has worked with The Macallan since April of last year.

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“I grew up in Aberlour, in the heart of the Speyside whisky industry,” she says, “but when you’re growing up, you don’t know the place is different to anywhere else. I was used to the smell of draff and wash and new-make spirit and I thought that was what everywhere smelled like!

“When I was 21, I started working in the visitor centre at Cardhu distillery. It was a summer job, that’s all it was going to be. But while working there I discovered the emotional connection that people made with that brand and with whisky generally. People were making pilgrimages. I got hooked on the whole business, and decided that was what I wanted to do, I wanted to work with whisky.”

From Cardhu, Sarah was posted by owners Diageo to Oban distillery, on the west coast, where she ran the visitor centre, before it was suggested that she might like to become involved on the production side of the business. This took her back to her native Speyside and spells at Dailuaine distillery, where she worked as trainee operations manager and then Auchroisk as fullyfledged operations manager.  Diageo has a major warehousing operation at Auchroisk, and Sarah gained valuable experience of maturation at the site.

“In 2006 I moved north to Clynelish distillery in Sutherland as distillery manager, and I was there for five years before going from Diageo’s northernmost whisky distillery to its southernmost – Glenkinchie, as senior manager. I was there till 2016, and from 2016 to 2017 I was senior manager at Oban again,” she recalls.

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“Diageo is great at developing and supporting the careers of its staff, and it took me through the general certificate in distilling and a business management degree at Robert Gordon University in  Aberdeen.”

“Much as I loved working for Diageo, I have two small children and wanted them to have a settled home, not to be moving around so much,” says Sarah. “I really fancied whisky-making – I knew from the sampling I’d done with Diageo that I was good at it. But whisky-making jobs just don’t crop up. Then I saw on social media that The Macallan was looking for a whisky-maker. I knew it was a really dynamic time for the distillery and it would also be a chance to come home. I applied for the job and was lucky enough to get it. It’s the most exciting period there’s ever been for The Macallan, so the timing for me to be part of that is fantastic.”

We might think that a “whisky maker” is a mashman or stillman, someone who actually makes whisky, or at least new spirit, but Sarah explains the true nature of the role is different to that.

“At Macallan we nose every single cask, then select from them and collect to create each expression. All are bottled at natural colour, so we work by nose and colour. I spend a lot of time nosing – I nose around 3,500 cask samples per month.”

“We look at each cask as having its own personality, and ask ‘where does it belong?’ Is it ideal for Double Cask, Double Cask 12-year-old, a Fine Oak or one of our travel retail exclusives? Should we think about keeping it until it is 18, if we reckon that’s likely to be its optimum age, or even keep it for 30 years.”

Another important part of Sarah’s role is to work on the creation of new products, sometimes at the behest of the marketing team which has identified the need for a specific style of product for an individual market or markets, and sometimes because the whisky-making team has realised there is potential to do something exciting with a particular batch of casks.

“We get to play and trial new things,” she says, “and that’s probably the most satisfying part of the job. My favourite to date has been working on the Exceptional Single Cask range. There are currently seven expressions, matured from 12 to 22 years.”

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“I created those with Bob Dalgarno, who was whisky maker before me, and who had been at Macallan since 1984 until he retired. Working with Bob before he left was part of the succession plan, and we still have Ian Morrison, who has worked for Edrington for 40 years. So, we don’t lack for continuity. That’s the Macallan way. Also, Bob is retained on a consultancy basis, so he’s still around.”

The Exceptional Single Cask range was launched in late 2017, and Sarah explains that “with the Exceptional Single Casks we try to give consumers the chance to experience some of the individual components of what creates, say, Sherry 10-year-old, or whatever. Each cask is a timeless moment from the whisky-maker’s bench. When you identify one, you almost stop breathing for a second. It feels that special! At present I’m working on more Exclusive Single Casks, and there just might be something special to tie in with the official opening of the new distillery this summer.”

That distillery may be centre stage at the moment, but as Sarah points out, “It won’t have any impact on my work for a long time. We won’t see any of the whisky made there coming across our bench for 12 years, but I know from sampling the spirit that they’ve done a fantastic job of matching new with old.”

When it comes to the people who drink The Macallan, Sarah says that “I don’t think you should put all Macallan consumers in one box. You’ve got the traditionalists who will always drink 12 and 18-year-old sherry expressions, and people who are more into exploring, and don’t mind NAS bottlings. We’ve got something for everyone.”

I’m interested in the fact that the perfume industry is very good at tailoring its products to specific markets. For example, the French like a heavy grapefruit note, but in the States they don’t, and perfumiers will modify their scents for different market preferences. It would be great to explore that more with whisky.

“If I could wave a magic wand, I’d like people to treat whisky more like wine. Virtually no one says they don’t like wine. They might not like Champagne, for example, but not all wine. There is a wine flavour for everyone, and whisky really has the same breadth of flavour. I’d like people to explore and find ‘their’ whisky.”

The New Distillery

When spirit began to flow from Macallan’s new distillery earlier this year, it marked the culmination of one of the largest, most ambitious and imaginative distillery construction programmes ever undertaken in Scotland.

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Inspired by the bold, contemporary Bodega Ysios winery designed and built for Pernod  Ricard at Laguardia in Spain, distillery owners Edrington commissioned leading architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners to come up with a statement building that would merge into the landscape of the hilly site at Easter Elchies, above the River Spey, but would also be highly individualistic and provide space for an expanded distilling operation and capacious visitor facilities.

The end result is a remarkable fourdomed structure, which appears relatively low-key from the outside, but nothing short of imposing on the inside, with lots of polished concrete and wood, and a dramatic floor to ceiling glass ‘wall’ of 840 archived Macallan bottles. This serves as a very impressive introduction to the new distillery, which also boasts a cocktail bar where no fewer than 952 different Macallan drams are on offer.

The actual distilling area comprises a 17-tonne lauter mashtun, 21 x stainless steel washbacks and three interconnected ‘circles’ of Macallan’s trademark ‘curiously small’ stills, each hosting four wash and eight spirit stills. All are exact copies of their predecessors. This arrangement gives the new distillery a theoretical capacity of 15mla, compared to the 11mla available from the now silent ‘old’ distillery.

‘New Macallan’ cost £140 million, but that is only part of the total budget of £500 million which is being spent on the site over a span of 12-years. A new disgorging complex, filling store, cooperage and effluent plant account for some of this cash, while an ongoing programme of warehouse construction and a notably expensive annual wood budget for all those characteristic Macallan sherry butts, adds to the total.

According to Scott McCroskie, managing director The Macallan, “We now have a brand home that reflects the quality and reputation of our whisky. We won’t be selling the whisky for 12 years, probably, so it’s something for future generations. It’s a legacy.”

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