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The Macallan - The Malt: Natural colour is king; “The Definitive Guide To Buying Vintage Macallan”

Until very recently it was generally accepted that a whisky's colour came from the liquid that the cask previously contained such as port, wines and sherries. To understand this phenomenon better we commissioned a series of experiments which have resulted in our improved understanding of colour, its origin, its chemistry and the impact of wood.


At The Macallan we believe that the natural colour occurring in whisky is derived almost entirely from the wood of the cask. Historically, The Macallan sourced both quercus robur (European oak) and quercus alba (American white oak) from Spanish sherry producers. Quercus robur sherry casks, which impart both a deep, dark colour and flavours of dried fruits, toffee sweetness, wood and resinous spices from its high tannin and other wood extractive levels, were often used by the sherry producers for the bulk shipment of sherry to the UK for subsequent bottling there. The Macallan bought these from the bottlers and brought the casks to Easter Elchies for maturing Macallan new make spirit. Today, we buy quercus robur casks direct from Spain as sherry is no longer shipped in bulk to the UK. A good example of a quercus robur matured Vintage would be the 1970, Cask No 241, delivering a balanced but powerful whisky, rich in natural colour and very characteristic of The Macallan.

Quercus alba was imported from the US and used by the Spanish sherry producers in their solera systems as relatively inert maturation vessels for their sherries. These days, stainless steel is the norm. Quercus alba has fewer tannins and other wood extractives than quercus robur, thus imparting a lighter colour and a more appley, floral and citrus character to maturing whisky. The Macallan would have acquired quercus alba casks as the bodegas changed their solera regimes or renewed their casks. A good example of a quercus alba matured Vintage would be the 1968, Cask No 5913.

Whether it's quercus robur or quercus alba, at The Macallan we leave the cask to colour the whisky naturally, without the addition of any spirit caramel, and to impart the particular sensory characteristics that define the fascination and essentially unpredictable nature of cask maturation.

We have developed a descriptive colour palette based on wood species to illustrate the different shades of natural colour inherent in The Macallan.

The bottles shown below range from a colour tint of 10 (Beech) to 100 (Ebony) (water being 0), rising in increments of 10. Each whisky selected for inclusion in this Guide has its colour described both in terms of numerical tint and wood colour palette.


Written by David Robertson


The text is an excerpt from "The Definitive Guide to Buying Vintage Macallan" (pp. 16 - 17), First Edition, published 2003 by Macallan Distillery Ltd.