Monday, August 09, 2010

Golden Promise and The Macallan

Attention conservation notice: Several hundred words on whisky.

One of the signature qualities of The Macallan whisky has traditionally been its use of Golden Promise barley. It is sometimes claimed that Macallan uses 100% Golden Promise. However, in Raw Spirit (2003)*, Scottish author Iain Banks (yes, that one) writes:

Macallan uses Golden Promise barley, a variety which is out of favour with farmers these days because it produces much less yield than more recent, more productive but less tasty forms. As a result, Golden Promise has become hard to get hold of over the years and even Macallan has had to resort to other varieties, using only about 30 per cent Golden Promise since 1994. It'll be interesting to see whether the 10-year-old Macallan bottled in 2004 tastes appreciably different compared to the year before.

For all my Google-fu, I am unable to find concrete numbers on the precise barley composition of Macallan's maltings prior to 1994. It's possible that they used 100% Golden Promise before then. Certainly, the implication of the passage above is that a much larger proportion of Golden Promise was once used.

Macallan themselves seem evasive on the point. The current notes on their website avoid mentioning Golden Promise entirely, opting instead to claim that they have always been at war with Eastasia "The Macallan uses a proportion of Minstrel barley, a variety grown exclusively for The Macallan . . . to ensure the rich, oily character of the Macallan new make spirit". This evasiveness is understandable, given the extent to which whisky drinkers (like gourmands of other types) tend to be irrationally influenced in their judgment by untasteable qualities, such as strict adherence to tradition.

And, after all, whisky gains most of its flavor from subjecting barley to various extraordinarily refined and artificial practices — artificial not in the sense of false or disingenuous but simply in the sense of artifice as calculated construction — including malting, milling, mashing, fermentation, distillation, and barrel-aging. And therefore, it is especially irrational to develop an attachment to an exact source barley per se. In the hands of skilled distillers, one can trust that the new expression will share many characteristics of the old, and may even be indistinguishable when imbibed, even if it's not chemically identical down to the last molecule.

Nevertheless, I offer the following friendly note to anyone out there who likes a nice Speyside. If Macallan last used its original ratio of Golden Promise barley in 1993, then this year's bottling (2010) is the last 17-year Macallan made with that ratio. Likewise, 2011's bottling will be the last 18-year expression made from the same. As older Macallan tends to be an especially finely balanced whisky, and as whiskies older than 18 years tend to be exorbitantly priced**, you may wish to buy a bottle of Macallan 18 sometime in the next year to save for a special occasion. If nothing else, you will be able to impress*** your friends by telling them that this exact Macallan cannot be had any longer at any price.

*By the way, Raw Spirit is almost impossible to read from cover to cover. It may be the most self-indulgent, meandering thing Banks has ever written. On the other hand, it's entertaining to dip randomly into short passages, including some nice bits on Scotland and sundry. In many ways, the writing suffers from being incarnate as a bound codex. A whisky blog written by Banks would be a lot more fun to read. Anyway, by leafing through the book and sticking labeled Post-Its on the pages where each distillery appears, I was able to transform it into a decent introductory reference guide to Scotch, and one that's far less stuffy and pretentious than that sort of thing would normally be.

**While I'm dispensing unsolicited advice, here's some on whisky and age (this will be obvious to any serious whisky drinker, but it may be news to some readers of this blog). Some people assume that older whiskies are strictly better than younger ones. This notion is supported by the exceptionally high price of old whisky, and also pop culture artifacts like that West Wing episode when Leo rhapsodizes on the age of Johnnie Walker Blue. In fact, age changes the taste of whisky, but whether that change is an improvement is entirely a subjective matter. Younger whiskies retain more of the character of the original malting and distillation process, whereas older whiskies take on more of the character of the barrel in which they are aged. As a rule of thumb, the barrel exerts a gentling, sweetening influence. Thus some qualities, like intense peatiness, which are especially beloved of the most insufferable whisky nerds, are more commonly found in younger spirits.

***Or, more likely, annoy.


  1. Attention conservation notice: Several hundred words on whisky.

    Appreciated. And lol'd.

  2. It's always amusing when people refer to Golden Promise barley as traditional. It's a variety that was created in the '60s by bombarding barley with gamma rays to bring about random mutations in its DNA.
    If that technology was still in use it would immediately be banned by FoE, The Soil Association and the Scottish Government.