July 28, 2014

Let's Talk About Whisky: The Macallan 12

I didn't really start drinking whiskey of any sort until my mid-20s. Until that point it was beer, vodka and rum ... your usual college-age triumvirate of memory-impairing liquids. But after graduation and moving to Boston (and getting a job with some actual disposable income), I started drinking Jameson.

Jameson* is still a favorite of mine. It's a perfectly drinkable Irish whiskey. Well-done year after year, it is a great "gateway" to the more intense Irish whiskeys like the Redbreast 15 or the Bushmills 16.

In my 30s I finally moved into Scotch single malts. And one of the first I had was the Macallan 12. It was also the last time I had it until I bought a bottle a few weeks ago. Ideally, the Macallan 12 should perform the same job as Jameson. They're only about five feet away from one another on a supermarket shelf. They occupy a similar price point. The Macallan 12 should be the Scotch that brings new people into trying single malts.

And yet a decade went between me trying the Macallan 12 the first time and now. The whisky that finally brought me in was, of all things, the Talisker 10. A great single malt, but not one you would give to a first-time whisky drinker. But that is neither here nor there.

The Macallan 12 is not a bad single malt. But for me, it's not exactly good either. I'm not one to talk about "noses" and "palates" and all that. But I just felt the sherry taste really overwhelmed the entire experience. And the finish was very, very, harsh. I don't know if I would go as far as to say it is bitter, but it's not enjoyable.

And this is a problem because to non-whisky drinkers one of the few names that may be known to them is Macallan. Because they see it on the top supermarket shelf along with Laphroaig and Glenmorangie. And odds are that when someone wants to try a Scotch single malt for the first time, a Macallan 12 will be selected quite a few times.

And if my first taste of whisky is harsh on my tongue and makes me think I should have just bought a bottle of Sandeman Armada Oloroso instead ... that's not going to make me seek out other single malts.

What makes this doubly-disappointing is that the older Macallan expressions are quite good. The Macallan 18 is wonderful. I was once fortunate enough to have a small, small, much-too-small glass of Macallan 25. The finish there (spicy and somewhat smokey) compared to the 12 is the difference between a Bentley and a Yugo.

Perhaps it has to do with volume and quality control. Macallan is one of the highest-selling single malts in the world. When you produce more and more volume, with more and more product lines, quality can take a hit.

Regardless, the Macallan 12 simply doesn't live up to the reputation that the name has earned over the years. If you do insist on buying it, save it as the scotch you give to people you are only going to meet once. Or in a party situation. Or as the base if you are going to make a Highland Fling.

But as an introduction to single malts? You aren't doing anyone any favors by using the Macallan 12.

Distillery: Macallan
Brand Sherry Oak
Age: 12 years
Maturation: Sherry casks
Region: Highland/Speyside
ABV: 40%
Recommendation: Pass

* An earlier version of this post called this "the Jameson 12" in error. I meant your standard bottle of Jameson. The 12 is fantastic, though.


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