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Stuart MacPherson on The Influence Wood And Casks Have on Spirit Maturation

Photo for: Stuart MacPherson on The Influence Wood And Casks Have on Spirit Maturation

25/07/2022 Stuart MacPherson, Former Master of Wood for Macallan at Edrington, shares his experience working in Edrington, his role, and the biggest highlight of his career

Stuart MacPherson was the master of wood at The Macallan, one of the most premium single malt Scotch whisky in the world by value. Stuart has recently retired from his position. He has spent 43 years in the field. He started as a cooper and gradually progressed into management, eventually acquiring the dual role of the Master of Wood, where he used to manage the interaction between Macallan and its wood suppliers in Spain while also traveling worldwide to enlighten enthusiasts about the importance of crafting wood whisky. Stuart is a veteran in the industry and has in-depth knowledge of wood and how it affects whisky.

Hi Stuart, You have recently retired from the Macallan Master of wood position at Edrington. What has your journey been like? Can you tell us about your background and yourself? 

After leaving school in 1979, I joined the Clyde Cooperage in Glasgow, beginning my four-year apprenticeship as a cooper. In 1991 I was promoted to Foreman, followed seven years later by a further promotion to Assistant Manager. In 2001, I was promoted again to Cooperage Manager, and when Edrington chose to relocate the cooperage to the North British site at Addiewell in 2002, I was integral to ensuring the smooth transition to the new site. In this role, I was charged with the inspection and repair of oak casks and ensuring that our distilleries received casks that met exacting quality standards. In 2012, I assumed the role of Master of Wood for The Macallan and in 2016, I set up an audit team in Jerez de la Frontera (southern Spain) to work with our cask suppliers and seasoning bodegas to ensure that our sherry casks were manufactured to our specific specifications.

How did you enter the wood and whisky space? What inspired you? 

To be honest, it was quite by chance. I had a relative involved in the whisky industry and was fortunate to get a job working in the cooperage during my summer holidays. It was during this time that I became fascinated by the craft of coopering. Watching these skilled craftsmen making and repairing casks, the physical effort, passion, and demands that went into ensuring that the cask was sound, tight, and fit for purpose was for me the moment I wanted to learn more about the craft of coopering.

As you have served as Macallan's Master of Wood at Edrington, Can you tell us about your role and day-to-day responsibilities?

In my role as Master of Wood, I was responsible for carefully selecting only the finest European and American oak trees to our exacting specifications to create our exceptional oak casks.

Why is wood so important to The Macallan. How important are the oak casks in developing distinct flavors in Scotch Whiskies? 

Predominantly the three main oak types used in the manufacture of oak casks are Quercus Alba, Quercus Robur, and Quercus Paterea, and although there are other species that can be used, these are the most common. Between these three oak types, the toasting temperatures are the biggest single influence on spirit color and character. 

Does the Macallan employ wood from different parts of the world? 

The Macallan focuses on purchasing its European oak from regions within Northern Spain and Southwest France. Whilst its American oak is sourced in Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri, etc. 

Stuart MacPherson

Image: Stuart MacPherson

Can you tell us some of the points you keep in mind, as a Master of Wood when choosing the right cask for your Scotch Whisky? 

Our commitment to understanding more about maturing our whisky and how that wood can influence our whiskies is instrumental in the creation of The Macallan and will remain so into the future.

What according to you, is unique about Macallan that customers love? What makes it stand out from its competition in the market? 

The Macallan’s exceptional oak casks are the single greatest contributor to the outstanding quality, natural colors, and distinctive aromas and flavors of The Macallan. Because of this, we invest in sourcing, crafting, seasoning, and caring for our casks, and over many years we have developed a deep level of understanding of how both the wood and the specific oak species influence the whisky. 

How does Edrington explore new markets for its brands and focus on business development? 

Unfortunately not an area of the business I was involved in. My focus was ensuring that the wood our suppliers sourced was from the correct regions and of suitable quality, along with the cask manufacturing process whereby our casks were constructed to our bespoke specifications. 

What challenges did you face in your role? How did you overcome them? 

I think the sourcing of quality timber has always been a priority, and with distillation, volumes increased due to forecasted global demands, this has meant us working more with our cask manufacturers in establishing better relationships with local governments, land owners, and logging companies to secure the volume and quality of oak we require. This has been extremely challenging over the last two years, with the demand for timber increasing significantly, along with significant price increases in timber. 

Tell us the biggest highlight of your career. 

I think through my 43 years in the spirits business, I’ve been fortunate to have had numerous highlights. I can still remember the first day I walked into the cooperage to start my apprenticeship, a daunting experience but certainly one I’ll never forget and a career I probably never imagined. 

However, one highlight I’m particularly fond of is the relationships and partnerships we’ve formed with our Spanish cask suppliers and seasoning bodegas. For me, sitting in a bar or restaurant in Jerez de la Frontera in Southern Spain enjoying a Macallan, knowing that the casks they’ve produced a minimum of 14 years before have played a major role in creating these wonderful whiskies is very special.

Interviewed By Aakriti Rawat, Beverage Trade Network 

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