By Kurt Maitland
I recently caught up with Charlie Whitfield, the Macallan Brand Ambassador for Northeast USA at his offices in New York City. We discussed the Fine Oak and Sherry Oak ranges as well as Macallan’s expansion in the American market –
KM – First, I guess I should have you introduce yourself.
CW – Of course (laughs) My name is Charlie Whitfield, the Macallan Brand Ambassador (Northeast USA)
KM- And I’m going to ask you a few questions today, some about your job, some about Macallan. One, I was going to ask you to tell me about the Fine Oak Series and the Sherry Oak Series…which you’ve done a little already off-mike, but one we had mentioned is do you have a personal preference. What do you end up drinking more of between the Fine Oak and the Sherry?
CW – Very good question. It’s all down to personal preference. Obviously the Fine Oak Macallan range was released in 2005. A very distinct and different style compared to the Sherry Oak range. For example, the Sherry Oak range is 100% Spanish oak seasoned with sherry and in terms of style it’s more of that richer, complex flavor – dried fruit, raisiny sweet, spicy note coming through. The Fine Oak range we actually use three different types of casks to mature the whiskey. We use Spanish Oak seasoned with sherry, American Oak seasoned with sherry and then American Oak ex-bourbon casks. So in terms of style it’s going to be more of that fresh fruit, lighter style and more of a floral sort of honeyed vanilla flavor coming through. So because it’s a bit lighter in style my personal preference is to gravitate toward the Fine Oak as a pre-dinner aperitif because it has that lighter note, that lighter flavor coming through which won’t get too much in the way of what you’re eating. It’s all down to personal preference. Because it’s lighter and takes to water and ice that much better as well especially in the warmer summer months it’s one that I find a bit more refreshing. In constrast, the sherry oak range, very rich, complex flavors coming through, very rounded, very smooth. For me I have that more as my dessert scotch, post-dinner Macallan expression, because it that very rich complex flavor that sweet dried fruit, sweet spicy note coming through which for me goes great with dessert dishes and after dinner activities, especially when it is cold outside sitting next to a roaring log fire. But it’s all down to personal preference. There are different styles, flavors and expressions even within the Fine Oak range which you yourself have just nosed and tasted you’ll find slight differences flavors whether it is more citrusy, more tropical fruit flavors, that slight smokiness in the 17 yr Fine Oak. You’ll find that there is an expression for whatever mood, situation, whatever time of day, who you’re with. It’s all down to that personal preference.
KM – It seems that there has been a steady introduction of new expressions of Macallan over the last few years. In fact I see that there is a new 1824 range coming out in the UK.
CW – Yes, that won’t be here.
KM – It won’t be here anytime soon or won’t be at all (chuckles)
CW – As far as I know, won’t be here. But obviously I can’t see the future 5-10 years down the line. I’ve just spoken to my VP this morning who is over in Scotland, he’s tried it and says it’s unbelievable so I’m actually flying to Scotland on Saturday so I’m lucky and looking forward to it. (we both laugh)
KM – So you’ll have to tell me actually how it is.
CW – I will
KM – So what’s the difference, since I’m curious and I won’t be tasting it anytime soon, between the Fine Oak, Sherry Oak and the new range.
CW – The new range will all be Sherry casks. There won’t be any bourbon influence. It will all be sherry casks using both American Oak and Spanish Oak. So very different from the two ranges that we have at the moment. It’s probably going to be more similar to the Sherry Oak but in that instance it’s going less about the age. You put the whiskey in the cask the same day but it matures at a different rate and a different flavor is coming from it. With that range it will be more about the color and also the flavors so that the whiskey maker has that option to give you the best possible out of the casks that he has at his disposal. He can cherry pick lots of different types which will give a very rich, intense character. I have yet to taste it myself so I can’t give you the whole lowdown….
KM – I will shoot you an email for a follow up (Both laugh). When are you coming back from Scotland?
CW – I’ll be there until the end of the month.
KM – Ok. After my birthday I’ll be sure to ask you. Now how does the steady introduction of new expressions play into Macallan’s plans for growth both in the US and abroad?
CW – Yeah, for example we’ve talked about the Fine Oak range which was introduced in 2005, it was more about getting away from that label that single malt scotch whiskeys are very stuffy and more about making them more accessible to a much wider market. The Fine Oak range has that sort of lighter style and it does have a very slight bourbon influence to it so if we are looking here to the USA market, for those people who are usually bourbon drinkers it will be more approachable, more accessible as a sort of entrance point into single malts because it has some of those honeyed vanilla flavors that they might have experienced when they are drinking bourbon. For me, being a brand ambassador for Macallan, it’s about introducing Macallan to those people who might have never tried it before or raising the awareness amongst people who might not know much about single malt scotch. If there are different styles and ranges, it makes it more approachable – it’s like DNA – your nose is your most powerful sensory organ but everyone has a different analysis, perception, and preference for certain flavors and aromas. For example, my wife, she prefers the Fine Oak range, for me I enjoy both at different times.
But it means that, especially in a younger market of people – i.e. young professionals, perhaps in their thirties who may not know much about single malt scotch whiskey, for me that’s part of my job – to make people aware of the different styles. If they say to me “I prefer a lighter style of whiskey” then I can direct them. They can give me their preference and I can help guide them and introduce them to the journey they are about to make.
KM – What are your thoughts about how Macallan appeals to the palettes of the American bourbon or rye drinker? Obviously the Fine Oak has notes that would be familiar to them from other drinks that they are used to having.
CW – Exactly. If they told me that, I would start them off with the Macallan Fine Oak range and take them through the different Fine Oak expressions. But then I’d also introduce them the Sherry Oak range, that very rich, rounded, intense flavor. It’s something that I find from personal experience, people have that different preference, whether it’s time of day, after dinner, before dinner, etc and if I can help guide them to which expression or style they might want at that particular time.
Make it approachable, make it accessible – especially with the American palate that might be used to drinking bourbon or rye previously. We start them on the Fine Oak which is going give them that similar characteristic they are familiar with and then help guide and educate them on the different styles and lead on from there.
KM – So what’s your favorite part of your job as Brand Macallan Ambassador?
CW – On a personal basis and you’ve been to a Raise the Macallan events so you’ve heard my own personal stories of my connection with Macallan – it was my favorite single malt scotch, it played a part in my proposal to my wife even before I got this job. So the fact that I’m paid to talk and enjoy the Macallan it does sort of make it one of the best jobs in the world in that aspect. But for the job satisfaction I get as well, for me I don’t spend a lot of time behind a desk. It’s all about educating people, introducing new consumers and raising the awareness amongst existing consumers. Whether that’s with trade shows, with consumers or the media as aspect as well so for me no one day could be the same. It’s going to be different. In the morning I might be doing an interview such as we are doing right now, this afternoon I’m actually doing a consumer event with a group of architects, some of whom are new to drinking scotch whiskey. So for me it will be a mix of education because I find that if people can understand what they are drinking they can enjoy it more as well.
A lot of people unfortunately start their journey with a heavy, smoky, peaty style of whiskey, which is definitely an acquired taste but sometimes that puts people off. So if I can be there to help guide them to take those first steps in that journey of drinking scotch whiskey and single malt scotch all the more better. I’ve found that, in my own experience, simple facts that bring scotch to life and if people understand the processes that actually go into making scotch whiskey – the maturation process, etc then it just furthers their understanding and therefore enjoyment and brings it to a whole new level.
KM – So one last question – In the rare moments that you are not having Macallan, if you are having American bourbon, is there an American bourbon you like?
CM – For me, that’s where the roles are reversed. My knowledge of bourbon is not vast. Which is exciting for me so now that I’m living here in America I can start learning and exploring. That’s something for me I’m still in that learning process, which is exciting for me. I’m looking forward to my first trip to Kentucky as well.