Cocktails & Spirits

George Espie: Whisky's Master of Wood

George Espie is the Macallan master of wood, which means (A) he is a Scotch fanatic and (B) he probably gets picked on a lot during recess on the corporate playground. What his title really means is he is responsible for managing the Macallan "Wood Policy" and delivering all cask requirements to the distillery in Scotland.

A major part of Espie's work involves negotiations that take place between the Macallan and Gonzalez Byass, one of the largest sherry producers in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. He's also a "keeper of the quaich" (the man has some seriously awesome titles), which is not a designation of his position on Harry Potter's Quidditch team, but an exclusive society with membership by invitation only, for people with a positive record of association with Scotch whisky.

We asked him if he had always wanted to be a master of wood (mostly because we couldn't resist the double entendre), but the more interesting details of Scotch evolution are in here too. Keep reading for a tutorial on how good Scotch becomes great Scotch.

Did you want to be the master of wood when you were growing up?
No. What I did do at a young age was join the Scotch Whisky Industry in 1970 and have worked in all aspects of whisky production. I joined Edrington in 1977, and in 1990 an opportunity arose for me to take over my current role, and I jumped at the chance.

How does one become a master of wood? 
Given to me by our marketing team mainly, I think, to emphasize the importance of wood to the Macallan and the lengths we go through to make sure that the Macallan remains the Rolls Royce of single-malts. My real business title is managing director, Clyde Cooperage, a division of the Edrington Group.

Our colleagues at Highland Park were jealous that the Macallan had monopolized the "master of wood," so they now refer to me jokingly as "the sultan of sherry."

What is the evolution of a sherry cask?

Oak is sourced from northern Spain from Galicia, Asturias, and Cantabria and from the U.S.A.
Logs are machined into stave and heading pieces and then air-dried.
The casks are built in Jerez de La Frontera in the province of Cadiz in southern Spain and then sent to Sherry Bodegas, with whom we have contracts, where the casks are seasoned with Dry Oloroso Sherry for a period of up to two years.

What type of wood is used?

The wood is oak. From northern Spain it is Quercus robur, and from the U.S.A. it is Quercus alba

Are the staves uniform?

All the staves for each cask's size will be of the same appropriate length and thickness. The widths will vary to allow us to maximize the yield from the logs.

How long does it take?

A tree being cut today in northern Spain will arrive at the Macallan in the form of casks in 74 months. Yes, I did say 74!

Are practices sustainable?

Yes. We are working closely with our suppliers to ensure that our trees come from sustainable forests and they are accredited under a worldwide scheme called PEFC (the world's largest forest certification organization). We have also done considerable research with the University of Vigo in northern Spain to satisfy ourselves that we are no threat to the environment.

Why do casks matter, and what effects do they have?

There is an Act of Parliament, "The Scotch Whisky Act," which states that Scotch whisky must be distilled and stored in Scotland in oak casks for a minimum period of three years.

The effect of the casks is very significant. Sixty percent of the final color and flavor of the whisky is the result of the cask.

What do casks cost, and how many are used each year?

A butt (500 liters) purchased for the Macallan in 2011 will have a final cost of approximately $930. For the Macallan alone, 17,000 butts of 500 liters each year. At any one time, they have about 40,000 being sherry-seasoned in Spain.

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Lesley Elliott
Contact: Lesley Elliott