A choice dram
Tom Bruce-Gardyne meets one of single-cask bottling’s real success stories, as Lorne Mackillop and his Mackillop’s Choice label go from strength to strength.
London’s west end is famed for its private doctors and dentists and for the size of their consultation fees, but it is not the first place you would look for a firm of independent bottlers, nor the heir to the chief of a Scottish clan. Yet the two come together here in Mackillop’s Choice, a relative newcomer to the single cask malt scene. It was set up by Lorne Mackillop in 1997 who was already in the whisky industry, but very much at the commodity end, and this was a departure from his usual trading. Mackillop’s Choice is exclusively involved in the rarefied world of single cask bottlings.
Leaving that to one side, Lorne fills me in with some family history. The Mackillops whose motto is Non Dormit Qui Custodit (he who guards does not sleep) were once the personal bodyguards of the Kings of Scotland. Then in 1745 they rallied to the side of Bonnie Prince Charlie only to be almost wiped out in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden. Coming from Argyll in the heart of Campbell country, it was not the best place or time to be a Jacobite, and according to legend the clan only survived thanks to the escape of two teenage boys.
On leaving London University with a degree in comparative physiology and zoology in the mid-70s, Lorne Mackillop hardly intended a career in the booze trade, let alone whisky. But when the original plan of becoming a doctor fell through, he found his old holiday job, delivering wine by bicycle round Belgravia for André Simon, a useful stop-gap. Soon he was hooked, the bike gave way to a van, and by clambering up the ladder of wine trade exams found himself aged 28, the youngest Master of Wine in 1984.
Traditionally the select band of MWs, of which there are still only a few hundred, became auctioneers for the great auction houses knocking down bottles of pre-phylloxera claret, or wrote learned books. In time they became brokers, consultants or even supermarket buyers. But until Lorne Mackillop came along they did not join the commodity end of the whisky trade.
It was while working for himself in the early 90s – a time of deep recession when many small wine firms went under – that the first thoughts of leaving the wine trade occurred. “I recall vividly talking to another Master of Wine, sitting on a rock half way up Mount Aconcagua in the Andes on a MW trip to South America. He worked for J&B and said he kept wine as a hobby but earned a living in spirits, where there was much more money.” Three years later, Mackillop was flying to Australia to cut his first deal in bulk Scotch whisky.
Apart from the ability to send back a bottle of corked wine with confidence when entertaining clients, Mackillop’s highly trained nose must have been rather redundant at first. But in 1995, he began to feel, in discussion with colleagues, that there was a use for all this training in the selection of the best casks of malt whisky. Rather than mix them with grain whisky to make a blend, or even vat them together as in a distillery bottling of a single malt, why not preserve the unique character of each individual cask. Two years later, Mackillop’s Choice was launched in New York, offering mainly Speysides, all over 28 years of age including Glen Keith, Miltonduff and Tamdhu. This has grown to a current range of ‘cased stock’ with 22 bottlings – from a Tomintoul ’66 to Caol Ila ’89, and a larger selection of 80 ‘whole casks’ bottled on demand for the company’s importers outside Europe. Some distilleries are mothballed and some gone for good like Glenesk and Millburn.
The philosophy behind it reflects fine wine which revels in the way one vintage can be poor and the next sublime. In the same spirit, Mackillop’s Choice swims against the mainstream where whisky brands have to be consistent year in year out. “I want the variation,” declares Lorne. “No two casks are the same and I delight in that difference. Also, a single cask is finite – it contains perhaps 300 bottles, and that’s what makes it so unique.” To prove the point, he reaches for a polished wooden case containing 20 sample bottles.
“Let us open five Longmorns distilled in May 1976 drawn from five separate casks that have lain side by side in a warehouse for 25 years.” And with that we are off on a fascinating voyage of discovery, learning how each barrel has left its fingerprint on the whisky. “When you are buying a distillery bottling of a 12-year-old and they are putting 200 casks together at a time, you are losing all these points of difference.” In this case the points of difference are certainly there, but more-or-less benign.
“Now here are three other Longmorns, again in consecutive casks, but this time distilled in March 1972 and aged in sherry wood.” These failed to make it into Mackillop’s Choice and one can see why. The sherry had begun to oxidise and dominate the whisky giving it a dull, burnt aroma almost of rubber. “Unfortunately there are independent bottlers out there who would think they’d died and gone to heaven if they got hold of three casks of Longmorn in sherry wood.”
Despite the cost of obtaining samples and the undoubted rarity of some of the whiskies which may come from distilleries long since demolished, Lorne claims to reject 80% of the casks he comes across. “When you get a really nice cask in amongst a batch of others, it just shines out like sun from behind a cloud. It is my name on the bottle, my signature and therefore I have to be happy with it myself. I think consumers buying single casks ought to be aware that there should be a selection process behind the casks.” Of course Mackillop’s Choice reflects Lorne’s own personal taste. He confesses to a fondness for Speyside and old Islay whiskies where the influence of the sea has been tempered by a honeyed richness through age.
Having sampled the 1972 Longmorn, the conversation turns to sherry casks. “Sherry can be a blessing for whisky and a problem. It should be in balance and preserve the flavour of the whisky, not overpower it. Some samples I see are so ‘sherry-ish’ you might as well buy a bottle of oloroso and pay half the duty. As far as I’m concerned you’re buying a bottle of sherry not whisky.” As for wood finishes, Lorne believes it may have gone too far. “I think part of it is a reaction against independent bottlings – a feeling that ‘we can do other things too’ which is fair enough. My worry is that you get whiskies that are hugely distorted by the wood they’ve been in to the extent it’s gone away from what the whiskies were all about.” If provoked by too many more samples of port or oloroso masquerading as Scotch, he threatens to produce something not even our friends in the ‘glen of tranquillity’ would copy. “I’m not going to say where or how, but I have the rights to a particular type of barrel that would blow the whisky out of the water.”
By : Tom Bruce-Gardyne
Whisky Magazine Issue : 22 – Page : 48