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Scotch takes a populist turn

Sometimes change only takes 180 years. Scotch maker Macallan last week unveiled its first completely new line of whiskeys, with a different taste and potentially a different target market. Meantime, one man in Scotland plans a members-only distillery.

Change can take a while. In the Speyside district of the Scottish Highlands, where the Macallan distillery prides itself on its traditionalist ways, it only took 180 years.

Though Macallan hasn't been immune to the charms of the modern world, since 1824 it has always held true to the unique flavor it derives from its sole reliance on aging in expensive oak casks originally used for sherry.

Last week the distillery unveiled its first completely new line of whiskeys, Macallan Fine Oak, which goes on sale next month. Foresaking an all-sherry cask regimen, whiskeymaker Bob Dalgarno mixed sherry-aged batches with those aged in bourbon casks — from (gasp!) America.

While many Scotch makers have long relied on bourbon casks, Macallan was a noted holdout.

“There was a lot of soul searching,” says Mark Izatt, brand manager of single malt whiskeys for Remy Amerique, importer of The Macallan, as the whiskey capitally calls itself. "We're not trying to change the world, but we would like to draw newer drinkers into the Macallan franchise."

In the past decade, makers of premium brands — BMW comes to mind — have unveiled more downmarket, entry-level offerings that give consumers the pride of a luxury brand without the price. With the Fine Oak whiskeys starting at $44 suggested retail for a 10-year-old bottle, up to $220 for the 21-year, affordability doesn't appear to be the inspiration. (Traditional Macallan sells in a similar range; its 12-year offering starts at about $45.)

More to go aroundPart of the problem for Macallan is that there simply isn't enough of its traditional whiskey to go around. Remy imports 84,000 cases of sherry-oaked Macallan into the United States, but availibility is scarce outside major markets and retailers. Rather than having changed the taste profile of the original, they figured another 6,000 cases of the Fine Oak will help spread the Macallan brand a bit farther.

“We could've gone in the route of new flavor Coke,” Izatt says.

Though the actual whiskey in Fine Oak may be over two decades old, the blends themselves (single-malt Scotches are often blends of whiskey batches from the same year and distillery) were assembled by Dalgarno this spring. After four years upholding the renowned Macallan taste profile, it was his first opportunity to put his own imprint on a Macallan whiskey.

The whiskey itself comes from batches that were either sherry-aged but didn't taste like traditional Macallan, or from bourbon-aged casks that otherwise would have been sold off to makers of blends, who prize the Macallan whiskey as an element in their Scotches.  Presumably, Macallan figured it could make more money using its own whiskey in a new way than simply selling it off. And it should be noted that bourbon casks are less expensive than sherry.

The result is a Scotch with a notably different — and far lighter — taste profile than their legacy brand (even the little taste diagrams on their info sheets look like separate sets of Rorschach blots). The Fine Oak 15 shows orange and vanilla notes, with a mere hint of the peat and smoke that distinguish the original.  It is not your father's single-malt, though Remy hopes current Macallan drinkers warm to the lighter taste, perhaps as a pre-dinner drink.

Aging differentiates the two lines: Fine Oak is aged 10, 15 and 21 years; traditional Macallan is aged 12, 18, 25 and 30 years.

Now is the perfect time for such things.  While the U.S. Scotch market nudged down 0.5 percent last year, according to the Adams Liquor Handbook, single-malt sales grew 5 percent and should keep growing at that pace. Sales of premium vodkas like Belvedere and Grey Goose have soared as younger drinkers seek out high-end liquors as an affordable luxury.

“They're trying to capture the rest of the market,” says Jonathan Goldstein of Park Avenue Liquors in New York, which stocks an extensive collection of single malts.

Not only will Goldstein sell Fine Oak, he already sells bourbon-oaked, private-label bottlings of whiskey distilled by Macallan.

Scotch and club, hold the sodaShould you want something even more rarified, you might head south from Speyside to county Fife, where James Thomson is creating Ladybank (, a members-only Scotch distillery similar to private U.S. wine clubs we recently profiled.

For about $4,200, or $5,900 for British subscribers, you can buy the rights to one case of Ladybank's single-malt Scotch each year for 10 years, some 120 bottles total. (Tax and duty aren't included.)

The distillery, housed on an renovated farm, is set to open Sept. 1, with the first batch of whiskey to be distilled by next year — which means it'll be 2014 before you get your first bottle.

On the other hand, Ladybank won't be sold to the public, so a maximum of 1,250 members will have dibs on some very exclusive whiskey, though Thomson foresees a small collectors' market. “We're trying to keep the whiskey off the supermarket shelves,” he says.

But he adds, “We dont want to be snobby.” While memberships can be passed down to the next generation, club rules will likely prevent whiskey speculators from buying in, and Thomson hopes members will pay him regular visits.

While they await their Scotch, they'll be able to sample small-batch gin — best enjoyed fresh — from a planned gin still. And Thomson, who honed his Scotch knowledge developing Web sites for major distillers like Glenfiddich and Laphroaig, is building a special bar stocked with other producers' single malts for members to sample when they stop by.

“We couldnt find the perfect small craft distillery to take to the people,” he says, “so we created it.”