SINGAPORE - Flames shoot out of the ground almost to the ceiling, then comes loud hissing from water thrown on fire. Men roll large 500-litre, 110kg oak barrels around the workshop effortlessly, acting all macho for the photos we are snapping of their work. The soundtrack to this dramatic scene is loud, unrelenting hammering.
All of this - the heat, the humidity, the hammering - is a world away from the more genteel act of sipping a dram, by a fireside perhaps or in the cool comfort of a whisky bar if you are closer to the equator, and appreciating the nuances and flavour notes that the casks impart to whisky.
Yet, the hot, sweaty work that happens here at the Tevasa cooperage in this southern Spanish city influences the taste and colour of the Macallan whisky that is aged in the barrels it produces.
Our group of journalists, from Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, has come to look at how the Scottish distillery sources barrels to make its distinctive whiskies, aged in casks that are first seasoned with dry oloroso sherry for 18 months.
Flavour notes of dried fruit, orange, chocolate, nuts and Christmas cake are what people look for when drinking the whisky produced by The Macallan, founded in 1824 and since 1999, owned by the Edrington Group. It is the third biggest-selling single malt by volume, after Glenlivet and Glenfiddich.
The Macallan is one of the most popular whisky brands. It was featured prominently in the 2012 James Bond movie Skyfall.
What has set The Macallan apart is it matures its whisky in sherry-seasoned oak casks that are used no more than twice, and that no colouring is added to its whisky.
In 2004, it introduced the Fine Oak series of whisky, aged in both sherry- seasoned and bourbon-seasoned casks. Trawl through whisky forums and blogs and there was a bit of an uproar. An Edrington executive says it was compared with "the work of the devil" at the time.
Was The Macallan running out of sherry-seasoned casks to age its whisky? Was the cost running too high?
Sherry-seasoned casks cost between €850 (S$1,370) and €900 each. American oak casks used to age bourbon, and which impart vanilla and citrus flavours, run about US$110 each (S$140). American oak casks are much cheaper because by law, bourbon producers in the United States can use them only once.
The trip to Jerez, and then to The Macallan estate, shows that the distillery is not stopping or slowing down its careful sourcing of sherry-seasoned casks.
Sherry casks have been used to age whisky since the 18th century, when the fortified wine was shipped to Europe in them. The discarded barrels were put to good use and it turned out to be a case of serendipity - the drink mellowed and took on flavours that went down well with drinkers. Whisky aged in such casks became a speciality of The Macallan.
Today, it gets supplies from three cooperages, but Tevasa contributes the largest number, 16,000 this year, out of the 22,000 to 25,000 it produces. Its relationship with The Macallan goes back 30 years.
The distiller has already placed an order for more than 15,000 casks for next year and almost 20,000 for 2016.
The ever-increasing order gives Tevasa owner Narciso Fernandez, 55, sleepless nights, not least because it takes about six years to make one barrel.
It begins in Galicia in northern Spain, where Spanish oak or Quercus Robur, is grown. He buys the trees from private land owners or the local government. Laws prevent him from cutting down more than 10 per cent of the trees he owns, to ensure sustainability.
Then comes a long wait - for the logs to be fashioned into staves, for the wood to dry naturally. By the time they make their way to the cooperage in Jerez, their humidity level is no more than 35 per cent. The Macallan insists on natural drying only.
Even in Jerez, tall piles of wood sit in the sun, drying out some more, before they are hauled into the workshop to be turned into barrels. The 50 staff turn out 75 to 78 casks a day, working from 7am to 3pm.
After that, more drying, and then they are sent off to bodegas to be filled with sherry and to then mature for 18 months. The sherry is then used to make vinegar and the empty, seasoned barrels make their way to the distillery in Speyside.
Mr Fernandez and Mr Stuart MacPherson, 50, The Macallan's master of wood, oversee every step of the process. Mr Fernandez says: "I have long discussions with Stuart. It's crazy, the process is too long."
The distillery is sticking to its policy, however. Mr MacPherson says: "Ninety per cent of the Scotch whisky industry uses bourbon casks. Only Edrington focuses on sherry-seasoned ones."
Once the casks are delivered and filled with whisky, the responsibility of blending falls on The Macallan's whisky maker Bob Dalgarno, 49.
The casks are not all the same and the whisky aged in them will differ. His job is to remember the characteristics of the whisky aged in thousands of Macallan barrels and to get the best out of them for bottling. He says: "Know the stock you have and what it can do for you. Every cask has a record of colour and character. Just by looking at the stock, I have a fair idea of wood type and what it will deliver."
And it all goes back to the wood, grown in Galicia, fashioned into barrels and seasoned in sunny Jerez, and then sent to Speyside, where it is given time to work magic on the whisky.
This story first appeared in the September issue of The Life e-magazine.
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This article was first published on November 2, 2014.
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