The Macallan’s DAVID COX talks toabout his favourite tipples, spreading the word and being fooled by a fake-whisky scam
HE LOOKS, FROM a distance, like George Martin, and you’re tempted to ask him how he recorded the Beatles. But as he sits for his portrait in the Mariners’ Rest bar at Hullett House in Tsim Sha Tsui, a wee dram of 12-year-old Macallan firmly in his grip, David Cox forces a shy grin and says he suddenly feels like Bill Murray.
“You know, in Lost in Translation,” he explains, meaning the scene in which Murray poses for a Suntory ad, shifting uncomfortably in his seat while mumbling memorised slogans. If Cox feels similar unease, it’s because having to sit still isn’t something he does a lot, not after 23 years in the Scotch whisky business. Yet he says he retains a soft spot for Hong Kong, for it was during his tenure here with Jardine Matheson years ago that he developed his love for whisky while selling it in Asia.
That was before The Macallan in Speyside came a-calling in 1998, and he’s been with the company ever since, initially as global marketing controller and now as director of fine and rare whiskies, which entails traversing the globe extolling the virtues of its best single malts as well as The Macallan’s limited-edition Lalique crystal decanters. He can also explain the ideology behind the small copper stills from which spring these libations, aged either in sherry oak or, since 2004, in fine oak barrels (combining bourbon oak with both American and European sherry casks) – as eloquently as might be expected from an Oxford-educated Englishman living in Scotland.
There’s something I’ve long wondered. Why is it called The Macallan?
No one really knows. My guess is it comes from the late Victorian period, when a lot of brands called themselves “The Something,” which is sort of Victorian hyperbole used to establish their brand – which is why you have “The Glenlivet” or “The Famous Grouse.” I can’t think of any other reason why it was called The Macallan. No one else had a whisky called Macallan, so it wasn’t as though they were trying to distinguish themselves from an imitation.
A lot of bankers I know drink The Macallan, and I tell them they should drink other whiskies, too. It’s like improving your literacy by reading widely. What do you think?
Well, I would be delighted for them to discover more and more whiskies if they need to discover, or rediscover, just how good The Macallan is.
That’s a pretty slick answer. You’re good at this.
I had to think fast for that one.
What’s your personal favourite Macallan?
You know, I always get asked that.
And you always say, “All of them”?
Well, I do, but I know that’s not the answer you want. Honestly, I do like them all. But if you really push me hard…
You would probably say…Talisker!
Very funny. No, the 15-year-old Fine Oak. And the 18-year-old Sherry Oak. I would say those two are very hard to beat.
What do you drink at home, for fun?
I love beer. But if it’s Macallan, I think the 12-year-old is lovely, in both forms. If it’s six or seven o’clock in the evening, it’ll be the Fine Oak, which works better for me as an aperitif, just because of the style of it. And if it’s after dinner, it’ll be the Sherry Oak, which is better as a digestif.
What’s your view of food-matching with whisky?
I think fish goes particularly well with our Fine Oak, but some of the oilier fishes like salmon would go well with the 12- or 15-year Sherry Oak Macallan. If you take the whole spectrum from 12-year-old Fine Oak to 30-year-old Sherry Oak, you’ve got a tremendous range of aromas and flavours, so it would be hard to think of any particular style of food that wouldn’t match somewhere along that flavour spectrum.
Can you explain the process by which whisky is made, in a condensed, easy-to-understand fashion?
Basically, you grind up barley and add hot water – which extracts all the fermentable, soluble sugar – and then add yeast. That ferments and leaves you with something that looks like beer, about eight percent alcohol. And then you put this into what we call a wash still, which typically holds 10,000 to 12,000 litres, boil it up, and this takes the alcohol level up from eight to about 21 percent, and you then put it into a little spirit still and boil it up again and that takes the alcohol level up above 21 percent. This is really the key step, the one that determines the flavour and the style you’re getting. We use the same size of still for all our Macallan whiskies, and they all have exactly the same capacity – they each hold 3,900 litres of spirits. The industry average is more than that because the stills used elsewhere are usually taller.
You read modern history at Oxford, and someone I know in the whisky industry described you as “professorial.”
Is that a good thing or a bad thing, I wonder? In a sense, I am a teacher. I develop the top end for Macallan, but the other hat I wear is as a brand educator – I love sharing the story of Macallan. I feel very passionate about this. I don’t think I could do this job if I didn’t really believe in it. The challenge is how you can try to reduce the complexity of the story.
So as to not intimidate people?
Yes, that’s right. I live and breathe this 24 hours a day, so it’s very easy for me, but you have to step into the shoes of people who don’t know anything about whisky. The average drinker, I think, wants to know simple things: Has somebody taken a lot of time making it? Is it worth paying what I’m being asked to pay? Is it going to give me a wonderful taste experience? And are other people drinking it or is this just a niche thing? If plenty of other people are drinking it, they will think it’s worth drinking as well.
So you’re like an evangelist?
Yes, in a way. But if you call me an “evangelist,” people will start thinking I’m Billy Graham. Perhaps you can call me an advocate – a strong and passionate advocate.
I’m sure you recall how your advocacy was once tested, as mentioned on your company’s Wikipedia page, pertaining to a controversy regarding fake whisky.
Oh yes. We got our fingers badly burnt. We bought quite a few antique bottles in good faith in the auction market, and suspicions were raised not long after I’d got involved with Macallan. I thought we needed to do some due diligence because we’d spent a lot of money on these bottles, so I got two really interesting people to come up to the distillery. One was a forensics paper historian, to look at the paper, and the other was the head of European glass and ceramics at Sotheby’s, to look at the glass. They looked at our collection of old bottles, all of which dated back to the 19th century, and they said, “Yup, the label paper is genuinely old, for that period, and so is the glass.” And I thought, “Interesting. OK, now we need to find out what’s in the bottle.”
And how did you do that?
We got a hypodermic syringe and put it into the bottle, extracting a tiny amount. This was done with a random selection of bottles, and we sent them down to Oxford University, which is one of three places in England which has a radio-carbon accelerator that uses carbon-14 degradation over a period of time to get the age of anything, whether it be a piece of wood or a piece of hair. And what they discovered was that the whisky actually dated back to some time after the 1950s. This was a scam which originated in Italy and we knew who had done it, but we couldn’t prove it. So we did all we could – we publicised our results and we emptied all the whisky out from that collection.
That must have hurt.
Yes, it kind of hurt. What we then had was a lovely collection of genuine old Macallan bottles, but all of them empty. We’ve still got the bottles. Someone had cleverly refilled them and put an old wax seal across the top. So it was an expensive lesson for us. Caveat emptor, as always. We should’ve been more careful, I suppose. But I think that we did the industry a favour, because we were the only people, to my knowledge, who had ever gone through that exercise. It had to be us.
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