Master of Wood

With more than four decades in the Scotch whisky industry, it has been quite a journey for Stuart MacPherson. As he calls time on his role as Macallan’s Master of Wood, Unfiltered editor Richard Goslan caught up with Stuart to find out more about his life’s work


It could all have been so different for Stuart MacPherson. There he was, an athletic young schoolboy, with his sights set on continuing his studies to become a Physical Education teacher. And then whisky came along…

In his case it was simply as a summer job during his school holidays in 1979, earning a bit of money working in a cooperage owned by Robertson and Baxter. But amidst the hammering of hoops and the toasting of oak staves, something took hold with Stuart’s imagination – and any thoughts of teaching were soon shelved.

“I became fascinated with the industry, and when I went back to school after the summer holidays, I thought, ‘Do I really want to go back for another two years and then another four years at university?’” he says. “I signed my trade papers to start my apprenticeship in January 1980 with Clyde Cooperage [a subsidiary of Robertson and Baxter], at a time when the industry was quite buoyant.”

Stuart might have been forgiven for having second thoughts about his career choice not long afterwards, given how precarious life quickly became for every aspect of the Scotch whisky industry in the early 1980s.

Distilleries such as Port Ellen, Brora and St Magdalene were among those that closed down during the course of 1983 (the very year The Scotch Malt Whisky Society saw opportunity amidst the swelling ‘whisky lochs’ and set up operations from The Vaults in Leith).

“There was a huge cutback in coopers, and although I had my apprenticeship there was a nervousness about having a job once it finished,” says Stuart.

“Thankfully I was kept on and at that time we were then able to get other work from other companies who didn’t have cooperages attached to them, so we saw this growth in the future.

“It wasn’t the last time I wondered if I’d made the right decision, but if I look back now over my 43 years, I could never have envisaged in 1979 the opportunities that I’ve had, so I’m extremely grateful for that.”


Those opportunities ramped up when Stuart hung up his tools to move into management, and by early 2000 he was running Edrington’s cooperages. In 2012 that role became the position for The Macallan known as Master of Wood, previously held by George Espie until his retirement.

“It was a kind of culmination of everything I’d done, between the apprenticeship, coopering, the management side of it, to pass that knowledge on from a brand perspective and to understand what wood can do to influence character, colour and flavour,” says Stuart. “By 2016 I’d introduced an audit team into our area to work with our cask suppliers and bodegas to really drive that focus and attention onto the casks that we were having made to our specifications.”

That mission to develop relations with the cooperages of Spain has been central to Stuart’s role, ensuring the supply of consistent casks that have been constructed and seasoned according to The Macallan’s requirements.

“One of the first changes I looked at making was in having much stronger relationships and partnerships with cask manufacturers,” says Stuart. “From the point of view of spirit development, I would always be looking for new casks – they offer so much more in value, flavour and character. If you look at ex-solera bodega casks, after 40 or more years they’re basically inert vessels and they’re not going to have much impact from a spirit development perspective.

“We would always prefer to use a new cask seasoned with oloroso sherry at around 18% abv, rather than an older one. You’ve probably got two or three fillings of quality out of that new cask, as opposed to a limited value in older casks. Being able to provide guarantees about longer-term contracts allowed the suppliers we were working with to purchase wood in advance, allowed them to air dry it, and allowed us to specify toasting temperatures.”


That sense of control and consistency was essential when considering the length of time it would take to end up with the required style of cask to finally end up in Scotland to mature whisky.

“We talk about acorn to glass, and from felling a tree through the drying process, the cask manufacturing and the seasoning process could take between five and six years,” says Stuart. “Then you are looking at, let’s say, a 12-year-old product. We were having to try and manage and forecast what we would need to purchase in terms of wood. That’s the reality about the time, the effort and the commitment that companies put into the whole development of liquid.”

Stuart says his focus has always been more on European oak, along with the challenges of really understanding the different influences and impact between European and American oak.

“It’s very much about the style and flavour character that you’re looking for,” he says. “If you’re looking for something that’s lighter in colour, a sweeter vanilla citrus style, then that’s more of a driver towards [American oak] Quercus alba. If you’re looking for sherry bombs that have much more dried spice and chocolatey flavours, then that’s more driven by [European oak] Quercus robur. But then you’re looking at toasting temperatures, about how you break down these chemical compounds within these species of timber to drive flavour and colour.

“The biggest single influences on spirit development, in my opinion, are not only in wood species but in toasting temperatures. They go hand in hand. With research and development, you can start to influence not only the flavour characteristics, but also the colour. That’s why making casks to our own specifications rather than buying them off the shelf was such a benefit for us.”


As he retires from his role as Master of Wood at The Macallan, Stuart can reflect on some unforgettable moments on his journey – none better than spending time in Jerez in the heart of Spain’s sherry triangle.

“Jerez de la Frontera is a magical part of the country, and I would always encourage anyone who has an interest and a passion in whisky or sherry to go and visit,” he says. “Sitting in a bar in Jerez, having a whisky and knowing that the casks that these suppliers have made for us have then produced these wonderful liquids, is amazing. These people have put a lot of time and effort into developing the casks and then through our working relationships we have produced this product. That’s the most rewarding side of it. It’s not something you’ve just created in the last few years. It’s been a journey.”

And retirement doesn’t necessarily mean that Stuart’s whisky journey is over.

“It’s very difficult to walk away from spending a lifetime in Scotch whisky and not to be involved,” he says. “I don’t think you ever walk away from this industry, to be quite honest with you, and if I can help others, then that would be a great honour.”

“That’s the most rewarding side of it. It’s not something you’ve just created in the last few years. It’s been a journey.”

Stuart MacPherson