Sietse Offringa, The Macallan Head of Education, on the myths about whisky he’d love to dispel

Leading Scotch whisky brand The Macallan earlier this year launched the Quest Collection for global travel retail, and Head of Education for The Macallan Sieste Offringa was in town to unveil the series of four different single malt whiskies that show off the distillery’s cask-aging styles.

For those not familiar with Sietse, his father Hans Offringa is an internationally acclaimed whisky writer – he wrote, for example, “A Field Guide to Whisky: An Expert Compendium to Take Your Passion and Knowledge to the Next Level” – so he’s literally born into whisky royalty and cut his teeth on whisky at an early age. He became a brand ambassador for The Macallan in 2011, and is a fixture at WSET speaking about whisky.

We grabbed him on the sidelines of the launch to ask him about many things, including the myths about whisky he’d love to dispel in his role as Head of Education at The Macallan.

Your father Hans (Offringa) is a prolific whisky writer, and that must have been a huge impact on your life and interest in whisky. What did you learn from him?

Sietse Offringa: When your father’s home is filled with interesting books and compelling bottles carrying unpronounceable names, it distils a certain interest in the mythical. I was enthralled by what lay behind that wide variety of colour and shapes, and as soon as I hit a responsible age, my father provided effective education. We sat down together, and he introduced me to the vast landscape of aroma and taste in whisky.

We’re jealous – part of that education must have involved following your father around visiting distilleries in Scotland.

We travelled to Scotland and visited distilleries to learn and appreciate. Amongst the teaching and reading about whisky, dad taught me a very valuable lesson: “Whenever you visit a distillery, or try a new whisky, treat it as if it was your first. Only then will your eyes be open to its character.”

I exercise that lesson every day still and must admit this helps me enjoy the world of whisky even more. In 2006, he introduced me to Master Distiller Jim McEwan. I spent a month under his care and mentorship which fuelled the passion for whisky even more.

The love for The Macallan is one dad and I share – he has visited Easter Elchies Estate (pictured above) numerous times and owns his own cask, gently maturing in our warehouses. And I’ve been privileged to work for them for over six years now.

So… what exactly does a Head of Education at The Macallan do?

As Head of Education, I engage our Brand Ambassador community to ensure they feel confident in their work and can progress throughout our company. They also provide our company with valuable feedback from their markets. I collate that information and bring it back to our team.

On top of that, I sit in the Global Brand Team to work the messaging of our whiskies. What do we create? Why do we do this and what does that mean for you? Those are questions I would try and answer every day.

Furthermore, we have a new distillery that opens in June 2018. In the run up towards that, I am training our new staff that will take care of you when you come and visit us!

You were in Singapore for the launch of the Macallan Quest collection. Where do you think that fits into the overall Macallan range?

The Macallan Quest Collection is an exploration of flavour. It guides your through our wood philosophy – why we’ve picked specific casks to mature our whisky and obtain certain flavours. Maturation delivers up to 80% of the final flavour of a whisky, and 100% of our natural colour. Therefore, the cask has an immense impact on what The Macallan ultimately tastes like. A sherry seasoned cask made from American oak, for instance, imparts flavours of fresh fruits and vanilla to a whisky, whereas a sherry seasoned cask from European oak provides the whisky with the taste and aroma of dried fruits and spices.

The Macallan Quest Collection begins with Quest, a lively and fresh example of American oak influence that peaks people’s curiosity. As the range progresses the whisky gets increasingly darker in colour and richer in flavour with Lumina and Terra. The completion of the journey is Macallan Enigma, which goes beyond them all in richness and complexity. That is the result of very active, first fill European oak sherry seasoned casks. Those casks really form to the heart of The Macallan.

There are probably quite a number of myths surrounding The Macallan that you want to help dispel. Can you name three such myths and what you plan to do to educate people about them?

Let’s take these myths in a broader context, since I believe there are some big misunderstandings about whisky that I’d love to set right.

Myth One: whisky should only be drunk neat.

I’ve met countless people who insist that single malt whisky should only be consumed straight without anything added. In fact, when I just started working in the industry, I was convinced that whisky should only be enjoyed neat.

The only answer to the question of ‘How should you drink your whisky?’ is: ‘Just the way you like it’. – Sietse Offringa, Head of Education for The Macallan

However, if you truly want to appreciate a variety of flavours I would encourage everyone to add water to their whisky. That opens the bouquet of aromas and makes it easier to taste the intricacies of flavour differences. If you want to add ice, please do. This can really make your whisky more enjoyable on a hot day or before dinner, for instance.

Whisky cocktails can be phenomenal as well! When put together by an expert bartender – one who treats all the ingredients of his drink with utmost care and has a very specific purpose for them –  a sip of a cocktail can change your perception of taste. Give it a try, please.

The only answer to the question of ‘How should you drink your whisky?’ is: ‘Just the way you like it’.

Myth Two: whisky is a man’s drink.

This frustrates me. When it comes to appreciating whisky, it is all about flavour. Flavour is personal, and we all have our preferences. These are tied to our own memories and experiences, not to gender. Moreover, it has been biologically and psychologically proven that women are actually better at recognising and describing flavour than men.

We still have a long way to go, but we do see an increasing amount of female whisky professionals such as our own Whisky Maker Sarah Burgess. And throughout my travels I see a growing number of women enjoying whisky (my wife Lisa loves the drink as well – even before we met!). Open your arms, whisky lovers, and let’s share this drink with everyone. Whisky brings people together and is a drink that belongs to the world in its entirety.

Myth Three: the older the whisky, the better.

An archaic opinion that is miles from the truth. There are fantastic whiskies that have matured in 8 years, and horrible whiskies of 42 years old. Age, on its own, is a number that indicates scarcity and the length of maturation.

You need to know far more about a whisky to understand its quality. The spirit itself is significant. And the casks that have been used to mature it have an even greater impact on whisky quality. Furthermore, we should acknowledge the skill of the Whisky Maker that puts the contents of those casks together.

But let’s focus on the core truth of this: the only person that knows how good a whisky is, is the one who drinks it. And that’s you.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing The Macallan, and the greater whisky industry as a whole, in this new paradigm of whisky?

The biggest challenge for us at The Macallan is to meet the demand! Due to the scarce nature of whisky, that needs to mature to gain character, we have limited stock to bottle. First and foremost, we want to create The Macallan that everybody loves without concessions. Thus, we can only create as much as our distillery allows us to do. With our new distillery opening in June 2018 we are increasing our capacity by 30%, testament to our firm believe in the future of whisky – we expect the world to enjoy it even more.

I believe the industry challenge is to grow towards a more sustainable future. The Scotch Whisky Industry has one of the highest targets when it comes to sustainability. This covers renewable energy, packaging and sustainable land use. The industry must hit a target of 80% sustainability.

As a distillery, The Macallan is ahead of the industry target and in a leading position. For example, we’ve invested £25 million in a biomass plant on site to source renewable energy and provide electricity for us. Looking further ahead, we will have updated figures after the opening of our new distillery in June 2018. Please come and visit us in Scotland to see it for yourselves!

Let’s talk a little about globalisation of whisky, especially in the context of The Macallan – you’re Dutch, and master distiller Nick Savage is English, for example. What do you think that means for the future of Scotch whisky?

Let’s start at the beginning here, whisky was brought to Scotland by Irish monks! In all seriousness though, globalisation surpasses our industry. We see and feel this every day around us, in multiple ways. Communication between different continents and time zones, available produce in supermarkets and the ease of travel we experience are just three examples. To me, it feels only natural that companies include people from diverse cultural backgrounds. This only helps us understand the world and to become better at working together.

Your top three favourite drams. What are they?

First of all: I appreciate the variety of whisky and we keep about 100 different open whiskies at home, to suit every occasion. I appreciate single malt whiskies and blends, but also whisky from the United States, Japan, Ireland and more. There’s so much to be enjoyed that it’s tough to make a top three (and that wouldn’t do justice to the other tasty drams). Having said all that, I’ll give you three of my current favourites.

The Macallan Terra, which was my wedding whisky and signifies the harmony of two coming together. More importantly, I love the balanced taste of sherry seasoned casks from both European and American Oak. They provide succulent layers of dried and tropical fruits, spices and sweetness.

Cutty Sark Blended Scotch – this is a go-to any time I’m cooking. I love a Scotch and soda when I’m preparing food. The freshness of Cutty Sark with the palate-cleansing sparkle of soda water sets the mood.

The Macallan Reflexion. This smells like a warehouse. Every time I nose a glass of Reflexion, I’m back at Easter Elchies Estate walking our distillery grounds and opening the warehouse doors. When you walk through there, you feel, touch and live the smell of oak, dried fruits, sherry and whisky. It is very powerful and those aromas are the heart of The Macallan. Reflexion always takes me to that place, which makes me feel very happy indeed!

Your favourite whisky and food pairing.

There are fantastic combinations of whisky and food! As with favourite whiskies, I enjoy a great diversity of different pairings.

Let’s stick to one example this time. Quite recently, I enjoyed a whisky cocktail of The Macallan Double Cask 12 Years Old with dry amontillado sherry and ginger ale. This was a great aperitif, but became even more delicious paired with a bowl of fresh cockles in a tomato-chili sauce. There are so many ways to go with this, but if you would like to try it easy I recommend a Macallan Lumina with white chocolate truffles.



[Cover photo credit: Joel Lim Photography]