Q&A With Charles Maclean

World Scotch Whisky Expert | 0 Comments

Charles MacleanIntroducing Charles Maclean

Charles Maclean is a writer whose special subject is Scotch whisky, about which he has published ten books to date, including the standard work on whisky brands, Scotch Whisky and the leading book on its subject, Malt Whisky, both of which were short-listed for Glenfiddich Awards.

He has been labeled as Scotland’s foremost whisky expert by many publications including both The Times and Independent newspapers in the United Kingdom.

Charles shared his point of view about various subjects – and particularly his favourite subject, whisky – with EDE ONLINE.


• How is your personality reflected in your line of work? What personality traits do you think are important for this vocation?

I drink whisky for a living! I also write about is and talk about it around the world, so it’s not just ‘drinking for the sake of it’.

So the first ‘personality trait’ is a strong liver! Second is boundless curiosity about my chosen subject. I have been researching and writing about Scotch for 30 years, and never tire of new discoveries. Whisky is essentially convivial – to be shared – and this is another essential.

• Who was/is your mentor?

I was trained in ‘The Sensory Evaluation of Potable Spirits’ at what is now the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (part of Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh) in 1992. My mentors there were Dr. Jim Swan and Mrs Sheila Birtles. Subsequently, I owe a great deal to many people in the whisky industry – too many to list, but I would single out Dr. Nicholas Morgan for special praise.

• Describe your idea of the perfect whisky experience.

With good friends. On a yacht off the West Coast of Scotland. On a warm but breezy afternoon. After a lobster lunch.

• What do you consider to be one of your most important learning experiences?

Cruising on the West Coast

Charles MacleanProfessional

• What 10 whiskies would you currently recommend to experienced whisky drinkers?

I couldn’t possibly say. I am privileged to be asked to evaluate around 1000 whiskies a year – mainly samples from individual casks. Most are good; some are fantastic.

• What 10 whiskies would you recommend to neophytes?

I wouldn’t presume to guide. Individual tastes, the time of day, the situation, the company all come into play. I suggest the ‘neophyte’ goes into a well-stocked bar with 3 friends. Each should order a different whisky – in a nosing glass (v. important: not a standard tumbler). All should smell and taste each whisky; add a little water and repeat. Discuss the aromatic and taste characteristics. Then do it again and again until they fall over. [Oops, not allowed to say that!]

• What are the ‘key’ ingredients to your personal success?

A love of life. A strong constitution. An ability to write. A good nose. Luck. And good friends.

• In the context of the current international market – with many high-quality whiskies being produced outside of Scotland – what do you perceive as the biggest challenges or what trends do you think will emerge within the Scottish whisky industry to compete with overseas producers?

Scotch whisky had its best year for sales in its entire 500YO+ history in 2010, and it is certain that 2011 will be even better. Categories of drinks, as with all consumer goods are vulnerable to fashion, price, etc., but the history of Scotch so far indicates remarkable resilience. Boom periods lead to over-production, then a change in fashion or a hike in tax, causes a down turn. But Scotch still thrives.

Ultimately this is because of its flavour. Not an easy taste to acquire – unlike lesser spirits like vodka – but hugely rewarding and varied once acquired. The most complex spirit upon Earth.

Non-Scotch whiskies (as we term them) are not better or worse, they are different. All are made with great craft, skill and attention to detail. Their success is to be welcomed. It builds the whole whisky category.

At the moment, Scotch is so far ahead in terms of volume and value sales that its unchallengeable. I think this is unlikely to change. Other categories of spirits – rum or brandy, for example – may become more fashionable, but not a real threat.

• Excluding Scottish labels, which whiskies do you personally find the most palatable?

See above. The flavour profiles are all different

• How has the drinking culture of whisky evolved in the past decade?

Greater connoisseurship. A huge growth in interest in single malts – which display wider taste spectra. Massive growth in whisky clubs and whisky fairs – all over the world. Sharing and discussing, in person and online.

Charles MacleanLifestyle

• Can you name five items that you always keep in your fridge at home?

Milk. Butter. Bacon. Eggs. White wine. Gin. That’s six!

• Besides writing and talking about whisky what are your interests or hobbies?

Cooking. Shooting (game). Sailing and boating. Fishing. Lunching.

• The green/organic lifestyle: how important is it to you personally and to the whisky industry?

It is vitally important to the whisky industry – if for no other reasons than economic. Diageo’s new distillery at Roseisle is state-of-the-art in terms of energy re-use and low carbon foot-print. The whole industry is fanatically ‘green conscious’.

I don’t give it a thought. I have always lived in a green/organic way, in terms of diet, purchasing, etc. Mrs Maclean looks after all the nonsense about light bulbs and separating garbage.

• If you could choose your last food and beverage experience in life what would it include?

Depends on what time of day I was to be hanged! But my departure feast, with best friends, would be: lobster, roast grouse and Mrs Maclean’s French apple pie, with Alsace wines from Humbrecht  and Bordeaux from Lafitte, and whisky from… v. difficult, and to do with great memories: Talisker, Springbank, Highland Park, Lagavulin, Royal Lochnagar, Macallan, Glenlivet…After all these I would feel no pain!

Charles MacleanPassion

• What inspires you and influences your work?

Duty, and also a joyous approach to each day, every one of which is different. And I look forward to lunch…

• How did you become a whisky expert?

Steady practice…

• Who in the world would you most like to share a dram with?

Tonight, Ernest Hemmingway and Scott Fitzgerald. No doubt the choice will change tomorrow.

• What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment to date?

Survival on my own terms.

• What advice would you give to your younger self if you could?

Don’t waste time studying law. Have more sex. Don’t worry so much about what the future holds – ‘all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.’

Whisky Max