Charles MacLean: ‘Whisky is the soul of Scotland’

Charles MacLean is a personality: friendly, eloquent, slightly dandy, radiating a huge passion for whisky which he has expressed  in many books, countless nosings & tastings and, of course, his role as whisky guru Rory MacAllister in the illustrious film The Angels Share. I could not think of a better location for an interview with Charles than his own tasting room in Hillend House, near Edinburgh. Here, we talk about his passions, important developments in the whisky world, the WFNN of course, and the fact that his work is sometimes less romantic than people think.

By Johan Brouwer/Whisky Events

‘Whisky is the soul, the spirit of Scotland. I feel this soul very strongly inside of me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for independence. But the history of Scotland fascinates me. Also because my family and my ancestors have already been part of it for such a long time. The lines of my clan can be traced back to the 14th century. Its roots go back even further: to the founding fathers of Ireland, 40 centuries ago. Of course, the further you go back in time, the more mythical it gets. It is fascinating to stand in this line. ‘

‘ In 1981, I started to write about whisky for the first time. It was for a small campaign for Bell’s around Christmas time. This was an important step for me. I attracted a lot of clients in the whisky world. For me, it was a perfect way to learn more about whisky and all that goes with it. Glenmorangie and Macallan were among the new clients. And it went on. A milestone was an assignment from the Distillers Company, which brought a lot of blended whiskies on the market. I was asked to make a training booklet for the staff to make them aware of all the brands and their history. I then realized how incredibly important whisky is for Scottish history, both socially, culturally and economically. ‘

‘ My first book on whisky was published by the end of the 1980s. It was about single malts and blends. History and the production process were, of course, central topics. The year 1992 was very important for me. At the time, a cousin of mine was working as a brand manager for MacAllen. He was invited to participate in a training of the Pentland Scotch Whisky Research Institute about sensory evaluation. It was about experiencing  and reviewing whisky in its essence. My cousin was not able to participate, and I was invited to take his place. This training changed my life and view on whisky forever. I learned to distinguish a lot of different scents and combinations of scents.’

‘ This training was a true eye-opener for me. I learned a lot thanks to the systematic approach and methodologies. There is one thing that I remember in particular: one evening I smelled whisky remnants that had been collected in a bucket and, and in this explosion of aromas, I managed to distinguish a large number of individual fragrances. Practicing is very important. And acquiring more knowledge on whisky is great. But there is a lot that we will never fully understand. A lot of what happens in the pot stills and casks will always remain a mystery. And that is how it should be. It is an essential part of the whole magic of whisky. ‘

‘ There is, of course, a lot going on in the whisky world. There is more mass production now and the production methods have changed. The use of steam-driven heating pot stills instead of direct fire heating has a clear influence. And automated  and computer-controlled production methods make the production process less traditional. The process (both fermentation and distillation) is faster now, which may sometimes result in less rich and complex whiskies. I think that is a pity. But there are also a lot of advantages, especially as far as taste consistency is concerned. The increased knowledge, compared to the past, about what happens in the casks makes it possible to make more targeted choices. And it is good to see the rising of many new distilleries (36 during the last 10 years) and single malts, which all have their own unique character. They create more variety and can meet increasing demands.’

‘ I never really consciously plan my life and do not really have a clear idea about what will happen in the next few years. This might surprise some people. And my life is less romantic than people think. I work very hard and travel a lot. Hotel rooms can get boring at times. And sometimes the pressure is high. People have high expectations and I have to comply with them. But whatever happens in the next few years, my passions are and will remain the judging and experiencing of whisky and its history. That will definitely be the connecting thread. ‘

‘I have said it many times before: the Whisky Festival of the Northern Netherlands is, as far as I am concerned, the most beautiful and friendliest festival in the world. Groningen is an attractive and pleasant city. Once I cycled through the city with my friend Gerrit Duit, an unforgettable experience. The most important thing is that the festival is not commercial. It should stay like that. It is a true feast for everybody, with an incomparable and unbeatable atmosphere, for people like me, the exhibitors and the visitors. That is what makes this festival truly unique. It is wonderful to see that in March it will be celebrating its tenth edition. I have been there from the very beginning and will be there as long as I can!