Charles MacLean knows just how to put Scotch into words—he’s spent 30 years writing about and researching his country’s most famous product, and served as founding editor of Whisky magazine. While in India to launch Talisker’s 25- and 30-year-old single malts, MacLean told Lounge about nosing glasses and whisky in the time of recession. Edited excerpts:
Do you remember your first taste of Scotch?
Do it right: MacLean swirls, smells and tastes malt in a nosing glass.
I can remember my first taste of malt whisky—in 1968, when I was 17. At school and university my best friend was a chap called Charlie Grant, his father was the owner of the Glenlivet distillery, who gave me a taste of Glenlivet. Malt whisky in those days was rare. The rediscovery of malt whisky is a relatively recent phenomenon, even in Scotland; around the 1980s. Right from 1880, all malt whisky went into blended Scotch, and you couldn’t really get single malt. Glenfiddich began to be promoted as a single malt in the 1960s.
How has the recession affected single malts?
The demand for super-premium, very old whiskies was till recently driven by Russia, China and Taiwan. Now they’re not buying as eagerly and freely as even last year. But malt whisky is doing extraordinarily well in the recession. I was talking to a friend who is the owner of Glenfarclas. His UK sales are up 71% this year. I was in Germany and the Netherlands talking to distributors and they couldn’t believe they had had the best Christmas selling top-end stuff.
Is there any whisky-related apparatus you carry around?
No, but if there was, it would be a nosing glass. Most bars will serve whisky in an Old Fashioned glass which is hopeless for appreciating malt. What you need is a nosing glass, which looks like a white wine glass—it’s got a bowl, and the rim narrows slightly. The appreciation of malt is largely done with the nose. Flavour is a combination of smell and taste. So you want a glass which you can swirl and with a narrow rim to direct the aroma up your nose.
Is there a way beginners can teach themselves to appreciate malts?
Taste lots and lots of whisky. Go to a bar which has got a number of whiskies—malts, blended, and Indian. Nose them in the proper glasses and taste them. First of all, are they the same? No. Then you start to concentrate on the smells and characteristics of each one. In blended Scotch it’s difficult to put words to the smell, while malts are distinctive. Ideally find a bar that has the Speyside style which is sweet and rich, the Islay style which is smoky. Talisker is a great one to put in the mix, because it’s got this noticeable character which is maritime—seaweedy, lightly smoky, like being on a beach, and some chilli pepper when you swallow. So sample two-three whiskies with friends and let your imagination go. “What am I smelling, what does it remind me of?” This association of ideas have all got to do with memory. The part of the brain that collects smells plugs straight into the part of the brain which is the seat of memory. I’ve been at tastings where people have smelled and tasted whisky and tears have come to their eyes. It’ll take them back to a family event or sweets which they have had as children, of fireworks parties, Christmas time, the inside of their grandfather’s car.
What are some of the strange terms you have heard to describe malts?
I use some pretty strange ones myself. Sometimes on the beach in Scotland you find bodies of guillemots—birds which live out on the ocean. Their feathers are very oily and there’s a smell of that oil in dead guillemot. So when I say dead guillemot, it’s not decaying flesh but oily feathers. When I’m running tasting panels, people say, “Hmmm, fruity.” And I say, “Great, is it fresh fruit, dried fruit, tinned fruit, citric fruit or cooked fruit?” “Hmmm, it’s probably slightly citric.” “Ok are we talking limes, lemons, grapefruit perhaps, pineapple?” There’s not the same tradition or history describing whisky, as there is with wine, so it’s great fun trying to do it.