A Long-awaited Afternoon with Malt Master Charles Maclean
It is always a lovely pleasure to spend a precious afternoon with Charles Maclean, who has gained world-wide acclaim for his expertise in whisky. There are so many things we can learn from the master of malt. But one can never learn the liquid inside the glass without drinking. Therefore today we have the sought-after bottles from Singleton with us. Let’s start the chat with Charles and have a taste of the whisky!
M: Malt & Spirits C: Charles Maclean
M: How did you start your whisky career?
C: I drank whisky from a young age. We all did it in Scotland. I did not like it very much when I was a teenager. I began to write about whisky professionally in 1981 as a freelance copywriter for Bell’s Whisky. During the 80s, by chance again I happened to write a number of jobs for a large number of whisky companies and brands. Until 1988, writing a book was on the back burner but I developed sufficiently interests in writing and passions for Scotch whisky. And now I wish to publish my 17th book on whisky!
M: As a professional judge having commented on numerous whisky, could you share with us some experience of judging whisky?
C: Well, there is a saying in Scotland: there is no bad whisky but good and better ones. I don’t judge a whisky in terms of merely how good or bad it is. If I am judging during a competition or doing an analysis, I will try to do it in the morning. I probably taste around 1,000 samples a year. Most of them are single cask samples. The way how these casks work is the liquid are not fully mature while some cases have went too far. In some cases, they need to be transferred from the old to more active casks. Always remember age is not a guarantee of quality.
When it comes to the evaluation of quality, obviously the aroma and taste of the whisky indicate the performance inside a nosing glass. Most of the works are actually done with the nose. For the skillful blenders, they very much can get all the desired information on the nose. You can also learn a lot from the colour. I often write tasting notes for consumers and therefore I need to taste it. You hold it longer than you usually would. And you plot the balance of 5 primary tastes: sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness and umami. Sweetness tends to be picked up towards the front of the tongue, saltiness and acidity at the sides and bitterness at the back. This job is very intriguing and people always said to me “You have got the best job in the world and how did you get it?” I always replied “Practice.”
M: How do the fine bottles from Singleton taste like, especially the 25 years old?
C: One of the particular truth of Singleton is they can strike a balance between the primary tastes. That’s why I am very fond of their whisky. It has got a bit of everything, very light sweetness, a certain amount of acidity, a touch of saltiness and even a twist of orange peels. The peels keep the whisky fresh when you swallow it. Interestingly, there is also a hint of peppery notes across the tongue in the aftertaste. These are all the things I think about when I taste a whisky. Some whisky can be very close like Singleton 25 years, which takes more time to open up. What I always hope for is a welcoming, cheerful and friendly aroma from a glass of fine whisky. Then I will add a little bit of water which brings up the aroma and I will smell it again. The Singleton 25 years is a highly complex whisky and it is really an experience to have a sip of it.
M: How are the boom of Scottish whisky in Asian market and the changes of the industry?
C: It is truly phenomenal to see how things going particularly in Asia. After a slow start, different Asian countries begin to gather pace. Without a question, Taiwan becomes a leading malt market in Asia and the third biggest one for malt whisky in the world by values. The trend is picking up in Hong and Macau. China’s market also shows significant increase. On the other hand, it is a good thing that the number of new distilleries are surprising. 30 have opened since 2004. Currently there are 33 distilleries being proposed. On top of these, some of the existing distilleries are expanding. The capacity of whisky being produced is unbelievable. This is the third rise of the industry. There were 2 other major growths in history, i.e. 1890s, 1946 to 1976, followed by a savage downturn in 1981. Lots of distilleries were forced to close due to financial reasons. What the status quo and the downfall in common is overproduction. The situation back in the 70s was so serious that it is commonly known as “whisky loch”. This is a huge alarm for the industry nowadays unless China catches up. Someone has to drink the whisky!
M: Apart from traditional whisky producing countries, India, Australia and Taiwan also start to manufacture whisky. What do you think about those emerging countries?
C: Absolutely great. The Scottish whisky did not have many competitors before the emergence of the new markets. All these whisky making countries intent to make whisky in the way they want to taste. It is not about which one is better. In fact they are totally different. The view of the Scottish industry, sounding slightly arrogant, is drinkers always end up in Scotland no matter where you started. If you get to taste whisky, you are certain to taste Scottish ones which can offer wider flavor profile than others.
C: 我小時候已在喝威士忌，蘇格蘭人都是這樣。在我年青的時候，我並不太喜歡威士忌。我在1981年成為自由職業寫手，開始為Bell’s Whisky撰寫關於威士忌的專欄。在80年代，我意外地得到一些為威士忌公司及品牌的寫作機會。出書一直不是我的首要目標直至1988年，但與此同時我已發展了對寫作的興趣及蘇格蘭威士忌的熱忱。而我現在希望出版第17本有關威士忌的書！
C: Singleton出色的地方是它能在不同的味道之間拿捏到平衡，因此我非常喜愛它的威士忌。它的味道豐富，帶有輕輕的甜味、一些酸味、一點鹹味，甚至橙皮的香味，令到口腔中的威士忌能保持新鮮的香氣。在餘韻中更能嚐到些許的黑椒味圍繞著舌頭，為品嚐的過程增添一些趣味。這是全部在品嚐過程中的考慮。有些威士忌，像Singleton 25年，會比較內斂，需要較多的時間去醒酒。我總是期望一杯上好的威士忌有平易近人及令人愉快的香氣，所以我還會加一些水去發揮威士忌的芳香，然後再聞。Singleton 25年是高度複雜的酒，品嚐它是一個令人十分難忘的體驗。
Text : Ching Yeung
Design : Inti Kong
Photos : Hong Leung
Video : Michael Yu, Leo So
Venue : Blueprint