#AskWhisky Q&A with expert Charles Maclean – Part One

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Given his thirty years experience in the industry, there’s few things whisky-related that make it past Charles Maclean unnoticed.

A widely-respected expert on the amber nectar that we call our national drink, his credentials certainly check out. He’s a Master of the Quaich, the highest accolade in the whisky industry, for one and has even made a cameo appearance as himself leading a whisky tasting in the feel-good hit film, The Angel’s Share.

So, we couldn’t let Whisky Month pass without asking Charles some of your burning questions via the hashtag #AskWhisky. Novice and whisky enthusiast alike, you pitched questions in your droves. And because of Charles’ enthusiasm, we’ve decided to do this Q&A in two-parts! See what he had to say to your questions below.
 

Question: How many different whiskies do you think you have tasted during your life? (Heather Anderson @TheShrub)
Charles Maclean: Last time I counted, I reckoned I had to evaluate around 1000 samples a year. My maths is not up to working out how many that is over a lifetime!

Q: What is the oldest single bottle of whisky in Scotland today? And how much do you want a dram of it? (Jonny Geddie @JonnyGeddie)
CM: The current oldest bottles are both 70 years old and both from Gordon & Macphail – a Mortlach and a Glenlivet. I have tasted both and they are sublime!

Q: In your opinion, what is the best value whisky on the market which doesn’t break the bank or the most underrated? (Jamie Mackay @JamieMackay82)
CM: Malt or blend? Some of the supermarket own-label bottlings used to be very good value, but I’m not sure what they’re like now. Sorry, Jamie, this is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

Q: What whisky would you recommend to someone who is a whisky novice? (Lesley M @That_Red)
CM: The traditional way in was with blends, then gentle malts (Speyside, Lowland), then pungent Islays. In recent years, bold novices leap to the Islays – Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Bowmore – or spicy Talisker. Some tell me they don’t like whisky, but these [people] are a whole different category. Ask a good bartender! There are SO many styles/flavours out there!

Stacks of whisky casks © Scotch Whisky Association
Q: What’s your most memorable dram? (Kenny Ritch @kennyritch)

CM: Oh dear, there are so many. One which stands out, and which well exemplifies the importance of occasion and company was a very ordinary blended Scotch. I honestly can’t remember its name, and have never seen it since – I bought in an early-opening grocer’s shop and took it as a gift for a friend who had invited me to fish on the River Tweed. It was late November, and bitterly cold. By the time the light faded around 4pm, we were chilled to the marrow. But someone had caught a salmon so morale was high. We returned to the fishing hut, got the paraffin lamps going, began to thaw out beside the stove and divided the bottle between the six of us. Everyone said it was the best whisky they had ever tasted. I kept my mouth shut, but enjoyed it as much as they did!

Q: What’s the best way to drink a good whisky? Water? Ice? Neat? (Gary K. McCormick @WillotheGlen and Sherry Kovalchik on Facebook)
CM: For enjoyment, the best way is entirely up to you – ice, soda, lemonade, coke, ginger ale, although hopefully not in a fine single malt. For appreciation? The glass is essential – it should have a bowl to swirl the liquid, and the rim should narrow to direct the aroma up your nose: a white wine glass is fine; best is the ‘Glencairn Glass’ (Google it). No to ice (it closes down the aroma); yes to water (it opens up the aroma and makes it easier to taste the whisky). How much water depends on you and how strong the sample is.

Q: Is it appropriate to open up a blend with a drop of water, or is that just for single malt? (Craig Ising @craigising)
CM: Yes. I drink blended Scotch for pleasure (malt for work!) and add quite a bit of water. In Japan, they add lots!

Q: Does the grain whisky in a blend add anything to the flavour or does flavour only come from the mix of malts? (Jane Sommerville @TheGiantTeacup)
CM: The role of grain whisky in a blend is underestimated. It is not neutral spirit; as well as adding sweetness, it binds together the flavours coming from the malt constituents, alters them and marries them together.

Q: What’s the best mixer for a malt whisky? (tom mcgroggan @tmg83)
CM: A matter of personal taste. I don’t like to use any mixer with malt. But Dave Broom’s new book Whisky: The Manual rates each whisky with soda, ginger ale, cola, coconut water and green tea (i.e. the commonest mixers around the world). I am going to experiment!

And that’s your lot for this #AskWhisky Q&A. Stayed tuned on Monday 12th May for the second part. Maybe Charles will be answering your question?

In the meantime, start enjoying* whisky at lots of different events and festivals this Whisky Month and share snaps of your whisky experiences using #whiskymonth and #brilliantmoments hashtags. You can also find us on all the usual social channels, including FacebookTwitterInstagram and Google+.

Until Monday, SLÁINTE!

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*Find out more information on how to drink responsibly.

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David Walsh

David is a Media Editor at VisitScotland. You'll most likely find him vagabonding around Scotland with a camera in hand; that or a dram of the finest single malt.