All aglow for Charlie
Charlie MacLean is one of the whisky world’s leading writers and experts, and this year saw him honoured as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – better known as an MBE – in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Richard Goslan caught up with Charlie at 28 Queen Street to find out about the award and his long-term connection with the SMWS
PHOTOS: MIKE WILKINSON
Charlie in full flow at 28 Queen Street
“It’s a very considerable honour and I’m hardly worthy – but I have served my time,” says Charlie MacLean when I congratulate him on becoming Charles MacLean MBE. And whatever he may think of his own worthiness, there’s no doubt that Charlie has served his time.
He traces his whisky-writing career back to 1981, when he wrote a short pamphlet for Bell’s. With distilleries closing in droves and an unwanted ‘whisky loch’ of spirit, it may have seemed a precarious time to throw in a potential career in the law and turn his back on any relevant qualifications – much to his father’s dismay.
“He was proud that I’d become a lawyer and would introduce me by saying: ‘This is my son Charles, he’s a Writer to Her Majesty’s Signet, don’t you know.’ And I’d say: ‘Dad, I gave up the law three years ago!’ He never quite understood what I’d done.”
Whisky at the time was just one area that Charlie was writing about, but a course in The Sensory Evaluation of Potable Spirits run by Dr Jim Swan and Sheila Burtles at Pentlands Scotch Whisky Research [forerunner of the Scotch Whisky Research Institute] in 1992 was to prove pivotal.
“That course changed my life,” Charlie says. “I had more or less finished my first whisky book, but after the training in sensory evaluation I had to go back and rewrite all my tasting notes!
“Shortly after that, the Society’s then-managing director Richard Gordon asked me to chair the SMWS Tasting Panel. The Panel’s Tasting Notes had always been provocative and exuberant, and my role was to encourage the Panel but rationalise its structure – don’t talk about taste until we have talked about the whisky’s appearance, that kind of thing.”
Charlie had seen the Society develop as a member, drawn to The Vaults in the early 1980s by chat going around Edinburgh about an intriguing new whisky club in Leith, of all places. “I remember going to a 21st birthday party in The Vaults, when it was being restored,” he says.
“There was scaffolding all over the place, and no furniture at all, except for a desk against the back wall with a few bottles. You could go there, meet people, share a dram and then just put your money in an honesty box. At the time, the concept of tasting single cask whisky, at full strength, un-chill filtered and at its natural colour, was a brand-new idea. Brand new! This produce wasn’t available until the Society came along.”
As well as contributing to the Society’s Newsletters, a forerunner of what would develop into Unfiltered magazine, Charlie has been writing consistently about whisky since he started out in 1981, now with 18 books to his name, and more on the way. “I’ve written or updated five books during the lockdown of the past year and a half. The industry has kept me going, but it’s hard to survive by writing.”
Charlie’s reserved seating at 28 Queen Street
Charlie’s MBE specifically mentions his services not only to Scotch and UK exports, but to charity. He has always conducted tastings for various charities, but his most recent enterprise came out of a collaboration with his three sons, and their record-breaking rowing expedition across the Atlantic. Ewan, Jamie and Lachlan MacLean became the first three brothers to row across an ocean, as well as the youngest and fastest trio to cross the Atlantic, more than 3,000 miles from the Canary Islands to Antigua and Barbuda over the course of 35 gruelling days as part of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge in 2019.
“Well, they say that OBE stands for ‘other bugger’s efforts’, and I say that MBE stands for ‘my boys’ efforts’!” laughs Charlie.
“Before they undertook their expedition across the Atlantic they wanted to do a practice row on the west coast of Scotland. They got me to approach all of the distilleries along the way and see if they would donate bottles to the cause, which was for a charity called Feedback Madagascar, which digs wells for the poor people in Madagascar. Along with [Whyte & Mackay master blender] Richard Paterson, I ended up creating two bottlings, one called MacLean’s Pillage and the other MacLean’s Spillage. They went like snow off a dyke and raised more than £200,000. “Now the boys are planning a new expedition, rowing from Australia to Madagascar across the Indian Ocean. It’s more than 4,000 miles and apparently there are 19 species of man-eating sharks out there. I’m trying to dissuade them!”
In the meantime, Charlie’s getting back on the road for the first time in an age, continuing his writing and editing, and looking forward to receiving his MBE at a special ceremony in Edinburgh. “People say to me, you must have the best job in the world, just drinking whisky, talking about it and writing about it. How do you get a job like that? I say practice, practice, practice.”