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A Man Who 'Nose' His Whisky

Contributor:
Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

It's not widely known but in France they drink more Scotch whisky in a month than they do cognac in a year. For Scottish born Charles MacLean it's quirky facts like that which have him smiling. One of the world's leading whisky writers, MacLean has tracked the phenomenal increase in whisky drinking around the world over the last 30 years.

He is constantly amazed at the growth in the industry.

"In 1978 the Macallan Single Highland Malt scotch whisky had a promotions budget of 50 pounds. It is now millions and millions of pounds. Where once they just had one expression they now have around 20 at any one time," says MacLean.

The other stats are just as intriguing. According to MacLean, "There have been four times as many books published between 1980 and now as there were between 1640 and 1980. The sixth and last book by the late whisky writer Michael Jackson listed 1,500 tasting notes. His first , 18 years earlier, described just 120."

Northern Europeans are the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable consumers of Scotch malt whisky at the moment and MacLean says he believes it's because it's seen there as a "sexy" drink.

"It's everyone from bikers to businessman and they all share a passion for whisky particularly malt whisky."

MacLean says the industry is seeing huge growth in China and India because of the increasing levels of disposable income. Russia and Brazil are the next economies poised on the edge of the vat.

The New Zealand market is considered a bit more "robust" than those in Europe, and maybe not as "pretty" but MacLean says it's still a very appreciative audience.

What constitutes flavour and how aroma profiles develop is a source of intrigue for MacLean.

"The area of the brain that registers smells is the most ancient part of our brains. It's so old it's almost, scientists have described as, reptilian - evolving before we became mammals. It's also the seat of memory and emotion and that's why smells can trigger memories as far back as early childhood," he says.

"When you are trying to describe a smell you reach for images and often on a tasting panel people with come up with the name of long lost sweeties that were available over 30 years ago."

One particular flavour profile reminds him of his grandfather's motorcar and brings back memories of feeling carsick among the strong smell of leather, rubber and hints of exhaust fumes.

"Springbank Whisky Distillers have expressions that typically smell of coal smoke and bring flash backs of steam trains, others are cooking smells that evoke Christmas particularly, fireworks and even maritime smells."

MacLean's 10th and newest book, Whiskypedia explores the flavour and character of very malt whisky distilled in Scotland with a reference to how it's made.

He says that like wine, each whisky's characteristic is a harmony of different chords. Everything plays its part from the terroir or region where it is made, the distilling equipment itself, and each stage of the process.

MacLean "fell" into whisky writing after a protracted stay at University where he studied Art and Law. It was after he completed his articles and while he was busy with a law apprenticeship that he got to know author Alexander McCall Smith (of the No. Ladies Detective Agency fame). The pair set up a company called MacLean Dubois Literary Agency to indulge their passion for books and MacLean gave up law.

"And I promptly starved."

Turning to commercial copywriting and ghost-writing books to make ends meet, MacLean's first job was writing a brochure for Bell's Whisky. Within 10 years he felt he knew enough to pitch a book on whisky to a publisher.

"They accepted and from there my career really took a swerve towards whisky. Now I devote myself full time to it."

Following training in the "sensory evaluation of potable spirits" by the Scotch Whisky Research Institute in 1992, part of MacLean's work is to assist whisky companies and brand owners to evaluate bottled products or cask samples.

"There are not many independent noses around," he says.

He's often the envy of people he meets who always ask "how do I get a job like that?" - his answer is simple "Practice.

"Sometimes I'm sitting with a stack of samples in front of me and I think 'I don't want to do this' but it's got to be done."

MacLean's malt mileage for tastings is up around 1,000 a year but he says it's more nosing than tasting as most of the work is done with his nose.

"Blenders would very rarely put liquid in their mouths and they rely totally on their noses. Most of the work I do requires that I do put in my mouth but I don't necessarily have to swallow it except if I need to judge the finish.

"You have to be careful and not plan to evaluate too many samples at once because if you do get a bit jaded your judgment is affected."

However there are some tricks to refreshing a tired nose or dull palette.

"Some people smell their own skin, so a lot of nosers (ie. 'Noses') smell the back of their hand. I go outside and sniff fresh air from time to time to clear my head. A few deep breaths help me get the tasting notes done."

His passion has seen him recently been named Master of the Quaich (pronounced a bit like quake) - an exclusive and prestigious award conferred by the industry on individuals for services to Scotch. There are around 1500 Keepers of the Quaich, including Christchurch's own Michael Fraser Milne from Whisky Galore, and only about 100 Masters of the Quaich.

MacLean is in New Zealand for a series of tasting workshops in Christchurch, Blenheim, Wellington, Auckland and Rotorua.

Saturday, 27 March: Christchurch Town Hall (5:30pm)

Monday, 29 March: Blenheim, Dodson St Bistro (7pm)

Tuesday, 30 March: Wellington, Firth Hall (6pm)

Wednesday, 31 March: Auckland, Glengarry Wine & Spirits (7pm)

Thursday, 1 April: Rotorua, Sudima Hotel (7pm).

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