The Scotch Malt Whisky Society did one better than birthday drinks when it turned 35 this year: it tasked all-round legend type Charles MacLean to assemble a selection of 21 exceptional single cask bottlings. Here, the charismatic whisky expert takes stock of Scotch…

A lot has changed in the 35 years since The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) was founded. Just ask Charles MacLean. A longtime supporter of the Society, he joined the members’ club in the early 1980s, and became a chair of the tasting panel in 1992.

Of course, MacLean is known for more than his connection to the SMWS. He’s an authority on malt whisky, a prolific author, a Keeper of the Quaich, a whisky consultant, and a member of the International Wines & Spirits Competition judging panel, and a self-confessed blended Scotch fanatic.

We asked him to share some of his encyclopedic whisky knowledge with us. Here’s what we discovered…

MoM: Where does your passion for whisky stem from, and what was your first dram?

Charles Maclean: I wouldn’t describe it as a passion initially, because whisky is very much an acquired taste. But I was exposed to whisky pretty early on, probably when I was about 16 or 17, because Charlie Grant, my best friend at school – and indeed at university – his dad, Russell, owned the Glenlivet distillery.

From about ‘67 we would go up to Minmore [House], which was the manager’s house, and that was where I first encountered malt whisky in a serious way. I remember vividly his dad giving us both a dram of cask strength Glenlivet – in 1967, this would have been distilled in the 1950s, but I’m afraid I can’t say that I appreciated it!

Charles MacLeanCharles MacLean!

The Scotch whisky category celebrated record-breaking exports in 2017. How does the industry compare now to when you first started out?

In the early 1980s, Scotch whisky was in dire straits. From [World War II] until the late 1970s, blended Scotch was the drink, everybody was drinking it. By the early 80s, it was perceived as ‘dad’s drink’ or even ‘grandpa’s drink’ and it had become unfashionable, eclipsed by white spirits, particularly vodka and rum. The industry had ramped up production throughout the ‘70s to meet expected demand, and it didn’t materialise. The forecast looked really grim. That led to the closure of a large number of malt whisky distilleries, many of which have never opened again.

In the previous two decades, there had been a gradual movement towards promoting single malt whisky, led principally by Glenfiddich. It was Scotch, but it tasted different, you know? Even people who didn’t like blended Scotch whisky thought, ‘hey, we like this’. The rest of the industry, by and large, sat on its hands. They noted the growing interest, but for decades their principal customers had been the blenders. Even by 1980, less than 1% – one bottle in a hundred – was bottled as a single malt.

The independent distilleries began to release and promote small amounts of their own whiskies, and people began to talk about single malt whisky. So the main change, really, has been the growing interest and success of single malt whisky.

These days, slightly less than 10% of the malt whisky made goes into malts; the vast majority of it goes into blends. But at the same time, sales of malt whisky account for about 25% by value – so it jumped from almost nothing to [one quarter] of the billions of pounds the Scotch whisky industry makes every year. The industry has been saved, or revived – in my view – by the success of malt whisky.

When did you first become a member of the SMWS, and what was the Society like back then?

The Society had started in a very small way in about 1980, and it became a proper members’ club about ‘83, when they bought The Vaults [in Leith, Edinburgh] and started to refurbish it. There was a dresser in the corner of the members’ room, and half a dozen bottles, and you’d pour yourself a dram and put the money in a box.

I’m afraid that I let my membership lapse, but I rejoined in ‘94/’95 because I was friendly with a chap called Richard Gordon. He and I had both been on a course in ‘92, run by what is now the Scotch Whisky Research Institute in ‘The Sensory Evaluation of Potable Spirits’. He invited me to become chairman of the Nosing Panel [to help] improve the tasting notes.

The earlier tasting notes were always very colourful, because a lot of the panel were poets or playwrights. My brief was to retain the colour but to systematise it a little bit, be a little bit more analytical. I would write up the notes of those that were found to be good enough to be bottled. Some of the casks in those days were unbelievable! It’s very difficult to find good casks nowadays.

How has the Society helped to engage and educate whisky lovers and grow Scotch whisky as a category over the years?

The Society has played a seminal role in the growth of interest in both Scotch malt whisky and single cask Scotch malt whisky. By the mid to late 80s, [the Society] was growing rapidly. The whiskies were different, they were high strength, they were attractive to connoisseurs and indeed to regular drinkers.

On the education side, it’s really more to do with appreciating whisky. Nobody in their right mind drinks a high strength whisky straight, you add water. Better to bottle at high strength and then add the water in the glass, because high alcohol holds the congeners, the flavour elements, better.

When you add water to whisky, these flavour bearing molecules become volatile, so you can smell them. If you add water on the bottling line, you lose a lot of them there. Of course, a number of the whisky companies were moving in a similar direction, but not that many. It took quite a while for them to emphasise this educational side.

Talk us through the SMWS anniversary bottlings. What were you looking for flavour-wise, and long did it take to finalise the selection?

Euan [Campbell, the Society’s spirits manager] came up with about 100 samples, and we marked them out of 10 privately. What we were looking for – as a Society panel always looks for – is flavour, first of all, and to some extent a good representative of the distillery character.

With very old whiskies, for example, it’s almost impossible to tell where they’ve come from. Gorgeous drinks, fabulously expensive. But we weren’t necessarily looking for that. It was also to display the wide range of flavours available in Scotch malt whisky. This is another aspect of the Society in terms of its education.

United Distillers, now Diageo, played a huge role in that in 1988 when it released its Classic Malts: six malts from Lagavulin, Talisker, Dalwhinnie, Oban, Cragganmore, Glenkinchie, each one chosen to represent a region. That really opened up the sector because it was an easy way for people to understand whisky. So that was part of the brief – there should be a range of flavours; not all smoky, not all sweet.

In 2016, you curated a selection of 30 rare whiskies from auction and your own collection for the Society’s Kaleidoscope bar in Edinburgh. What’s the most precious bottle you own, and what’s the story behind it?

The most valuable one, I should imagine, was the first edition of [Diageo’s] Special Releases bottling of Port Ellen. It was 26 years old, released in 2001, retail price £95. It was given to me as a Christmas gift. I don’t know what I got for it two years ago, but I checked this morning and the current auction price is £5,000. It’s absolutely astonishing.

Charles MacLeanCharles MacLean at the well-stocked SMWS Kaleidoscope Bar

In the old days, there were consumers and collectors. Now they’ve been joined by a third category: investors. When the stock markets are flat, they’re looking for alternative investment. Whisky stands above gold, at number three, in the alternative investment market. Not every make by any means, but some makes – Macallan is the leading example, Dalmore, Bowmore, Ardbeg, Port Ellen – do terribly well at auction. That has played havoc with the market.

What’s your stance on the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) – do you think the existing regulations stifle innovation, or promote it?

I’m a great supporter of the SWA, I think it does a very good job. I know a number of distillers in other countries who would really love the controls imposed by [the equivalent of] the SWA. It’s a guarantee of quality. It protects the reputation and the flavour of the product.

Does it ‘stifle innovation’? To a degree, but it’s extraordinary how much innovation is going on in the background within the regulations. Most blenders love the challenge. There are certain decisions that the SWA makes which are rather silly, because it says ‘it’s not historically within the definition [of Scotch whisky]’. For example, Loch Lomond produces malt whisky but in Coffey stills, and they say ‘you can’t call it Scotch malt whisky, because Scotch malt has to be made in pot stills’.

But you do have to remember the SWA is the tool of the Scotch whisky industry. It doesn’t make these decisions itself, it is guided by their Council. The Council being representatives of all its members, who are Scotch whisky [distillers]. And so they react at the behest of the industry. There’s a certain amount of grumbling from the smaller members that they play into the hands of the larger members, and that may be, but by and large the Council [consults its various committees].

What do you make of the rapid growth of the industry, and the new distilleries coming through?

In the last 10 to 15 years, [the industry] has seen utterly unprecedented growth: 31 new distilleries have opened since 2004; nine of which have the capacity to make over a million litres of pure alcohol per annum. There are 37 currently proposed distilleries.

In addition to that, Macallan has built and opened a vast new distillery; Glenlivet is effectively doubling capacity, Glenfiddich will also go over 20 million litres of pure alcohol per annum. Numerous other distilleries have doubled or gone up by a third: Caol Ila, Clynelish, Glenmorangie… My estimation is that the capacity – the amount of spirits that can be made – has increased by 60.25% since 2004.

The aforementioned new Macallan distillery

It’s all based on the perceived demand in five, ten, 15, 20 years’ time. Now, being optimistic, I would say that the industry really is a global market. Hopefully blended Scotch will keep its end up, because it pays the wages, but by and large these new distilleries will have to survive by selling their malt as single malt.

The whole industry has been based upon reciprocation. If you had a blend, and I had a blend, and you owned a distillery, and I owned a distillery, you would say, ‘I want you to fill 80 casks this year’. I would say, ‘my spirit is slightly more valuable than yours, so I will have 100 casks’, and money doesn’t change hands. That’s the way it’s been operating since the 1880s.

Some of the [new distilleries] are linked, in complicated ways, to a traditional reciprocation. But most of them, especially the smaller ones, will rely on selling their malts as single malts. I have great admiration for these new distillers, they are so passionate.

The thing that I love is that it’s now driven by flavour. They’re looking very carefully at wood, at yeasts, long fermentations, slow distillations. Malt whisky drinkers are pluralist, so they will certainly taste the new whiskies, but whether they’ll buy the second bottle remains to be seen.

The big problem [new distilleries] face is finding good global distributors. [Their job is to] chap on the door of the retailer or the restaurant who say, ‘in order to put your new whisky – which nobody’s ever heard of – on the shelf, we’ve got to take one off’. The shelves are crammed now, and will increasingly be crammed with new brands.

[Historically], downturns in the industry have usually been connected to overproduction. If the beancounters have got their figures right and demand is as they conceive it to be, then they’re fine. But there might be political changes, there might be social changes, there might be fashion changes.

Do you listen to the actuaries and prepare, so you’re distilling sufficient spirit to meet potential demand? Or do you miss the boat? There was huge overproduction in the seventies, but look at [the producers] who have got these 30 and 40 year old whiskies now, they’re fetching eye watering prices.

If you’ve got deep pockets and can hold on, you’re going to luck out in the end, but Scotch whisky is always a long-term game.