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In High Spirits

Charles MacLean, the world’s leading authority on whiskey, likes his scotch but doesn’t mind some of the Indian blends with a nip of water.

Written by Meenakshi Iyer | September 14, 2014 9:52:08 am
Charles MacLean is a Master of the Quaich, the whiskey tasting industry’s highest accolade. Charles MacLean is a Master of the Quaich, the whiskey tasting industry’s highest accolade.

Though Indians consume more whiskey than rest of the world, local whiskey has always played second fiddle to the Scottish variety. A few years ago, at a convention in Glasgow, the mecca of whiskey, India’s liquor baron Vijay Mallya silenced critics with his roaring speech.

Fashionably late, he walked right up to the stage and said: “Don’t you dare tell me that my whiskey is not whiskey. You Scots taught us how to make it and called it whiskey.” “That was quite a performance,” reminisces Charles MacLean, world’s leading whiskey expert and author of over 14 books on the subject, who was in the city for a sensorial experience of Singleton of Glen Ord at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

So what does this whiskey expert think of Indian blends? “The first time I visited India was to talk about Black Dog when Mallya was relaunching the brand. He sent me a whole load of UB’s high-end products and some of them were really good,” says MacLean, but confesses that he has not tried the cheaper whiskeys.

India was first introduced to the spirit back in the 19th century by the British. India got its first brewery in late the 1820s, set up in Kasauli by a gentleman called Edward Dyer, which is currently operated by Mohan Meakin, known more famously as the makers of Old Monk rum.

India thus became known for its homegrown molasses-based whiskey, until Amrut — by Bangalore-based Amrut Distilleries — was introduced to the world as the first single-malt from the country. “Amrut does really well internationally, and has been winning awards. In fact, it sells a lot at Indian restaurants in Glasglow ,” says MacLean.

Maclean’s authority on the subject could easily be relegated to his origins in Scotland. But in truth, it wasn’t until much later — in his 20s — that he started to study whiskeys with a near-academic interest. So while he spent many a summer at the Glenlivet distillery, owned by a school friend’s family, Maclean’s early career was as a literary agent after a degree in art history and law. He soon gave it up to start writing himself.

“I would often ghost-write and sometimes pen non-fiction books too. Then I got the opportunity to write a commercial for a blended scotch company called Bell’s. It marked the beginning of my journey into the world of whiskey,” says 63-year old MacLean.

Since then, Maclean has written Whisky: A Liquid History, which was published in 2003 and named the Wine and Spirit Book of the Year (2005) by the James Beard Foundation of New York. MacLean was granted the honour of being elected as Master of the Quaich, the industry’s highest accolade, in October 2009. It was only natural to ask him about the oldest whiskey he has tasted. “It was a Maclaren made in 1874 and was bottled in 1890. Though they made a replica of it later, I was privileged to taste the original,” says MacLean.

meenakshi.iyer@expressindia.com

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