CANNES, France – Charles MacLean is out of his element in Cannes, a town consumed by cinema and celebrity. His element is Scotch whisky — "uisge beatha," he says, giving it its Gaelic name. The water of life.
MacLean is on a mission: He has brought the world of single malts to the French Riviera through his role as whiskey adviser and actor in Ken Loach's Cannes competition film, "The Angels' Share."
The movie centers on a troubled Glasgow youth who tries to turn a talent for whisky-tasting into a ticket out of his dead-end life. MacLean plays a dramatized version of himself, a member of a select band of whiskey experts known as Masters of the Quaich.
The film is an uncharacteristically sunny comedy from Loach, a director better known for gritty realism. An audience favorite at Cannes, it could do for Scotch what "Strictly Ballroom" did for ballroom dancing: make it cool.
"The awful thing is, a lot more vodka is drunk in Scotland than whiskey, especially amongst younger people," MacLean said during a beachside interview in Cannes, where he is serving as an unofficial ambassador for Scotch, as well as for the film.
"It does have this sort of pipe and slippers by the fire, male image," he said.
The film's young central characters initially turn up their noses when offered a snifter. Yet Scotch is as central to Scotland's image abroad as shortbread, "Braveheart" and tartans.
MacLean says it is part of Scotland's heritage — "the blood of one small nation" — and has been distilled in the country since the 14th century.
"When you buy a bottle of whiskey, you buy a hell of a lot more than liquor in a bottle," said the affable, mustached MacLean, who is passionate on the subject of his favorite beverage. "Whether you like it or not, you're buying culture, you're buying history, you're buying craft, you're buying tradition."
MacLean was initially hired as a script consultant on the film — tutoring some of the actors on whiskey appreciation — before being asked to appear on-screen. He said he enjoyed the experience, but doesn't plan to repeat it.
"I don't think I have an acting career ahead of me," he said with a laugh. "I don't think I could play any other part."
MacLean is well used to public speaking, but he found it daunting to film a scene in which he had to lead a tasting in front of an audience of extras.
"I started to sweat — it was a very hot day and I sweat very easily," he said. "The editor told me yesterday that it had cost him 25,000 pounds ($40,000) to take out the sweat marks under my arms, frame by frame."
As well as doing interviews and attending the film's red-carpet premiere, MacLean led a whiskey-tasting session in Cannes, teaching film folk to tell their fruity Speysides from their peaty Islays. It slipped down smoothly with the cinema crowd.
Maclean said he would encourage anyone to give Scotch a try — in moderation, of course.
"It is the most complex of all spirits, and so therefore if and when you acquire the taste it is hugely rewarding," he said. "But because of its complexity, it is not an easy drink. I have much sympathy with people who can't stand it. My wife can't stand it."
And if "The Angels' Share" — a full-bodied film with a tart edge and a sweet finish — were a whiskey, what type would it be?
"Bittersweet. Not as elemental as a smoky Islay whisky," MacLean said, mulling it over before settling on: "Talisker."
"It's got a sort of chili pepper in the finish, which is the bitter part, the rough part," he explained. "It's a virile whisky, and yet the overall flavor profile is sweet but elemental."
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless