SMWS GAME CHANGER
A dozen Society game-changing developments
The whisky world was a very different place when The Scotch Malt Whisky Society was formed in 1983. A club dedicated to sharing the joys of single cask, single malt was a revelation in an age when distilleries were closing down left, right and centre. But the SMWS survived, prospered and has continued to change the way we savour and enjoy whisky ever since. Throughout 2021, we want to celebrate the Society’s role as an innovative force in the whisky world and our determination to do things our own way. Here are 12 game-changing moments to get us started
WORDS: RICHARD GOSLAN
AN ORIGINAL IDEA
Who’d have thought it? When Pip Hills and his pals discovered the delights of whisky in its purest form – taken from the cask with no chill-filtering or added water – the industry was in a terrible state, with Port Ellen, Brora and St Magdalene among the many distilleries ceasing operations during the course of 1983. The industry was predominantly about blends, but when Pip tried a dram from a quarter cask of Glenfarclas he asked himself: “Why is somebody not selling this stuff? Various people in the industry all said: ‘Oh there's no market for that, if there had been we’d have done it before’. But the people I spoke to who said it couldn’t be done were so dull, there was no imagination.” Pip and his pals had imagination in abundance, and the SMWS was born with a game-changing goal of combining single cask whisky with cask strength doses of fun.
A new club requires a new approach, especially when distillers were wary of having their names on single cask bottlings that may not have reflected their consistent character. What to do? The Society devised a code to protect the brands of the distilleries which supplied us with these precious single casks. By not naming names in the early days, the Society was able to show those initially sceptical distilleries that their valuable brands would not be damaged by single casks that might not represent their usual flavour profile. Now members have more than 140 distilleries to try and identify – or even memorise – from the Society’s cryptic code.
By its very nature, every single cask has its own character and needs to be evaluated before it is pronounced special enough for the Society’s members. The SMWS set up its first Tasting Panel in the kitchen of Pip Hills’s home in Edinburgh, which he describes as a “motley bunch”, made up of a cross-section of Edinburgh society who “had experience of drinking whisky and were also handy with words”. That original Tasting Panel was tasked with ensuring the sample in front of them was worthy of ending up in a Society bottle, and with creating Tasting Notes to accompany it. The Panel’s role has remained unchanged with the passage of time, with only the personnel changing over the years, although it is still a combination of both Society experts together with independent authorities from the wider whisky world.
A WAY WITH WORDS
As well as evaluating the samples of whisky, the Tasting Panel started to explore a language they could use to describe single cask, single malt – something that had never been done before. In the early 1980s, whisky was described only in terms of how old it was or where it came from, but with little reference to its actual flavour. All that was about to change. The Panel members were encouraged to exercise their imagination to come up with a distinctive name and Tasting Notes for each bottle, which captured an element of the whisky’s personality. As long-standing Panel chair Robin Laing says: “The main thing is that the Tasting Notes have to be informative, relevant and accurate. But it’s also good to have a bit of fun.”
WHERE TO MEET UP
If you’re going to set up a members’ club, you need to think about where those members are going to be able to meet up. The Society’s spiritual home is The Vaults in Leith, in a building where the vaulted cellars underneath are thought to date back to before 1200, and the most recent addition of a fourth storey was in 1785. We’ve called The Vaults home since 1983, but as the Society’s membership has grown, we added Members’ Rooms at 19 Greville Street in London’s Farringdon district in July 1999, followed by the opening of a splendid Georgian townhouse at 28 Queen Street in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town in spring 2004. Most recently, the Society crossed Scotland’s Central Belt to open a Members’ Room at 38 Bath Street in the heart of Glasgow.
Most recently, the Society crossed Scotland’s Central Belt to open a Members’ Room at 38 Bath Street in the heart of Glasgow.
The Society has its heart in Scotland and Scotch whisky, but our spirit of friendship and cask strength camaraderie now extends to branches across the world, with an international presence in Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore and the US. We’ve also developed a network of international partner bars that have been exclusively selected to offer Society whisky. The partner bars provide a home from home for Society members and whisky lovers alike, offering a unique and extensive range of exclusive single cask offerings for you to indulge and delight in – and share a dram with friendly faces wherever you find yourself.
FOCUS ON FLAVOUR
We turned our back on convention by not naming specific distilleries on our bottle labels, preferring to focus on a whisky’s flavour rather than its place of origin – and that’s the motivation behind our 12 colourful flavour profiles. Each one is colour-coded for ease of reference, and range from Light & Delicate to Heavily Peated. Though it’s perfectly possible to have a dram that is both Old & Dignified and Peated, the profiles were chosen to pick out the dominant characteristic of each bottling. “Our flavour profiles are deliberately very broad strokes,” says spirits manager Euan Campbell. “Rather than trying to describe exactly what makes a whisky special – which is still the job of the Tasting Notes – they’re simply a way of navigating the whiskies, so you can begin to pin down what you’re looking for.”
The Society has taken pride in being ahead of the curve and keen to innovate and experiment. But even we have to admit that not every move has worked out as well as hoped. For example, we once tried finishing a whisky in a cask seasoned with Tabasco hot sauce, but the fiery spirit was judged to be too much even for the most adventurous members. “We were expecting a ‘warm glow’, but after a month what we got would be best described as ‘pure heat’ – with what looked like vinegar settled on the top,” says experimenter-in-chief Richard Gordon, the Society’s managing director at the time of the Tabasco trial. It wasn’t a lost cause though – five years later, the executive head chef of The Dining Room at 28 Queen Street, James Freeman, found a use for the fiery sauce on some of his dishes, and the wonderfully-named Hotscotch was born.
SMWS executive head chef, James Freeman
The Society’s enduring mission has been to provide members with a constant variety of single cask whiskies, providing a never-ending range of flavours and frequently venturing off the beaten track into more unfamiliar terrain. It’s intriguing to look back at some of the ‘firsts’ that came from the Society – not all of them welcomed at the time. In 2002, for example, we bottled our first ever Japanese whisky, Cask No. 116.1: Coconut, pea-pods and tropical hot-houses. That was enough to have some members ripping up their cards in protest. Since then we’ve gone on to explore bottlings from Denmark, England, India, Ireland, Sweden, Taiwan, United States and Wales. There’s going to be more to come…and let’s hope no more destruction of membership cards in protest.
SMWS spirits manager, Euan Campbell
We may have started out by bottling whisky that was already mature, but we’ve also found ourselves free to seek out amazing flavours and grasp the opportunity to be more creative. That means developing our programme of additional maturation, carrying out our own contracted distillations, and managing the maturation of our own stocks of younger whiskies.
Our focus on additional maturation has been bringing results with the incredible whiskies we’ve been able to bottle and we’ve been relishing the chance to work with a huge range of cask types from across the worlds of bourbon, sherry, wine, brandy, rum and beer, allowing us to nurture our stocks of whisky and offer our members both quality and diversity.
Now the Society has started creating our own new-make spirit. We’re working with different distilleries to carry out distillations to bespoke production recipes and specifications, managing the maturation for future release to members.
Our spirit of curiosity and doing things differently have inspired us to seek out the best single cask spirits from the non-whisky world as well, with our cognacs, armagnacs, rums and gins. Each one has been the result of a collaboration between the most creative and skilled distillers, a carefully selected team of category ambassadors who are experts in their fields, and our own Tasting Panel – which is always the final voice when it comes to assessing and approving a bottle to ensure quality.
Rum ambassador, Ian Burrell
BEYOND THE SINGLE CASK
The Society’s first love is for single cask whisky, bottled at cask strength, un-chillfiltered – whisky in its purest form, and always an absolute treat.
Now we have developed a range of blended malts that has allowed us to grasp the opportunity to become even more imaginative in our pursuit of new flavour experiences. Most recently, we brought you Spice Cannon and Tar Pit.
Look out for more intriguing blended malts and small-batch experiments in the future. An over-arching mark of quality will always be our driving force, the same as when we started out in 1983.
As our founder Pip Hills tells us: “It's the quality of the whisky that matters, not how that quality is produced.”
Whatever you drink, we want you to think the same as we do – this is incredible stuff, and we can’t wait to share it.