HOW TO START A WHISKY CLUB
Let’s club together
There’s a whisky club to suit almost everyone. But if you don’t see one that takes your fancy, why not get some friends together, and start your own? Iain Russell spoke to founders and members of successful clubs in the UK and in Europe, and asked them for their tips on how to get going
“The most fundamental thing is to have a bunch of people who you know are keen to participate”
First, find some like-minded whisky fans. Karl Glenn believes that “the first and most fundamental thing is to have a bunch of people who you know are keen to participate.” He started the North East Whisky Appreciation Society for friends and family who were getting more into whisky. Other clubs have been formed by enthusiasts who met through doing other stuff: anything from fine dining to hill-walking.
Next, says Bryan Simpson of Glasgow’s Hipflask Hiking Club (HHC): “Start with one event. Host a tasting in a small group, and let your creativity run wild. Whatever your group wants your club to be, do it! It’s your whisky club!”
The prevailing view is that a club size is best limited to around 30 members, to retain the sense of community found at the most successful clubs. But that’s not a rule!
RULES AND REGS
Whisky clubbers are generally averse to rigid rules and formal structures. Whether the club is run by a president, as is Italy’s GLUGLU 2000 Malt Whisky Club, or by a committee, informality is the key to success. Ioannis Mallios of the Hellenic Malt Whisky Society sees no need to complicate things: “We developed simple rules and followed common practices that evolved year by year.”
KIT AND CABOODLE
A whisky club doesn’t need much kit. It’s worth investing in high-quality glassware of course. And there may be costs for hiring venues – Gemma Tougher of HHC admits that “one of the hardest things at the beginning was finding the right venue and budgeting for that.”
Some clubs charge a small annual membership fee to cover costs, or ask for a contribution to meet the cost of venue hire and bottle purchases for an individual event. Members might be invited to bring along an interesting bottle to share.
There’s general agreement that a venue tasting is best limited to around 20 people, comfortably allowing everyone a 20ml pour from one 70cl bottle. But because all costs are shared, membership is invariably affordable. There can be few less expensive ways to explore and enjoy a wide range of great whiskies than by joining a club.
The Hellenic Malt Whisky Society sees no need to complicate things with lots of rules and regulations
“We have had members mention how important the club has been to them this year”
Setting up a Facebook page or another account on social media provides a way not only to keep existing members up-to-date with club affairs, but also to attract like-minded souls who might wish to join you.
Keeping in virtual touch has other benefits. HHC’s Bryan says: “We have had members mention how important the club has been to them this year ,” referring to the benefits of continuing club events online during periods of Covid-related lockdowns and social isolation.
And don’t be shy about alerting whisky companies, brands and retailers to your existence. Many have ambassadors available to lead tastings of their products at club events – and they’ve become increasingly eager to participate in online tastings since the start of the pandemic.
Ambassadors can offer great insights about the range of products and up-coming offerings from a particular company or distillery.
Some clubs are associated with specific venues – particularly in the UK, where people feel comfortable in their ‘local’. SMWS member Peter Burger’s club in Frankfurt usually meets in the bar he built in his cellar. He refers to a club event as a ‘stammtisch’ – a traditional German word for a friendly social gathering, which perfectly captures the tone of a good club get-together.
SMWS ambassador Andrew Park believes that ambience is one of the most important factors in a tasting or other whisky event. Intriguing surroundings – in an historic bar, for example, or a fashionable restaurant – enhance the tasting experience and help make it more memorable. SMWS ambassador in Italy Mauro Leoni says that GLUGLU 2000’s members consider that visiting different restaurants, to enjoy great food with like-minded whisky enthusiasts, to be one of the club’s great attractions.
Like Mauro, Andrew is an advocate of providing food at events. If you’re not planning to hold your tastings in an eatery, it’s worth thinking about something a bit more interesting than the austere oatcakes or ‘palate-cleansing crackers’ that were once ubiquitous at tastings. You can be as adventurous and quirky as you like – some tastings involve pairing whiskies with cheeses, desserts or smoked fish. The HHC has been known to pair whiskies with crisps .”
“You can be as adventurous and quirky as you like”
Photo: Euan Ryan @euanryan @finalcruxfilms / Instagram
“Without [independent whisky clubs] the whisky scene would be much smaller and much less vibrant”
Photo: Euan Ryan @euanryan @finalcruxfilms / Instagram
Organising trips to distilleries, Zoom chats, pub crawls and other social events all help build the camaraderie that is so important to the success of a whisky club.
Daniel Humphrey, founder of The Summerton Whisky Club – one of the UK’s leading whisky subscription services – sees clubs as great fun but also as a boon for the whisky trade.
“They bring new people in, give others confidence to explore further and act as a helping hand throughout,” he says. “Without them the whisky scene would be much smaller and much less vibrant.”
Don’t take our word for it. If you want advice from the horse’s mouth, just contact an existing society and ask – you’ll find them all online. It’s a growing community out there, and a very friendly and helpful one. Just ask!