Cask strength epiphany

From casual whisky enthusiast to fully fledged fanatic, Neill Murphy (picture below) says it’s his membership of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society that inspired his journey

I first crossed paths with The Scotch Malt Whisky Society at Glasgow’s Whisky Festival, back when it was held in the railway arches under Central Station.

The side room, or playroom as it was known, became the SMWS room, which I confess to knowing absolutely nothing about until I arrived at the venue.

Back then I was in the middle of transitioning from casual Scotch drinker to fully fledged whisky nerd and the delights of the SMWS stand would accelerate that process. Even to my relatively untrained palate, the whisky was exceptional.

It’s true that I found the numbering system and lack of distillery information confusing, intimidating even, but it resulted in my sampling whisky I would otherwise never have considered. I walked away from other exhibitors thinking about specific drams but I left the SMWS stall considering the organisation as a whole.


My whisky epiphany had happened some years prior but my early experiments focussed largely on getting to know the bottles available at my local supermarket. While there were some bargains to be had, the term “cask strength” simply didn’t exist within that selection. Once I started attending tastings, the concept became more familiar to me but the SMWS was the first organisation I came across that specialised in it and it very quickly became an essential part of my annual festival experience.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has been a flag-bearer for cask-strength whisky for a long time and on a far larger scale than an individual basis. When Pip Hills acquired the first Society cask back in the early 1980s, the industry as a whole was still completely devoted to the blended Scotch market and next to nobody had seen the potential in single cask, single malt whisky. Today, blends still make up the majority of sales but single malt is growing like never before and the SMWS and its determination to showcase whisky in its most natural form was very likely a catalyst for that.


The sheer quality of the spirit eventually persuaded me to become a member and a first visit to The Vaults, an undeniably grand building in the historic port of Leith, left me surprised at just how bright and airy the venue was. This was no stuffy old men’s club but a pleasant and comfortable, though certainly beautiful, environment in which to enjoy exceptional spirits.

The staff too were attentive and friendly, without a trace of snobbery and at no point did any fear of not belonging threaten to become a reality.

It’s interesting that Pip himself addresses this issue in his book The Founder’s Tale: “It approximated to what a lot of the members expected: some of them thought in terms of gentlemen’s clubs in Piccadilly.

“I tried as best I could do combat this propensity, for it wasn’t conducive to fun or high jinks.”

I find it reassuring that this desire to be approachable and fun has existed since the Society’s beginnings, though perhaps it should not come as a surprise. This is, after all, the only bottler of Scotch whisky that I know of to withhold distillery names from each and every release. Admittedly this was forced upon them in the early days, but I still can’t think of any other company that puts flavour in front of brand in quite the same way.

This is blind tasting as a business strategy! There’s no dependence on the reputation or desirability of certain distilleries, no elitist push towards premiumisation, just good whisky presented in a way that encourages us to broaden our horizons.


My love affair with this most unique of whisky companies has deepened of late, with the opening of Glasgow’s very own Members’ Room, a gorgeous, atmospheric space full of whisky wonders. Not only can I heartily recommend a visit should you happen to find yourself in the city, I’d also encourage you to get in the spirit of things.

Speak to the immensely knowledgeable staff and choose a whisky based on the flavour characteristics you seek. By all means look up the distillery name later, but taste it first, you’ll be amazed at some of the discoveries you make when you abandon all pre-conceived notions of certain brands. We each suffer from confirmation bias and sometimes we make our mind up about a product before sampling it. Approaching a whisky with a little bit of anonymity helps us to avoid this trap, and the rewards can be truly sensational.

For any whisky lover, no visit to Edinburgh, London or Glasgow should be complete without a stop at The Scotch Malt Whisky Society and for those further afield, monthly tasting packs offer an excellent way of sampling a wide array of releases.

The consistency in the quality of the bottlings continues to impress me to this day and even when opting for a mystery bottle as part of my membership renewal this year, I was rewarded with a dram that I have come to love, yet would never have picked out for myself.

A love of Scotch whisky should be a journey of discovery and there is nowhere that encourages this sense of adventure more than The Scotch Malt Whisky Society and if I can feel at home there, anyone can.

Neill Murphy is an SMWS member who blogs about whisky at