Call of the club

Whisky clubs and societies have never been more popular, with thousands of groups of different sizes meeting up to sample different bottlings and share their passion. All of them aim to educate, inform and entertain – but when and where did this craze for clubs begin? We asked Iain Russell to investigate

Cast your mind back to 1983. Back then, while there were many clubs for connoisseurs of fine wine, whisky clubs were virtually unknown – but that was all about to change.

Pip Hills and the other founders of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society were trailblazers, and their ideas of what a whisky club should be and do were to prove lastingly influential – not just in the establishment of whisky clubs, but in some of the great marketing ‘innovations’ in the whisky industry as a whole.

The membership-owned SMWS set about its mission with a self-confidence and a lack of deference that rather shocked the world of Scotch. The Society’s primary focus, on sourcing single casks and bottling them in their natural state, straight from the wood, contradicted the previously-accepted wisdom of most established whisky companies about how single malts should be presented and enjoyed – coloured, chill-filtered and reduced to a more ‘manageable’ strength.

There was a strong emphasis on demystifying the process of making whisky and the factors which impacted on (or detracted from) the flavours which developed in the spirit. The Society’s newsletter and other publications provided a lively forum for information, gossip and debate about all things whisky-related.

The format of its Whisky School, inaugurated in the 1990s and featuring independent experts such as Charlie MacLean and the late Dr Jim Swan, was much copied over the following decades by whisky marketers developing mainstream brand academies.

And then there were the tasting notes! The language employed by whisky companies at that time to describe the flavour and character of their products was terse to the point of being turgid: a whisky might be peaty, or sherried, or mellow, or ‘a good all-rounder’. The SMWS Tasting Panel changed all that and did so with humour and panache.

Pip Hills says now that: “I don’t think there can be any reasonable doubt that the Society, in its tasting notes, introduced the idea of metaphorical descriptions of whisky flavour. And amusing: it was all a terribly solemn business until we came on the scene.” Nowadays, tasting notes are an integral to sharing and appreciating whisky and we no longer think of them as pretentious. Well, not all of them…

“I don’t think there can be any reasonable doubt that the Society, in its tasting notes, introduced the idea of metaphorical descriptions of whisky flavour



The SMWS’s early success clearly impressed a new breed of independent wine and spirits merchants.

The late Arthur J A Bell, for example, was a maverick Scottish politician who owned a successful mail order business in Biggar.

Bell bottled his own range of whiskies and, in the early 1990s, formed The Whisky Connoisseur Club as a vehicle for sales.

The club had its own tasting panel and its subscribers could select from a range of bottlings, mostly single cask Scotches but also blends and liqueurs, some of which were made available in miniatures and half bottles.

Where the SMWS has always adopted a numerical code to identify the distilleries of origin, Bell used pseudonyms: Aberlogie, for example, came from Macallan; Drumbowie was Craigellachie and Balvenie appeared under a number of aliases, including Honest Tam. The ‘cult’ appeal of cask strength whiskies encouraged enthusiasts around the world to form their own clubs, to share knowledge, opinions and drams during the 1980s. The growth of the internet enabled the creation of international clubs such as Malt Maniacs, which grew out of the Malt Madness website during the mid-1990s, and PLOWED, a rambunctious group of mostly (but not exclusively) Americans. All were characterised by an irreverent approach to whisky, a thirst for ‘insider’ expert knowledge and a determination to seek out the products of Scotland’s less-famous distilleries.

Glasgow’s Hipflask Hiking Club is a good example of the ways in which clubs are evolving. Most members are in their 20s and 30s and there’s an even split between men and women. The focus is firmly on socialising and having fun – there’s a competition to provide the most outrageous tasting note of the evening, and recent themed tastings have included pairing malts with different flavours of crisps.


The popularity of whisky clubs naturally attracted the attention of marketers. In 1990, impressed by enthusiasm for SMWS single cask offerings, Macdonald & Muir introduced the first batch of The Native Ross-shire – a single cask, cask strength Glenmorangie which, uniquely for a bottling from a major company, had not been chill-filtered.

Other whisky companies came to accept, grudgingly in many cases, that there was a market for single cask bottlings and a willingness to pay premium prices for the privilege of tasting them. Most leading distilleries bottle them as limited editions nowadays.

The clubs also inspired the leading spirits companies to form their own membership groups, to promote brand and category education and as vehicles for consumer relationship marketing.

The Classic Malts of Scotland, launched by United Distillers (UD) in 1991, featured single malts representing six whisky regions of Scotland. Those who signed up as Friends of the Classic Malts received a newsletter, access to special bottlings from UD and other membership benefits. One could argue that the Friends of Laphroaig, and other successful brand ‘societies’ that followed, were also influenced heavily by the early whisky clubs, and borrowed wholesale from the most popular features of the SMWS. As a senior figure at UD explained to Pip Hills: “Fortunately, there is no copyright on good ideas.” There are now Johnnie Walker Houses in various countries around the world where ‘patrons’ (aka members) can enjoy meals, drinks and special events, much as one might do in an SMWS Members’ Room. And concepts such as the Ardbeg Embassies and Macallan Whisky Lounges share some elements of the pioneering partner bar network created by the SMWS in the 2000s.


The Craft Whisky Club, which has close relationships with the ‘new wave’ of distilleries such as Isle of Raasay and Ardnamurchan, has also grown rapidly by keeping abreast of changing tastes and interests.


Independent local whisky clubs initially focussed (in Europe, at least) on single malt Scotches. But the emergence of new distilleries around the world stimulated interest in whiskies other than single malt Scotch, and in other spirits, such as gins and rums produced by the new wave of small, so called ‘craft’ distillers. In recent years, the commercial clubs have also reacted to these developments in aficionados’ tastes and interests.

Flaviar, for example, is one of the largest clubs for spirits lovers, with over 600,000 subscribers worldwide and options that include the delivery of a bottle and a themed tasting box of miniatures each quarter. Master of Malt, home of Dram Club, has introduced a new monthly subscription service: Pour and Sip offers 30ml samples so you can try a whisky, rum, gin or another spirit without the need to splash out on a standard and sometimes expensive bottle. .

Members can also join regular online tastings, a feature which is increasingly supported by distillers since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions on holding events in bars and other premises.

The Craft Whisky Club, which has close relationships with the ‘new wave’ of distilleries such as Isle of Raasay and Ardnamurchan, has also grown rapidly by keeping abreast of changing tastes and interests.

Not only does it give subscribers access to ‘small batch and artisan whiskies [from] Scotland and beyond’, but it has tapped into the interest in cask ownership: its Caskshare club provides members with the means to invest in shares in single cask bottlings. And clubs are now gaining access to casks from well-established producers – Poland’s Loża Dżentelmenów (The Gentlemen’s Lodge) recently purchased a cask of 27-year-old Glenmorangie and had it bottled at cask strength to mark the club’s 10th anniversary.

Charlie MacLean


That’s where the future seems to lie for whisky clubs – in introducing members to new distilleries and their products and, for a growing number, enabling members to participate in acquiring and bottling casks or unique expressions. All the while, finding ways to entertain, educate and inform them with stories about whisky people, the distilleries they work in and what they’re getting up to in the rapidly evolving world of whisky making.

The late Dr Jim Swan