Spirit of rebellion
Cast your mind back, if you’re old enough, four decades to 1983. That’s the year The Scotch Malt Whisky Society was founded, against a backdrop of distillery closures, a ‘whisky loch’ of blended spirit that couldn’t be drained, and an industry that showed little interest in single malts, and even less in single cask whiskies. As SMWS spirits co-ordinator Julien Willems writes, it took a rebellious attitude to challenge the status quo, something the Society has been doing consistently over the past 40 years
At its founding, whisky experts and the wider industry were less than enthusiastic about the Society and its absurd plan to bottle single malt, single cask whiskies. Many among them cast doubts on the feasibility and durability of such a far-fetched endeavour. Indeed, back in the early 1980s – as it had been for decades before – blends were the whisky world’s high-flyers.
The widespread opinion was that the Society’s products would struggle to find a market as blending was, after all, how things were done. Pip Hills challenged that perception by founding the Society, no matter its detractors. In his own words: “I had no background in whisky, but I got introductions to various people in the industry and they 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.”
There was imagination in abundance in those early days, as the Society brought awareness and appreciation of single cask, single malt whiskies to the world. But that sense of adventure, of doing things differently, of not being told what we should or should not be sticking to – and ultimately of having fun along the way – has never left us.
This is the Society that bottled a Japanese whisky for the first time, back in 2002 – something that led to certain members ripping up their cards in protest. There was the admittedly ill-fated experiment to finish one of our whiskies in a cask seasoned with Tabasco hot sauce, although the fiery spirit was too much even for the most adventurous members. At least it made a fantastic cooking sauce. We’ve gone on to create our own series of blended malt whiskies, starting with Exotic Cargo in 2017 and with regular additions to what has become a prize-winning and eagerly anticipated line-up.
There have been whiskies as young as three-years-old, or from innovative distilleries across the globe – and even spirits that are from a different world altogether from whiskies.
The Society may have come a long way from the group of pioneers decanting a quarter cask into empty lemonade bottles, but we will stop at nothing to deliver ever-shifting selections of new and exciting flavours.
The bottles, members and staff may change, but there is always a constant, something undeniably vibrant and unique – a feeling of adventure and the possibility of new discoveries, which has captivated whisky aficionados and newcomers from all walks of life, all around the world.
The insatiable quest for flavour and fun remains anchored at the very core of who we are. Our 40th anniversary is the perfect occasion to take a look at some of the ways the Society has reinvented and developed its identity by challenging and breaking the rules, including its own, making it the home of the unorthodox, the maverick and the independent-minded.
Every month this year we will be looking at some of the unexpected, weird and wonderful things the Society has come up with to challenge its members’ palates and preconceptions throughout the years.
Join us to relive or discover the tales of those times where the SMWS decided to go ‘maverick’ – side-stepping the rules, stretching or breaking them, even when it meant riding into the ‘danger zone’ to do things in its own way.
And look out for much more this year to keep our maverick spirit very much alive.
PICTURED: SMWS founder Pip Hills with a glass of Society Cask No.1