Set sail for new shores
As the SMWS presents its landmark 150th distillery bottling to members this month, it feels appropriate to reflect on how far we have travelled beyond our own shores to explore a world beyond the single cask, single malt Scotch that’s at our core. Ambassador Alex Moores in Australia takes us on a whisky-fuelled Society journey around the world – pour yourself a suitable dram and enjoy the trip
It is often remarked in modern times that The Scotch Malt Whisky Society may only still be true to one element of its name.
From intimate gatherings of good friends in 1983 to a 30,000-strong global network in 2022, the Society has expanded beyond malt and beyond whisky.
Even within the single malt whisky category, the spirit that started it all, there have been many nations outside of Scotland bottled for the enjoyment of members.
The first hop and a skip on our foray into non-Scotch whisky was a short one, just across the sea to Ireland, but it was certainly a leap of faith.
An Irish single malt, Cask 51.1, came and went with mixed opinions when it was released in 1988 (coinciding nicely with the purchase of the distillery by Pernod Ricard). The concept was a bit too much for some, who took the view that bottling anything that wasn’t Scottish would somehow detract from the main purpose of the Society. From all reports though, most of those who actually tried it were fans of the liquid.
Cask 51.4 was bottled in October 1991, but perhaps a combination of availability and the reception received meant that Cask 51.5: Inside a confectioner’s dreams was not seen until as recently as 2017. However, this lengthy layover did not stop the globetrotting from continuing in the meantime.
PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES
Following the start of the new millennium, the Society demonstrated a revived empowerment to push the boundaries of world whiskies, with the release of Casks 116.1, 117.1 and 118.1. The latter two were, in line with their country of origin, released on St Patrick’s Day 2002. Although there were two different distillery codes, they were in fact an unpeated and peated expression from the same distillery, a short 100-mile jaunt across the Irish border from Distillery 51.
Cask 116.1, however, involved quite a journey, and 5,390 miles later we landed on the shores of Japan. While the country had been making whisky for some time, this move was a gamechanger for independent bottlers and whisky clubs everywhere.
Such was the nervousness around the release of another non-Scotch malt, an extra inducement was needed, so when these first Japanese whiskies were presented in the Bottling List, if members purchased a bottle of both Cask 116.1 and Cask 116.2 for the total princely sum of £87, a copy of Olive Checkland’s book Japanese Whisky, Scotch Blend was included free of charge.
This is almost unbelievable given the current elevated status of Japanese whisky, but the nerves were justified. On the announcement of Distillery 116, Arthur Motley – the then-spirits buyer for the Society – received what could be referred to as a very stiff letter. A London member named Mr Edmonson was quite taken aback by the decision, stating: “How very sad to see our unique society going the same way as other great British institutions.” He went on to ask: “Do you next intend expanding into Bourbon or Irish or perhaps Indian malt whisky” and appealed to the Society to “pour another dram and think it out again”. This position was printed in the Society’s Bottling List for all to see.
Now for Mr Edmonson, this was certainly from a place of love for the Society, of which he had been a part for so long. But it was a particularly perspicacious member, Dr Ian Chrystie, who said it best when he sent a right of reply letter to the Society. Dr Chrystie wrote: “You are correct that we are a unique society. However, an occasional element of diversification will not destroy that uniqueness. Nor will it drive members or distilleries away.”
Time certainly proved him correct, as the very next year – the same year as cinemagoers watched Bill Murray advertise Suntory whisky in Lost in Translation – the Society released Cask 119.1 and Cask 120.1 with very clear Japanese labels. Proud and unashamed of quality spirit.
This would be followed by Cask 124.1 in 2005 and many other Japanese casks from the existing distillery codes. Cask 130.1: Dynamic and attractive was the first non-Scottish ‘dot one’ in the ‘bold code’ label, followed by Casks 131.1 and 132.1, all released in 2013 in a very big year for Japanese whisky. It was official – Japanese whisky was well and truly part of the family.
LAND OF MY FATHERS AND HOME OF THE BRAVE
In the midst of new Japanese distillery codes, we travelled the 5,920 miles from the land of the rising sun to the land of my fathers, to see the unveiling of Cask 128.1: A string quartet of flavours in 2010. Not too far from Scotland, Welsh whisky did not have a strong presence in the market, perhaps because it was in fact too close to Scotland. Some wonderful spirit was being produced there but perhaps that, in the metaphorical shadow of Scotland and in the literal shadow of the Brecon Beacons, it was easy to overlook. The Society really emphasised its range of flavours, with the first releases being matured in everything from ex-bourbon, ex-port, ex-madeira and ex-sauternes. Despite the variety, the wanderlust was too powerful.
Then it was off to another land, this time to the home of the brave, where members were sleepless for the launch of the first single malt from the United States. Adding a further 4,680 miles to the journey, Cask 133.1: Speakeasy sneaky peeky was a landmark event for the Society, which had been bottling bourbon for years, but this was the first time an American whisky had made an appearance in the single malt category. Not only did this continue the Society’s reputation for tasty drams and breaking barriers, but was in keeping with another essential tenet of the Society: education. Encouraging members to embrace the US for different styles of whisk(e)y continued with Casks 140.1, 142.1 and 143.1 on a cross country road trip from New York to Texas.
PICTURED: Alex Moores raises a dram to the Society’s non-Scotch whiskies
NEW WORLDS, NEW FLAVOURS
In preparation for the influx of American spirit, we jumped 7,980 miles from Indiana to India and 15 years later Mr Edmonson’s letter was proven to be quite prophetic. Not in respect of the resulting effect on members, as the Society had grown from strength to strength, but Indian whisky was added to the line-up as disparagingly suggested back in London all those codes ago. Interestingly, in Dr Chrystie’s retort, he had said in defence of the early world whiskies that they would be embraced by members “especially as both Suntory and Cooley are very ‘Scottish’ in their various processes”. Given Distillery 134 uses Scottish peat for their peated expressions, yet again we close the loop on comments from an earlier generation, although members did not see the full effect of this until Cask 134.5: Ringo George.
Not quite ready to be reborn in the US, we kept moving and Taiwan provided the next destination, a quick 3,060 mile jaunt to see Cask 138.1: All in the game and Cask 139.1: Chomping a herbal cigar launched from two of the island’s distilleries in 2018. Unlike the early doors adoption of Japanese whisky before it was cool, welcoming whisky from Taiwan happened on the wave of popularity that made the term ‘vinho barrique’ synonymous with quality, and Cask 139.1 was exactly that.
While members sipped the amber liquid, they may not have realised the commitment to expanding the Society’s horizons that was taking place behind the scenes. On our journey of world whiskies, the only people with more frequent flyer miles are Kai Ivalo and Euan Campbell from the SMWS Spirits Team, who were the advance party ensuring that every corner or the map was chartered.
From Taiwan we zigzagged back the 5,670 miles to Denmark, where members were invited to attend a very special tasting of the new distillery. This was perhaps the antithesis to the early days where members might have been hesitant to accept a new country’s malt, as there is rarely such pride and excitement in respect of an event as was shown in the unveiling of Cask 141.1: Dramlet: The dark prince of Denmark. It was then the short 200 miles to Sweden for Cask 144.1: Searingly sweet purple smoke and Cask 145.1: A sweet kiss from a smoking mermaid and our 2019 Eurotrip was as wild as the name suggests.
Something very close to my heart was the long awaited and epic 9,950-mile trek to Australia for the back-to-back reveal of Casks 147.1: Jacaranda jam and 148.1: Apera for everyone! in 2021. It is safe to say that Australian whisky has not had a major presence in the independent bottling scene, but the unique malts have been eager to find their audience with enthusiasts throughout the globe. While the allocation of these early bottlings stayed predominantly in Australia, their addition to the distillery codes heralds an exciting future with the Great Southern Land and adds an entire continent to the Society’s portfolio.
Now we have come, quite literally, full circle on our round-the-world tour, completing the 10,830-mile return leg to Ireland. What began in Northern Ireland has returned to the Emerald Isle for the addition of the 150th distillery to the single malts of the Society. You can read much more about West Cork Distillers with my colleague Connas’s feature in this issue of Unfiltered and what makes this landmark bottling something exceptional.
But what stands true is that not only does this distillery represent the Society’s passion for new craft producers in equal measure to traditional behemoths, but it strengthens the statement that the SMWS is about good spirit, no matter its source.
On this momentous occasion of 150 different distilleries bottled in the whisky category alone, and celebrating both our beginnings and our future, let us all raise a glass to “uniqueness” and the part of our name that still holds entirely true: Society.