An honest approach
In its 40-year history, the Society has evolved from a small syndicate of malt whisky fans in Edinburgh into something far bigger and now truly international. There have been plenty of changes, but the guiding principles remain the same. Among them – an unwavering commitment to bottle whisky as pure as it comes, straight from the wood and with nothing added nor taken away
WORDS: TOM BRUCE-GARDYNE
This goes back to the roots of the Society, which was born from a drop of Speyside whisky poured from a lemonade bottle – a story recounted by Pip Hills in his book Founder’s Tale, and on video here. The whisky had matured for a decade in a first-fill, sherried, quarter cask that had been bought direct from the distillery by a local farmer who was a neighbour of some old friends of Pip’s. That dram was a revelation – and set him on a mission to find out why it tasted so good.
Over lunch in Glasgow, the late Russell Sharp, then head chemist at Chivas Bros, explained it was principally down to the quality of the wood, but the fact it was whisky in its natural state – cask strength, unchill-filtered and uncoloured – also helped. It was something that few if any outside the industry had ever tasted, when virtually all Scotch was diluted down to its minimum strength, chill-filtered and tinted with spirit caramel.
ABOVE: Charlie MacLean
KEEPING IT UNFILTERED
The trouble with bottling whisky at 40% abv is that “it can throw a sediment”, says Pip. “Solids which are dissolved in the high alcohol will come out of solution if diluted and make the whisky slightly cloudy.” Unfortunately, the US Food & Drug Administration, with its “long tradition of ferocious import controls, decreed that sedimented whisky was totally unacceptable,” he says.
Faced with the prospect of container-loads of Scotch being sent home because they had sat too long in some icy American warehouse, most distillers adopted chill-filtration in the early 1970s. Eminently sensible from a corporate bean-counter perspective, but at what cost to the whisky? For Pip, the process “seems to remove some of the complexity of flavour”. For others it was about a loss of texture.
The solids mentioned above are “long-chain fatty acids, or lipids”, says the whisky writer Charlie MacLean. “And those lipids make a huge difference to the texture of the whisky, and to its aroma and taste.” Society whisky ambassador and a current chair of the Tasting Panel, Olaf Meier, agrees. “It’s the mouthfeel – there’s so much more there when it’s not filtered,” he says. “We always talk about ‘nosing and tasting’, but I think our sense of touch – which is ‘mouthfeel’ – very often gets overlooked.” Arguably, texture comes closer to the pleasure a particular whisky can bring, than all those tasting note scents and similes.
When he was master blender at Burn Stewart, Ian MacMillan had no doubt it had a negative impact. “When I took the sheets from the filter plates after chill-filtration, they were oily and greasy and left a great intensity of aroma and texture on my hands,” he once said. “This was part of the DNA of my single malts. There was a part of the whisky missing, in effect.” In 2010 he persuaded his bosses to abandon the process for the likes of Bunnahabhain.
PICTURED: Ian MacMillan with Richard Goslan at the Society’s Bath Street members' rooms
INTENSITY OF FLAVOUR
It was a bold move at the time, but years behind the Society’s pledge from the beginning. “When we started in 1983 almost nobody talked of single malts, never mind single casks,” says Olaf.
“And nobody talked of dilution, chill-filtration or adding colour – that was all hush hush.” The same goes for bottling at a higher strength, which mitigates the need to chill-filter in the first place.
At somewhere over 46% abv, there’s no risk of any haze, but you can understand the industry’s reluctance to abandon minimum strength, which gives you the most whisky per litre of spirit distilled, and the least tax per bottle.
Dilution matters, even for those who like a drop of water in their dram. “When you reduce the strength in whisky, the molecules become agitated and a lot of the congeners become volatile, so it’s better to retain them by bottling at a higher strength,” says Charlie MacLean.
“It’s not to say you should drink it at a high strength, it is just so you can appreciate the aromas.”
Olaf is even more adamant, and insists that if the same whisky were tasted blind at 40% abv and 46% abv, 10 out of 10 people would prefer the latter because “what you’re getting is a much more intense flavour.”
ABOVE: Olaf Meier
PICTURED: Ian McAlister at Glen Scotia
NO FAKE TAN
The third tenet of the Society’s ‘pure as it comes’ philosophy is no artificial colouring. Scotch likes to promote itself as a wholly natural spirit, made from a few humble ingredients – cereal, or just malted barley in the case of malt whisky, water and a little yeast, before admitting, sotto voce, that you can also add a dash of spirit caramel. It is whisky’s answer to fake tan, if a little more convincing than that weird orange glow from a bottle beloved of c-list celebrities, a few politicians and the odd teenage daughter. No-one was ever fooled into saying “Wow! You been somewhere hot?”
Spirit caramel, or E150, is the industry’s guilty little secret, though it is totally harmless.
“I could never say I’d picked it up in a whisky in terms of smell and taste,” says Glen Scotia’s manager Iain McAlister. “But the only reason you’d use it is not to improve the whisky, it’s just cosmetic.”
It may help maintain consistency between batches, as brand owners claim, but that’s not the only reason it’s used. A pallid spirit from tired casks becomes instantly more appealing if tinted up to a lustrous chestnut.
The SMWS approach is just more honest, and when coupled with a higher strength and no chill-filtering makes for a better whisky. Many producers are now tending the same way, particularly the new wave of malt distilleries, but the real pioneer in all this was the Society way back in 1983.